Your introduction: first impressions count! [5/8]

After the abstract, the introduction might well be the most important part of your paper. It is where you tell the editor and the reader directly and clearly why they need to read the paper. With the title and abstract, it also creates the paper's first impression and sets the tone for the rest of the article. With the conclusion, these sections might be the only parts of the paper that some overworked editors read before deciding on a desk-reject.

It is not unusual to spend one third of your writing time on perfecting these sections and write half a dozen versions. This post provides you with some tips on what to include in a good introduction and how to ensure the title, abstract and  introduction work in harmony, each building on the other.

Emails vs. paper introductions

Paper introductions are a lot like emails. Imagine reading an email like this: "Blah Blah Blah Blah and oh.. by the way I want you to do this.". You wouldn't be likely to comply would you? Yet this is what many paper introductions read like. If you write to someone you haven't emailed for a while or at all, you are likely to include:

  • a bit of context, such as how do you know the person or where you last met them,
  • what the email is about and why it is important,
  • why it is in their interest to respond to the email [what is in it for them].

An introduction to an academic paper is not very different, you provide context, explain why your research topic is important and tell the reader what is in it for them.

Provide the context

You don't jump straight into your research topic. First you need to establish the context of an area to research by:

  • Highlighting the importance of the topic (in real life), and/or
  • Making general statements about the topic, and/or
  • Presenting a brief overview on current research on the subject.

Argue for your topic's importance

Next, identify your research niche by:

  • Opposing an existing assumption, and/or
  • Revealing a gap in existing research and explain why this gap is important, and/or
  • Studying the topic in a new context and explain why this context is important.

Remember, just because something hasn’t been studied before, doesn’t mean it needs to be studied. You need to answer the “so what” question. Why is this topic important? Belly button fluff buildup is one of a million topics that hasn't been studied, but does that mean it should be? More seriously, just because there is a gap in the literature doesn't mean it needs to be filled. This might lead to what is called polyfilla research. Even though your research might only add one little brick to the house rather than adding an entire wall or even designing a completely new house, ensure you are not just filling a hairline crack.

What's in it for the reader?

Finally, you place your own research within the important research niche you have outlined by:

  • Stating the intent of your study,
  • Outlining the key characteristics of your study,
  • Describing important results and contributions, and
  • Giving a brief overview of the structure of the paper.

How title, abstract and introduction work in harmony

These three elements of your manuscript build on each other:

  • The title includes the key concepts and research question (or sometimes the key conclusion)
  • The abstract unpacks each the key concepts and resarch question, but also includes a background/context, methods, results, and implications
  • The introduction is a complete mini-version of the paper
    • The emphasis is on the study context, a brief literature review showing the importance of the research gap, the research question, and the study's key contributions
    • The methods, results and implications for theory and practice are only discussed briefly, if at all, as these have separate sections in the manuscript

How to avoid a desk-reject?

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