Your introduction: first impressions count! [5/8]
What are the elements of an effective introduction: context, importance and interest
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.
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.
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.
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.
The other thing we need to keep in mind is the cement between the gaps. Remember that in Chapter 5 we talked about how submitting an article to a journal should be seen as joining a scholarly conversation? If you want to join a conversation by adding another brick of knowledge, you do need to first acknowledge the other bricks that are already there.
But then you need to connect your new brick of knowledge in some way to the other bricks. That’s where the cement comes in. Without cement your brick will not adhere, with connections your new brick of knowledge will not be joined with the other bricks. So think carefully how you can connect the new knowledge you are adding in your article to existing knowledge.
Here is an example of how to do this based on one of my recent papers (read more about this paper in this blogpost: Beyond expatriation: How inpatriation supports subsidiary growth and performance).
Finally, you place your own research within the important research niche that you have outlined by doing four things in the next four paragraphs. For each I have included an example of the same paper I used above.
Stating the intent of your study
Here you explain what it is exactly that you are aiming to do in your study. This should include a clear research question. Again though, make sure that you don’t just state the intent of your study, but also carefully connect it to prior research in the field.
Outlining the key characteristics of your study
Here you explain the methods you have used to collect your data (assuming it is an empirical paper. It is important to not just outline your methods, but also explain why these methods are the ones that are best suited for your study. This is also the place to explain the context in which your study was conducted.
Describing important results and contributions
In the next part of your introduction, you describe the most important results of your study, again taking care explain exactly how it contributes to current research in the area.
As you can see in the two paragraphs below, we first provide a summary of our key findings. Then in the second paragraph, we first explain how our study contributes to organizational knowledge creation theory. Second, we show how it advances our knowledge on the role of inpatriates as agents of knowledge transfer, contributing to the international HRM literature. Third, we demonstrate how our paper contributes to the global strategy literature by connecting global mobility to subsidiary evolution.
Giving a brief overview of the structure of the paper
Finally, it is customary to provide a brief overview of the structure of your paper, though in some journals this might be seen as superfluous. Refer to examples from the journal you are targeting to see whether this is required.
These three elements of your manuscript build on each other, with each of them providing gradually more detail on how study.
The title includes the key concepts and research question (or sometimes the key conclusion). The title of the study that I discussed above was “How does successive inpatriation contribute to subsidiary capability building and subsidiary evolution? An organizational knowledge creation perspective.”
This includes the study’s key concepts (successive inpatriation, subsidiary capability building and subsidiary evolution) in a sentence highlighting the research question, but also – implicitly – the theory we are contributing to (organizational knowledge creation).
The abstract unpacks each of the key concepts and the research question, but also includes a background/context, methods, results, and implications. Here is the abstract of the study I discussed above.
Finally, 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?
- How to avoid a desk-reject in seven steps [1/8]
- Who do you want to talk to? Targeting journals [2/8]
- Your title: the public face of your paper [3/8]
- Writing your abstract: not a last-minute activity [4/8]
- Your introduction: first impressions count! [5/8]
- Conclusions: last impressions count too! [6/8]
- What do you cite? Using references strategically [7/8]
- Why do I need to write a letter to the editor? [8/8]
- The four P's of getting published
- What is that conference networking thing all about?
- How to keep up-to-date with the literature, but avoid information overload?
- Useful resources when preparing for journal submission
- How to write for US journals with non-US data
- Where to submit your paper? Which journals publish on your topic
- Submit to only one journal at a time
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Copyright © 2023 Anne-Wil Harzing. All rights reserved. Page last modified on Sat 15 Apr 2023 07:40
Anne-Wil Harzing is Professor of International Management at Middlesex University, London and visiting professor of International Management at Tilburg University. She is a Fellow of the Academy of International Business, a select group of distinguished AIB members who are recognized for their outstanding contributions to the scholarly development of the field of international business. In addition to her academic duties, she also maintains the Journal Quality List and is the driving force behind the popular Publish or Perish software program.