After the title and the summary, the introduction is the next thing the audience will read, so it’s critical to start strong. The introduction is your chance to show readers and reviewers why your research topic is worth reading and why your work deserves your attention.
The introduction serves to steer the reader from a general topic to a specific field of research. It establishes the context of the research that is being carried out summarizing the current knowledge and background information on the subject, exposing the purpose of the work in the form of hypotheses, question or research problem, briefly explaining its justification, the methodological approach, highlighting the possible results that its study may reveal and describing the rest of the structure of the work.
The introduction has several objectives. It presents the background of the study, introduces the theme and objectives, and provides an overview of the work. A good introduction will provide a solid foundation and encourage readers to continue with the main parts of the thesis: the methods, the results and the discussion.
The importance of a good introduction
Think of the introduction as a mental roadmap that should answer the reader to these four questions:
What was he studying?
Why was it important to research this topic?
What did we know about this topic before we conducted this study?
How will this study advance our knowledge?
A well-written introduction is important because you simply never have a second chance to make a good first impression. According to Caulley (2007), the opening paragraph of his work will provide his readers with first impressions of the logic of his argument, his writing style, the overall quality of his research, and ultimately the validity of his findings and conclusions. A vague, disorganized, or error-filled introduction will create a negative impression, while a concise, engaging, and well-written introduction will get your readers to start thinking well about your analytical skills, your writing style, and your research approach.
Structure and writing style
Yates (2004), proposes the following guidelines to be taken into account in terms of the structure and writing style of the introduction.
Structure and approach
The introduction is the broad beginning of the work that answers three important questions for the reader:
What is this?
Why am I reading it?
What do you want me to think/consider doing/react?
Think of the structure of the introduction as an inverted triangle of information. Organize the information in such a way that it presents the more general aspects of the topic at the beginning of the introduction, and then narrows down to the more specific thematic information provided by the context, finally arriving at your statement of intent and justification and, whenever possible, at the possible results that your study may reveal.
Phases associated with the drafting of the introduction
These are the general phases associated with writing an introduction:
Establish a research area.
Highlight the importance of the topic.
Making general statements on the subject.
Presenting an overview of current research on the subject.
Identify a research niche.
Opposing an existing assumption.
Reveal a gap in existing research.
Ask a question or a research problem.
Continuing a disciplinary tradition.
Place your research within the research niche by:
Stating the intent of your study.
Outlining the key features of your study.
Describing the important results.
Give a brief overview of the structure of the work.
NOTE: Although the introduction is the first main section of a research paper, it is often useful to finish the introduction too late in the writing process because the structure of the work, the report and analysis of the results, and the conclusion will have been completed and ensures that your introduction matches the overall structure of your work.
Delimitations of the study
Delimitations refer to the characteristics that limit the scope and define the conceptual limits of their study. This is determined by the conscious exclusion and inclusion decisions you make about how to investigate the research problem. In other words, it must not only tell the reader what it is that it is studying and why, but it must also recognize why it rejected alternative approaches that could have been used to examine the research problem.
Obviously, the first limiting step was the choice of the research problem itself. However, there are other related problems implicit that could have been chosen but were rejected. These should be noted in the conclusion of their introduction.
Examples of bounding choices would be:
Key goals and objectives of your study.
Research questions it addresses.
Variables of interest [i.e. the different factors and characteristics of the phenomenon studied],
The research method(s).
The relevant alternative theoretical frameworks that could have been adopted.
Review each of these decisions. It should not only clearly set out what it is intended to achieve, but also include a statement of what the study is not intended to cover. In the latter case, its exclusion decisions must be based on criteria such as “not interesting”; “is not directly relevant”; “it’s too problematic because…”; ” it’s not feasible,” and others like it. Make this reasoning explicit.
NOTE: Delimitations refer to the initial decisions made about the overall design of your study and should not be confused with the documentation of the limitations of your study discovered after the research is complete.
The narrative flow
Issues to keep in mind that will help the narrative flow in its introduction:
Its introduction should clearly identify the topic of interest. A simple strategy is to use the keywords in the title in the first few sentences of the introduction. This will help focus the introduction on the topic at the appropriate level and ensure that the main topic is quickly reached without losing focus or discussing overly general information.
Establish context by providing a brief and balanced review of the relevant published literature that is available on the subject. The key is to summarize for the reader what is known about the specific research problem before you did your analysis. This part of your introduction should not represent an exhaustive review of the literature, but consists of a general review of the important and foundational (dating) research literature that lays the groundwork for understanding the key elements of the research problem.
Clearly state the hypothesis you have investigated. When you are learning to write in this format, it is ok, and indeed preferable, to use a past statement such as, “The purpose of this study was….” or “We investigate three possible mechanisms to explain the….”
