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Organizing Academic Research Papers: 4. The Introduction

Definition

The introduction serves the purpose of leading the reader from a general subject area to a particular field of research. It establishes the context of the research being conducted by summarizing current understanding and background information about the topic, stating the purpose of the work in the form of the hypothesis, question, or research problem, briefly explaining your rationale, methodological approach, highlighting the potential outcomes your study can reveal, and describing the remaining structure of the paper.


Key Elements of the Research Proposal. Prepared under the direction of the Superintendent and by the 2010 Curriculum Design and Writing Team. Baltimore County Public Schools.

Importance of a Good Introduction

Think of the introduction as a mental road map that must answer for the reader these four questions:

  • What was I studying?
  • Why was this topic important to investigate?
  • What did we know about this topic before I did this study?
  • How will this study advance our knowledge?

A well-written introduction is important because, quite simply, you never get a second chance to make a good first impression. The opening paragraph of your paper will provide your readers with their initial impressions about the logic of your argument, your writing style, the overall quality of your research, and, ultimately, the validity of your findings and conclusions. A vague, disorganized, or error-filled introduction will create a negative impression, whereas, a concise, engaging, and well-written introduction will start your readers off thinking highly of your analytical skills, your writing style, and your research approach.


Introductions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina.

Structure and Writing Style

I. Structure and Approach

The introduction is the broad beginning of the paper that answers three important questions for the reader:

  1. What is this?
  2. Why am I reading it?
  3. What do you want me to think about / consider doing / react to?

Think of the structure of the introduction as an inverted triangle of information. Organize the information so as to present the more general aspects of the topic early in the introduction, then narrow toward the more specific topical information that provides context, finally arriving at your statement of purpose and rationale and, whenever possible, the potential outcomes your study can reveal.

These are general phases associated with writing an introduction:

  1. Establish an area to research by:
    • Highlighting the importance of the topic, and/or
    • Making general statements about the topic, and/or
    • Presenting an overview on current research on the subject.
  2. Identify a research niche by:
    • Opposing an existing assumption, and/or
    • Revealing a gap in existing research, and/or
    • Formulating a research question or problem, and/or
    • Continuing a disciplinary tradition.
  3. Place your research within the research niche by:
    • Stating the intent of your study,
    • Outlining the key characteristics of your study,
    • Describing important results, and
    • Giving a brief overview of the structure of the paper.

NOTE: Even though the introduction is the first main section of a research paper, it is often useful to finish the introduction very late in the writing process because the structure of the paper, the reporting and analysis of results, and the conclusion will have been completed and it ensures that your introduction matches the overall structure of your paper.


II.  Delimitations of the Study

Delimitations refer to those characteristics that limit the scope and define the conceptual boundaries of your study. This is determined by the conscious exclusionary and inclusionary decisions you make about how to investigate the research problem. In other words, not only should you tell the reader what it is you are studying and why, but you must also acknowledge why you rejected alternative approaches that could have been used to examine the research problem.

Obviously, the first limiting step was the choice of research problem itself. However, implicit are other, related problems that could have been chosen but were rejected. These should be noted in the conclusion of your introduction.

Examples of delimitating choices would be:

  • The key aims and objectives of your study,
  • The research questions that you address,
  • The variables of interest [i.e., the various factors and features of the phenomenon being studied],
  • The method(s) of investigation, and
  • Any relevant alternative theoretical frameworks that could have been adopted.

Review each of these decisions. You need to not only clearly establish what you intend to accomplish, but to also include a declaration of what the study does not intend to cover. In the latter case, your exclusionary decisions should be based upon criteria stated as, "not interesting"; "not directly relevant"; “too problematic because..."; "not feasible," and the like. Make this reasoning explicit!

NOTE: Delimitations refer to the initial choices made about the broader, overall design of your study and should not be confused with documenting the limitations of your study discovered after the research has been completed.


III. The Narrative Flow

Issues to keep in mind that will help the narrative flow in your introduction:

  • Your introduction should clearly identify the subject area of interest. A simple strategy to follow is to use key words from your title in the first few sentences of the introduction. This will help focus the introduction on the topic at the appropriate level and ensures that you get to the primary subject matter quickly without losing focus, or discussing information that is too general.
  • Establish context by providing a brief and balanced review of the pertinent 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 a comprehensive literature review but consists of a general review of the important, foundational research literature (with citations) that lays a foundation for understanding key elements of the research problem. See the drop-down tab for "Background Information" for types of contexts.
  • Clearly state the hypothesis that you investigated. When you are first learning to write in this format it is okay, and actually preferable, to use a past statement like, "The purpose of this study was to...." or "We investigated three possible mechanisms to explain the...."
  • Why did you choose this kind of research study or design? Provide a clear statement of the rationale for your approach to the problem studied. This will usually follow your statement of purpose in the last paragraph of the introduction.

IV. Engaging the Reader

The overarching goal of your introduction is to make your readers want to read your paper. The introduction should grab your reader's attention. Strategies for doing this can be to:

  1. Open with a compelling story,
  2. Include a strong quotation or a vivid, perhaps unexpected anecdote,
  3. Pose a provocative or thought-provoking question,
  4. Describe a puzzling scenario or incongruity, or
  5. Cite a stirring example or case study that illustrates why the research problem is important.

NOTE:  Only choose one strategy for engaging your readers; avoid giving an impression that your paper is more flash than substance.


Freedman, Leora  and Jerry Plotnick. Introductions and Conclusions. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Introduction. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Introductions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Introductions. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Introductions, Body Paragraphs, and Conclusions for an Argument Paper. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Resources for Writers: Introduction Strategies. Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Sharpling, Gerald. Writing an Introduction. Centre for Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick; Writing Your Introduction. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University.

Writing Tip

Avoid the "Dictionary" Introduction

Giving the dictionary definition of words related to the research problem may appear appropriate because it is important to define specific words or phrases with which readers may be unfamiliar. However, anyone can look a word up in the dictionary and a general dictionary is not a particularly authoritative source. It doesn't take into account the context of your topic and doesn't offer particularly detailed information. Also, placed in the context of a particular discipline, a term may have a different meaning than what is found in a general dictionary. If you feel that you must seek out an authoritative definition, try to find one that is from subject specific dictionaries or encyclopedias [e.g., if you are a sociology student, search for dictionaries of sociology]. These can be found by searching the Credo Reference database.

Saba, Robert. The College Research Paper. Florida International University; Introductions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina.

Another Writing Tip

When Do I Begin?

A common question asked at the start of any paper is, "where should I begin?" An equally important question to ask yourself is, "When do I begin?" Research problems in the social sciences rarely rest in isolation from the history of the issue being investigated. It is, therefore, important to lay a foundation for understanding the historical context underpinning the research problem. However, this information should be brief and succinct and begin at a point in time that best informs the reader of study's overall importance. For example, a study about coffee cultivation and export in West Africa as a key stimulus for local economic growth needs to describe the beginning of exporting coffee in the region and establishing why economic growth is important. You do not need to give a long historical explanation about coffee exportation in Africa. If a research problem demands a substantial exploration of historical context, do this in the literature review section; note in the introduction as part of your "roadmap" [see below] that you covering this in the literature review.


Introductions. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina.

Yet Another Writing Tip

Always End with a Roadmap

The final paragraph or sentences of your introduction should forecast your main arguments and conclusions and provide a description of the rest of the paper [a "roadmap"] that let's the reader know where you are going and what to expect.