How to write an introduction to an academic article
The introduction to an academic article is the first section of the paper, immediately following the abstract. One of the most important functions of an introduction is to answer the question ‘why?’: why was the study performed, and why is it interesting and/or important? Given that the introduction is the beginning of the paper, it also serves to tell the reader why they should read the rest of the paper and prepares them to understand the importance and implications of the results.
To clearly establish the context for the study, the introduction contains four main components:
- General background information
- Specific background information
- A description of the gap in our knowledge that the study was designed to fill
- A statement of study objective, and (optionally) a brief summary of study
This information should ideally be presented in a ‘funnel’ format, flowing from the most general information at the beginning of the section to more specific information as the text continues. Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements in turn.
General background information
The first paragraph of the introduction establishes the broad context for the study by providing a general introduction to the field. How broad this paragraph is depends on your target journal and audience. If you choose to submit to a general journal with a wide scientific readership, it is a good idea to start with some fairly general information, as not all readers will necessarily be familiar with your specific field. If you plan on submitting to a highly specialized journal, however, you can begin this section with a much more specific and focused description of the background, as most of your readers will already be familiar with the context of the study.
Let’s say, for example, that your study addresses MAPK signalling in triple negative breast cancer in a specific population. If you are submitting your paper to a journal with a broad focus, it could be useful to begin this section with a brief introduction to breast cancer in general. If, however, you choose to submit to a breast cancer–specific journal, it would be reasonable to start the introduction by discussing triple negative breast cancer, or even the role of MAPK signalling in triple negative breast cancer.
Specific background information
Once the general context of the study has been established, the next part of the introduction should go into more detail about the main topic of the study. This is the part of the introduction that provides a literature review, in which other studies that have addressed similar themes are discussed in detail, to provide readers with a clear picture of what is already known about the topic. The point of this section is to present a complete picture of the state of the field, as this will help explain how your study builds on previous work. Describing the current state of the field helps readers understand your thought process in designing the study, and the logical steps that led you to formulate the main question addressed by your study.
Continuing with the example outlined above, if submitting to a journal with a general readership, this would be the appropriate place to present more detail about triple negative breast cancer and the role of MAPK signalling. In the case of a more specialized journal, in our example this could be a good place to go into more detail about the specific population you studied.
Gap in knowledge
The description of closely related previous studies, as discussed above, should clearly outline a specific gap in our knowledge or understanding of a specific question or phenomenon in the field. Sometimes this is accomplished simply by describing the work that has recently been done to investigate related questions; for example, if risk factors for a disease have been investigated in African and European populations, but not in Asian populations, describing what is already known about this disease in those populations will help readers understand the logic behind exploring the same question in an underexplored population. In other cases, it may be appropriate to (respectfully) point out shortcomings or drawbacks of similar studies to highlight the way in which your study improves on this earlier work. For example, if previous studies have designed computational models that account for some, but not all, of the properties of a specific reaction, you could point out the importance of incorporating additional properties to explain the need for the new computational model described in your study.
While the part of the introduction that describes the specific context for your study should lead naturally to an understanding of the gap in our knowledge that the study addresses, it is often useful to state this explicitly, for the sake of clarity. It is common to do so by including a sentence just prior to the last paragraph of the introduction that begins: ‘However, it remains unclear…’ or ‘However, it is still unknown…’.
Statement of study aim
The final element of the introduction is a clear statement of the primary objective of the study. In some cases, this will be the main overarching question the study sought to answer; in other cases, this may be a formal hypothesis; and in yet other cases, this may be a goal. Regardless of the form it takes, it is important to state the study aim clearly, ideally in the final paragraph of the introduction, to help ensure that readers clearly understand the specific purpose of the study before going on to read about it in greater detail in the sections that follow. Keep in mind that this statement of the study aim should closely mirror the statement of the study aim in the abstract, to present a cohesive and consistent message about the purpose of the study.
In some cases, it is appropriate to conclude the introduction with a summary paragraph that provides a very concise overview of the key findings and overall conclusion. This brief paragraph can help remind readers of the key points of the study within the context of the background information provided in the rest of the introduction, and provide a structure for understanding the rest of the text.
What should be left out of the introduction?
As discussed above, the primary purpose of the introduction is to provide adequate background information for readers to understand the context and importance of the study. For this reason, we recommend leaving out any background information that is not related directly to the main topic of the study. For example, if mutations in the protein you investigated have been linked to both cardiovascular disease and cancer, but your study only looked at cancer, discussing mutations found in patients with cardiovascular disease could distract and confuse readers. For this reason, we suggest reviewing the text of the introduction carefully to ensure that all of the information it presents has a direct logical link to the main focus of your study.
In addition, the introduction is generally not the best place to discuss the methodology used in your study, as this section should primarily be dedicated to explaining why the study was performed, not how it was performed. An exception to this rule is if the main purpose of the study was to develop or test a novel methodology, in which case it would of course be appropriate to discuss other techniques and the rationale behind the design of the new technique developed in your study. Similarly, if the main novelty of your study is the method used to investigate the central question, then this would also be a case in which it would be appropriate to discuss the methodology in the introduction.
In summary, a well-written introduction sets the tone for your paper by providing readers with all of the information they need to understand why you performed your study, what makes it different from other similar studies, and why the findings are interesting and important.
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