What’s the problem?

July 14, 2009 at 9:11 am Leave a comment

Formulating and solving problems is the core business of research, and yet many scientists struggle to write a clear and compelling problem statement when writing up their work. In fact, at least two recent papers have suggested that lack of an adequate problem statement in the introduction is a common reason why manuscripts are rejected.

Perhaps one reason for this dearth of good problem statements is that people aren’t certain what a problem statement is. I started to wonder myself after seeing how many authors throw the term around without defining it. But in the end, I think it’s really quite simple: The problem statement shows the reader that there is indeed a problem: an “intricate unsettled question,” a “source of perplexity,” or a “question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution.” And unless readers grasp the problem, they aren’t going to care about your solution, i.e., the rest of your paper.

So, how to you get them to see the problem and (hopefully) pique their interest? First of all, step back, take a deep breath, and acknowledge how very, very close you are to the work you’ve done – so close that you likely take the central problem underlying your research completely for granted, or have possibly lost sight of it altogether.

Now, think about all the people out there who know absolutely nothing about your project. How would you go about convincing them that a problem exists and that it’s worth their time? You’ll want to start by offering some context. What background information does the reader need to understand the problem? This generally includes a brief discussion of what is known about your particular topic of study and what remains to be discovered. You’ll then want to explain the benefits of filling this knowledge gap (i.e., solving this problem), and just how you resolve to do it. After describing the focus of your study, you may then also want to explain how your methods and/or your system (organism, genes, protein, etc.) are exceptionally suited to the task.

In short, a problem statement should define for the reader not only what question you aimed to answer, but also why you chose that question and why it’s important. Failing to address the “why” or the “so what” will make the research look pointless – like a solution in search of a problem.

G. Bordage. Reasons reviewers reject and accept manuscripts: The strengths and weaknesses in medical education reports (2001) Academic Medicine 76(9): 889-896

J. M. Provenzale. Ten principles to improve the likelihood of publication of a scientific manuscript (2007) American Journal of Roentgenology 188: 1179–1182


Entry filed under: Parts of the paper.

Choose your target early Writing the introduction

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Science of Scientific Writing

This article describes what readers expect when they read - and how scientific writing often violates those expectations.

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