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7 tips for writing an introduction to a paper

By Adele Tufford | April 13, 2020  | Research writing Research skills

You have done all your background reading and identified some interesting past research to set the context for your research but how do you present it? Writing an introduction to a research paper can seem a challenging task if you are unfamiliar with it. Adele Tufford, an AuthorAID mentor and a recent writing facilitator on AuthorAID research writing MOOCs, shares seven key things that she considers when she is writing.

1. Make a plan

When I begin to write something from scratch, I often draw out a skeleton of what I'd like to say. I usually do this with paper and pen rather than on the screen, so that it feels more 'real' to me. I create sub-headings for the theme of each paragraph, followed by bullet points on the content for each paragraph. This ensures I follow the flow of: topic introduction and relevance or need for the broad research question --> background information and context --> justification for current study -->  hypothesis/outline of the results that are about to come, and do not repeatedly state facts or ideas across multiple parts of the introduction. You might find it useful at this point to make a note of which references relate to the different sub-headings in your plan so that you can remember to include all the relevant background to your research in the right place.

2. Make the case for the research

It is critical to make the problem/reason for the study (the ‘motivation’ and ‘justification’) clear in the introduction. Otherwise people are reading onwards (or worse, they stop reading!) and wondering ‘why’. Justify, justify, justify! The fact that it simply hasn’t been done before is not reason enough – we need to understand what the value is. The fact that there is not enough (or no) data available on the topic (e.g. 'nothing is known about...') is also not justification enough – there are plenty of things for which we have no data on, but are not necessarily important to study. Don’t just list what people have done in the past but discuss why it is interesting so readers can see why you built on that. Don’t end the introduction with more background facts or references. Draw together common themes from what has been done before and finish off the introduction with the justification and motivation for your study. This then serves as a segue into the results you are about to present.  

3. Consider the words you use

Often it is tempting to use qualifiers such as ‘the best/the most/the first’ when describing either previously published effects, ways of performing research (methods), or attempts made. Be careful about making these large claims without a reference to support it. Some journals even have an editorial policy of not accepting this type of language (as they maintain that it is always possible something has been done before, or that something is better).  

Be careful when stating things like “there has been an increase in…” or giving indicators of ‘magnitude’ without providing a reference. What is the context? What exactly were the variables measured that showed there was an increase? 

Be careful not to assume the reader knows too much: the use of specialised acronyms or terms, or certain background information, cannot be assumed to be general knowledge. Think of how it would sound in a mid-level textbook for graduate students, for example. They are science-literate, but not necessarily aware of all the very specific details.  

4. Be consistent

Be consistent with terminology and avoid using different names/notations for the same thing. Define any acronyms on their first appearance in both the abstract and introduction and use them consistently thereafter. Check journal specific guidelines for things like nomenclature (i.e. what ‘field specific’ acronyms or terms are you allowed to use without defining them?). Often journal guidelines will also give a fairly explicit explanation of what they wish to see in an introduction, for example whether you should or should not outline what experiments were performed in the paper; or whether an explicit hypothesis or research question should be stated. Check this and follow it closely.  

5. Be aware of how things will be interpreted
Carefully consider how you are presenting already published facts. Carefully examine the way you’ve constructed your sentence and ask yourself (or ask a colleague) if there are potentially other ways that the sentence could be interpreted to mean something entirely different than what you’ve written. Especially in an introduction, you are laying out previously agreed-upon ‘facts’. When you present that fact: have you clearly stated what was measured and what the outcome was - i.e. is the cause and effect clear? Or when presenting a statistic (e.g ‘something accounts for the largest proportion of something’) – is enough context given so that the fact can be understood? Can you say precisely which variable changed in which group in relation to which other group? Sentences that state facts in a way where more than one interpretation is possible, or another interpretation is invited, can really detract from an introductory section. In reality, as we know, it can be very challenging to state in only one sentence, clearly and concisely, what may be the result of many studies.  

6. Let a mentor help you
Finally, (my most important point!), please use the AuthorAID mentor search to find editing services! I volunteer to edit manuscripts via AuthorAID as much as I’m able, and it makes me happy to do so. There are many other researchers like me that are happy to offer these services to you for free, as it is really critical. The presence of grammatical errors and difficult sentences or word choices can be a big barrier to publication. When you submit a paper for publication, sometimes managing editors may not send your paper out for review simply due to language. It’s difficult indeed! Passing your manuscript through volunteer editors will help to ensure your ideas and findings come through clearly to the reader.  

7. Try to avoid distractions
A final (final) more general point is to open some discussions on how to productively write. This is something I struggle with myself for so many reasons - daily distractions, noisy offices, writer's block, unable to get into the 'flow' of writing, the allure of other internet websites or social media that are only a click away that will help me to procrastinate :D. What do you find works best for you? With all the stressors and distractions of daily life, how do you carve out the space and time it takes to devote all that mental energy to doing your best work? 

What tips would you add to this list? What challenges do you find when writing introduction sections? Let us know in the comments.


Picture of a cat sitting on a laptop is a reminder of some of the challenges of working from home for many of us at the moment. (Photo by Doug Woods, Flickr, CC-BY 2.0)

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