In this blog, our guest blogger, Professor Emeritus Dolores Takemoto from Kansas State University discusses how to write an introduction.
A thorough introduction is a necessary prerequisite for the most effective presentation of your research results. In addition, it optimizes your chances of getting your research report accepted for publication by a journal.
Before you begin, carefully read the instructions to authors of your target journal. Some journals have very specific word limits for the introduction. Journals may also have specific suggestions for the content of the introduction. Based on these suggestions, plus the reviewers’ comments of your manuscript, the journal editor-in-chief will make a decision regarding possible publication, to accept your manuscript as is, after revision, or reject the manuscript.
The following lists a step-by-step approach in organizing your introduction, involving three basic steps.
Step 1: Background of previous research
It is important to realize that not every reader will be familiar with previous reports of the subject matter of your research. Without a general knowledge of your research subject, it will be difficult for the reader/reviewer to fully appreciate the importance of your findings. A logical way to organize the introduction is first to divide the background part of the introduction into two parts: a general background for all readers, and a specific background for those familiar with your research.
Note: It is tempting throughout a manuscript to use “lab talk” and/or too many abbreviations. The introduction section will determine if scientists outside your field read your paper. If you use language only used in your lab group, or if you use too many abbreviations, your paper will sound like it was written in a code language. Avoid abbreviations if possible in the abstract and introduction, and never use “lab talk.”
This section is directed towards readers not working in your field of research. Be as general as possible, and do not assume the reader has any specific knowledge of your field of research described in the manuscript, because your manuscript may be read by others with only a peripheral interest in your research results. In addition, the editor-in-chief of the target journal may assign reviewers who are not actively involved in your field of research. If the reader/reviewer does not appreciate the importance of your research because of a poor general background discussion, it will be very difficult for the reviewer to recommend publication of your manuscript. To appreciate the importance of your manuscript, it is important to include all pertinent publications, even those describing information that you think is common knowledge in the field.
In this general background, try to minimize the use of abbreviations and technical jargon specific to the research described in the manuscript. The reader/reviewer should learn the overall background necessary to fully appreciate your research results without having to go back to look anything up or remember some rarely used abbreviation. The use of multiple and complex abbreviations and terminology specific for your field of research only makes this objective more difficult.
The general background will form the basis for a description of specific progress in your research field. The specific background section is directed towards those working in your field of research or a closely related field. However, keep this section general enough for any good scientist to be able to follow. You should mention specific reports that directly impact on your research, as well as controversies that may be resolved by the results of your manuscript. Furthermore, you should emphasize that the results of your research fill a specific need/niche in your field, which has not been addressed in previous publications. Most importantly, when submitting your manuscript for review, DO NOT assume that the reviewers are familiar with all the relevant studies related to your research. As previously mentioned, even specialized journals sometimes ask investigators outside your immediate field of research to review manuscripts for possible publication. In this section, it is also important to mention previous studies by your own laboratory, which will confirm your expertise in the field, as well as provide evidence that your laboratory has the technical ability to conduct further studies in this field.
Be aware that the publications you cite in the background may be used by the editor to identify suitable reviewers. If there is an investigator in your field who is familiar with your work and will give you a fair review, it is important to cite his/her publications, to maximize the possibility that this investigator will be chosen as one of the reviewers. If you have a competitor who you think will not give you a fair review, you may wish to disclose this to the editor in the cover letter.
Step 2. Rationale for the present study
Now that you have provided background information for the reader/reviewer, the next section should provide a strong rationale for the present study. This is by far the most important part of the introduction. The question to ask yourself is “Why is this manuscript worth publishing?” If you cannot answer this question in a convincing manner, and in a single sentence, chances are that the editor-in-chief/reviewer will also not consider the results worth publishing. This is a major reason why journal reviewers often reject a manuscript for publication, stating that a manuscript only provides an “incremental” advance in a specific field.
In this section, emphasize that your study fills an important gap in the knowledge, which will facilitate advancement of the field, and explain the gap. Alternatively, your study results may prove an important hypothesis and/or resolve a controversy resulting from conflicting results in previous studies. Instead of generally describing the importance of issues dealing with your research, it is crucial that you provide, whenever possible, statistics such as dollars saved, patients cured, and/or time saved if your proposed aims are met. Even the most basic research can be eventually related to these final objectives. A thorough discussion in the background section should help the reader to better realize the importance of your research. Throughout this section, emphasize that the results of your study do not simply involve “data collecting.” Instead, the results are specifically directed toward development of an important concept/cure, which will significantly advance your specific field of study.
Step 3: A “mini-abstract” to conclude the background section
The reader many times does not have the time to read the entire manuscript, but instead reads just the abstract. However, sometimes the reader has only time to read a few sentences. Hence, the last 1–2 sentences of the introduction often contain a “mini-abstract,” which succinctly summarizes the contribution of the manuscript, such as “….based on the results of previous studies, our study showed that….” In this manner, in 1–2 sentences, the reader is able to understand the main contribution of the manuscript, and can gain an overall perspective of the methods and conclusions, which many times makes it easier to understand the remaining manuscript.