Article Introductions: More Important Than You Thought!

March 5, 2015 Patrick O'Connor

Journal editors and reviewers are looking for novelty, significance and relevance to their readers when they read your submitted article. Your abstract can make claims about these features, but does not provide space for the evidence to back them up. The introduction is the place for that. Guidelines for selecting, ordering and presenting that evidence effectively are available from the results of research in the field of Applied Linguistics (AL) over the past 25 years. Here we present a summary designed for ease of use by authors.

6 ‘stages’ in developing your argument in an introduction

Yes, you are writing an argument. Your aim is to convince your reader that the study you have conducted is new, addresses an important question for the field, and is needed at the present time. AL analysis has identified 6 important argument stages that successful authors use to achieve that goal – note that they are not always used in the order listed here.

1. Present the context or background to your study, claiming its importance to the field and to the interests of the journal’s readers.

2. Lay a foundation of information already known by presenting findings of other researchers on aspects of the problem you addressed.

3. Indicate the need for more investigation by highlighting a gap in the existing work, showing a need for extension of the work, or creating a research ‘niche’ that your study fills.

4. 3 alternatives here, depending on your research field and the journal’s conventions: a) state the purpose/objectives of your study; OR outline the main activity of the paper or study (e.g. ‘here we analyze … and investigate …’); OR summarize the findings of the study (used in some fields/journals only).

5. Optionally, highlight a positive value or benefit of carrying out the study.

6. In some research fields only – include a ‘map’ of how the rest of the article is organized. You will know whether you need this stage from reading a selection of recent articles from your target journal. This is a very important strategy for all of us as we prepare a manuscript for submission – analyze well-cited examples from your target journal.

Use the writing process to clarify your argument

Our experience indicates that it cuts down the time needed to reach an effective introduction if you begin by writing your Stage 4 – it will come towards the end in the final draft, of course, but writing it first helps you map out what evidence you need in the other stages. The Stage 4 should emerge from robust analysis and interpretation of your results in the context of previous research. Make sure that your Stage 4 sentences are comprehensive and include all the parameters that make your study novel and significant. Once you and your co-authors are happy with the wording of Stage 4, write a clear Stage 3 – don’t leave it to your readers to guess or make assumptions about the gap you are aiming to fill or the problem you are addressing.

Then you can underline the key terms in your Stages 3 and 4 that need to be introduced and justified in the earlier stages of the introduction. You may need to write more than one paragraph of Stage 1/2 information, especially if there are several ‘strands’ to the rationale for your study – but it will be clear what is needed now. Try several ways of ordering this information, to get the clearest logical flow and target the interests of the journal readers at the beginning.

To help develop your skills for writing introductions, it is useful to analyze successful examples from your own field of research. We present such an analysis for the field of Nanotechnology here. This presentation also includes tips on responding effectively to referee reports.

For more on using this method to improve your skills for writing effective scientific articles, see our popular book ‘Writing Scientific Research Articles: Strategy and Steps, 2nd Edition’.

An abridged version of the first edition of this book with Chinese vocabulary glossary (3 chapters, including the chapter on writing introductions) is freely available here.

About the Author

Author, Writing Scientific Research Articles: Strategy and Steps // Patrick's research interests in natural resource management include basic plant ecology and market-based instruments for ecosystem service regulation. He has an interest in languages and writing and has collaborated with Margaret Cargill in developing and delivering scientific writing training and materials for 15 years.

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