Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

How to write an introduction in a research paper — Focus on Science

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Writing a clear introduction in your research work is a sign of clarity of thinking. The best way to do it is by focusing on science instead of what others did.

When I perform reviews of research papers for Scientific Journals, I often see the same flaw over and over again. Instead of focusing the literature review on the scientific advancement, researchers focus on making tables in prose fashion – “Authors A made this… authors B made that… and authors C did this further.”

My question is always the same: what’s the point?
How knowing what authors did helps me understand science?
It doesn’t.

The reason for this short post is to share the underlying thinking to improve the writing of introductions in scientific research papers.

And…

An introduction where:
– author A measured…
– authors B made…
– authors C did …
…always leads me to wonder: “and…?”

There’s no point in stating what others have done when the reader needs to focus on the arguments leading to the research question. When an introduction uses this approach in its literature review, the likelihood of having an ill-defined research question is high. You should…

…focus on science

Our research is a piece of a much larger puzzle within a broader scientific topic. When you focus your introduction on the scientific background, you need to interpret the research reported by other authors. You frame it in a way that evidences your research question and original contribution to advancements in your scientific field.

For example, if two research works seem contradictory, maybe it’s only a lack of appropriate interpretation of both works. Therefore, the introduction is more than a mindless and vast amount of works on the topic, pointing out you read a lot. It must be meaningful. Therefore, in a sense, you have the opportunity of being creative by providing a new and relevant synthesis of the works performed before yours.

You don’t need a lot of references for a good introduction, but clear reasoning of where is your piece in the puzzle, and why it matters.

In the end: review your review

It seems the introductory part is the first written in a scientific paper, but – even in science – «the best kind of writing is re-writing» (H. Hemingway).

Regularly review your review, and don’t be afraid to «kill your darlings» (Stephen King). References marginally related to your work deviate the reader’s attention and immersion into the topic.

And while you elaborate on the discussion of your results, additional work may lead you to change your introduction. Do it, no matter how many times you review it. Often, this section is the last being finally written, once you know all the works that were relevant to yours.

Make reviewers’ and readers’ time count by focusing on science. It is the best way to introduce anyone to your creativity and insights.

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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