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Setting The Scene

How to write a clear Introduction to a research paper

· Writing tips,Research articles - overall structure

The Introduction is an important part of your research paper because it tells your reader why your research is worth reading. If not structured properly, the Introduction will push your reader away, leaving your interesting findings undiscovered. In this blog post, I explain how to write a clear Introduction that will encourage your reader to read (and cite) your paper.

A gripping start

Scientists are busy. Unless you grab their attention quickly, they will stop reading. Use the first few sentences to tell your reader why your study is important. Start with a general statement that announces the topic and highlights the problem. For example:

Morphine provides effective analgesia during Caesarean section but is associated with a significant increase in debilitating postoperative nausea and vomiting. Surveys have shown that avoiding postoperative nausea and vomiting is almost as important to these patients as avoiding postoperative pain.

The information in these opening sentences should relate to your study aims. The above example is suitable because the author is investigating ways to reduce postoperative nausea and vomiting caused by morphine. If they were investigating another postoperative complication, such as pain or infection, they would need to make this the focus of their opening sentences.

What do we need to know?

In the next few paragraphs, tell your reader what they need to know to understand what you did and why. Start with what is known in the field and narrow this down to the specific gap in the knowledge that your research question will address.

Keep the background information brief. A short Introduction describing studies that focus on your research question is more helpful to your reader than an exhaustive literature review. For example:

Several meta-analyses have shown that dexamethasone can reduce morphine-induced postoperative nausea and vomiting following Caesarean section. However, these studies investigated morphine administered via epidural only. Nothing is known about the effect of dexamethasone on postoperative nausea and vomiting after intrathecal morphine administration.

This paragraph introduces the reader to dexamethasone, which is the drug the author is testing in their study. The author explains what is known (that dexamethasone can reduce postoperative nausea and vomiting) and describes the gap in the knowledge (that nothing is known about how dexamethasone affects nausea and vomiting following intrathecal injection of morphine). Now the reader has all the information they need to understand the author’s research question.

The big question

Start the next paragraph by stating your research question. This will address the gap in the knowledge that you have described:

In this study, we tested whether intravenous administration of dexamethasone before intrathecal injection of morphine reduces the incidence of nausea and vomiting after Caesarean delivery.

Your research question should be specific. The above example describes the treatment and outcome in detail, so the reader knows exactly what the author is investigating. Vague statements that go beyond the scope of what you are investigating lack credibility. For example:

In this study, we investigated how to reduce postoperative nausea and vomiting caused by morphine

is too vague. This research question implies that the author has found some new wonder-drug that can cure morphine-induced nausea and vomiting in all patients following all types of surgery, regardless of how morphine was administered. The reader will recognize that this claim is not feasible and will lose trust in the work.

How did you do it?

In the next sentence, tell your reader how you answered the research question. There is no need to go into detail. Most readers do not want to repeat your experiments (and if they do, they can refer to your Methods section), they just want to get the gist of how you performed your study. For example:

We performed a randomized-controlled trial in which patients received either dexamethasone or placebo before undergoing Caesarean section. The primary outcome was any incidence of nausea and vomiting in the first 24 hours after surgery.

You can end your Introduction by revealing the main findings of your study:

Dexamethasone significantly reduced nausea and vomiting caused by intrathecal morphine in our patients undergoing Caesarean section

but this is optional. Some style guides recommend waiting until the Discussion to summarize the main findings.

A good start

In summary, a good Introduction should do the following:

  • explain the problem/knowledge gap your study will address
  • give the information needed to understand the study
  • state the specific research question
  • describe how the research question was answered
  • outline the main findings (optional).

The template outlined in this article will help you to write a clear Introduction that convinces your reader that your research paper is worth reading.

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A good start will encourage your reader to keep reading...

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copyediting and medical editing. She edits scientific research papers and teaches courses on scientific writing.