Writing a journal article

Introduction

The introduction of a paper is critically important. Even if your results are quite good, unless you introduce your work well, interesting results can come across as boring or meaningless. This issue is related to that of framing, which I discuss separately elsewhere.

Introductions need to start with a broad motivating statement, which takes up one or two sentences. The scheme for these sentences typically is something like this: “XYZ is a really important issue because of A, B, and C.”

Following such a broad statement, there is usually some review of existing knowledge. This serves two purposes. One, you need to embed your work in the context of other people’s work. Two (a more political reason), you need to demonstrate that you know about other important players in the area in which you are publishing. Reviewers get very annoyed if you have missed their very important work, even though it’s on a related topic. You can’t (and shouldn’t!) cite everything, but it’s a good idea to be familiar with who else is working in your area, and give them credit for their work.

Introductions then become increasingly specific, like a funnel. At the very end, you present specific aims. The logic of an introduction thus typically flows something like this:

  • XY is an important issue
  • For example, it has these effects, and these other effects
  • These have been investigated in a number of ways
  • Author A came up with this explanation
  • Author B proposed an alternative explanation
  • To date, it is unknown what the role of the phenomenon Z is.
  • Phenomenon Z could be important because of this, that, and something else.
  • Here, we investigate the role of phenomenon Z in the context of …
  • Specifically, we addressed three aims:
    • First, we tested whether …
    • Second, we compared our findings …
    • Third, we applied our insights to …
  • Optional last sentence to summarise the key finding: “We show that …”

The last optional sentence wraps up the introduction. It basically states the main finding. While that might seem unusual, it gives a strong ending to the introduction, and makes it very clear for the reader in which direction you are heading. Some leading journals now encourage a summary sentence at the end of the introduction.

How long should an introduction be? This depends on the discipline and journal you are writing for, and on your overall strategy to fit your content within the prescribed length. You might want to copy and paste the introductions from some papers that you like (which are broadly similar), and do a word count on them to get a rough idea for what is appropriate.

See also:

Possible exercices:
  • Collect the introductions from several published papers, both from your own area of expertise and from outside your own expertise.
  • Analyse these introductions: Do they follow a clear structure? Which introductions lead you clearly to key aims? Which take big detours? Do you think those detours are useful (because they add depth), or are they a distraction? Why? After the introduction, are you inspired to read the rest of the paper? Are the aims clear — do you know what’s coming?
  • Write a short list of attributes that you found frustrating in other people’s introductions, and a list of things you found really useful.
  • When you write your own introduction, use this list as a reference point.

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