Why did you choose this type of study or research design? Provide a clear statement of the justification for your approach to the problem studied. Normally, this will follow your mission statement in the last paragraph of the introduction.
Attract the reader
The overall goal of the introduction is to make readers want to read the work. The introduction should capture the reader’s attention. Strategies to achieve this may include:
Open with a compelling story.
Include a strong quote or a vivid, perhaps unexpected, anecdote.
Ask a provocative or thought-provoking question.
Describe a disconcerting scenario or incongruity.
Cite a poignant example or a case study that illustrates the importance of the research problem.
NOTE: Choose only one strategy to appeal to your readers; avoid giving the impression that your article is more flashy than substantial.
Tips for writing an effective introduction
Baker (2001) then presents some tips for writing an effective introduction. These tips apply primarily to the complete theses and letters reporting the results of the original research. Although some tips are more appropriate for theses in certain fields, the points are widely applicable.
Start broadly and then reduce information
In the first paragraph, briefly describe the area of research in general, and then narrow down your particular focus. This will help you situate your research topic within the broader field, making the work accessible to a wider audience, not just specialists in your field.
Setting out the objectives and importance
Papers rejected for “not showing the importance of the subject” or “lacking a clear motivation” tend to neglect this point. Say what you want to achieve and why the reader should be interested in knowing if you get it. The basic structure can be as simple as “We intend to do X, which is important because it will take us to Y”.
Cite exhaustively but not excessively
Once you have focused on the specific topic of your study, you should thoroughly cover the most recent and relevant bibliography relating to your study. Your review of the literature should be complete, but not excessively long; remember that you are not writing a review thesis. If you feel that your introduction is too long or full of citations, one possible solution is to cite review theses, rather than all the individual theses that have already been summarized in the review.
Avoid giving too many appointments for the same point
Consider the following sentence: “Many studies have found a significant association between X and Y.” This sentence quotes too many studies at once. Although references may provide a good overview of the topic, this sentence does not provide sufficient context or explanation for these earlier studies. Whether all these references are worth quoting should be discussed with greater specificity. For example, “A significant association between X and Y has been found in [4-7] men, women [8-11] and [12-15] children.”
Clearly state your hypothesis or your research question
In the case of research in empirical sciences, making a hypothesis can be an effective way to frame research. For example, instead of saying “In this study, we show that X is related to Y using method A,” you could say “In this study, we hypothesize that X is related to Y, and we use method A to test this hypothesis.”
When we talk about formal science research or exploratory research, you might consider asking a research question instead: “In this study, we examine the following research question: Is X related to Y?”. Note that the research question does not always have to be asked in interrogative form (with a question mark). Here, you can put the question in a declarative sentence: “In this study, we investigated whether X is related to Y.” Hypotheses and research questions are effective because they help shape the work and serve as “signaling phrases” that guide readers through your work seamlessly.
Consider giving an overview of the work
An organizational overview is more common in some fields than in others. It is especially prevalent in technology, but less so in medicine. In the last paragraph of the introduction, consider presenting a section-by-section summary of your work, if appropriate for your field. For example, “In section II, we describe our methods of analysis and the data sets we use.”
Try to avoid an introduction that is too long. A good target is 500 to 1,000 words, although consulting the journal’s guidelines and previous issues will give you the clearest guidance.
Show, not count
One of the objectives of the introduction is to explain why the research topic deserves to be studied. One of the most common mistakes is to simply say, “Topic X is important.” Instead of just saying that the subject is important, show why it is important. For example, instead of writing “The development of new materials is important for the automotive industry,” you could write: “The development of new materials is necessary for the automotive industry to produce stronger and lighter vehicles, which will improve safety and fuel economy.”
Don’t bury your readers in the details
In the introduction, if your thesis belongs to a field in which the main results of the study are usually summarized before starting with the methods, you should avoid exposing too many detailed results because these results need development in the other sections of your thesis to be properly understood.
Instead of saying “We found that our algorithm requires 55% of the memory and 45% of the calculation time of the conventional algorithm”, it is usually better to give an overview of the results in the introduction: “Here we compare the proposed algorithm with a conventional algorithm in terms of memory usage and calculation speed , showing that the proposed algorithm is smaller and faster.” Some old style guides suggest retaining the main result to create suspense, but now journals from many fields – medicine is a notable exception – encourage a preview of the main results in the introduction.
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Baker, Lynda M. 2001. Review of Understanding Research Methods: An Overview of the Essentials, 2nd ed., by Mildred L. Patten. The Library Quarterly 71:96.
Yates, Simeon J. 2004. Doing social science research. London, UK: Sage Publications: Open University. 293p.
Caulley, D. N. 2007. Review of Qualitative research methods for the social sciences, 6th ed, by B. L. Berg. Qualitative Research Journal 6.2: 227.
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