Tips for writing the introduction

November 6, 2009 at 12:56 pm Leave a comment

Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing the introduction to a scientific paper. I developed this material for a writing workshop I recently held with my students.

Main purpose of the introduction
To present the problem (an “intricate unsettled question,” a “source of perplexity”) you’ve addressed and why it’s important. If readers don’t grasp the problem, they aren’t going to care about the solution, i.e., your research.

Components of the introduction

  • Background that places your research in a broader context and tells why it’s significant (what is known)
  • Description of the knowledge gap your study fills (what is not known)
  • Statement of your problem/question/hypothesis
  • Description of your approach and why you chose it
  • Brief summary of your major findings
  • Statement of the major implication of your work, i.e., the take-home message

A simpler approach to the introduction – as an answer to three questions (Cetin and Hackam, 2005)

  • What do we know about this topic?
  • What don’t we know?
  • What are we now showing?

Structuring the introduction

One way to visualize the structure of the introduction is as two funnels connected by their narrow tips.

Common pitfalls

  • Failing to state clearly the problem and its significance. In a study by Bordage (2001), “insufficient problem statement” was one of the top reasons reviewers gave for rejecting manuscripts.
  • Treating your introduction like a literature review. The background you include should be just enough for readers to understand what your research problem is and why you chose it. Anything more could cause readers to lose interest.
  • Not reviewing the literature carefully enough. Omitting a key paper could lead to embarrassment – and negative reviews.
  • Underestimating the importance of the introduction. Although your findings and conclusions are the meat of your paper, the introduction is where you set the stage for them. Do this well and you’ll hook people into reading further. Do this poorly and even the coolest, most significant results may go unread.

References

  • Bordage, G (2001) Reasons reviewers reject and accept manuscripts: The strengths and weaknesses in medical education reports. Academic Medicine 76(9): 889-893
  • Cetin, SA and DJ Hackam (2005) An approach to writing a scientific manuscript. J. Surgical Research 128: 165-167.
  • Day, RA and B Gastrel (2006) How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
  • Wells, W (2004) Me write pretty one day: How to write a good scientific paper. J. Cell Biol. 165(6): 757-758.
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Entry filed under: Parts of the paper.

The bottom line in scientific writing Writing the results section

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