The opening of your paper: The Indiana Jones method

Do you sometimes watch the first few minutes of a movie to see if you like it? People do the same thing with your scientific articles: They read the first few sentences, i.e., the opening, to decide whether it’s worth pursuing. In this post, you’ll find tips and examples for chiseling your openings. We will draw inspiration from the sexiest adventurer in Hollywood, a fellow wearing a leather jacket, a fedora hat, and a whip on his belt. Any idea whom I’m talking about?

Spielberg, a master of openings

Have you seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Indiana Jones movie directed by Steven Spielberg? If you haven’t seen it or want to see it again, you can find it on Amazon Prime.

The movie opens in a jungle. The figure of a man wearing a Fedora-style hat, a leather jacket, and a whip at his belt enters the screen. He is followed by porters and other explorers. They seem to be searching for something. The music suggests that danger lurks. All but the man with the Fedora hat look scared. He arrives at a river and takes out a treasure map. Suddenly, one of the guys on his expedition points a gun at him. The man with the Fedora pulls out his whip, lashes the weapon away, and the villain runs off. Close-up on the face of our hero: It’s Harrison Ford, the sexiest and coolest actor of all time.

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Opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Indiana Jones

What does this classic opening scene show us? The first 30 seconds of the film reveal the hero and his iconic features: an explorer with a hat, a leather jacket, and a whip. The next two minutes show that he’s fearless, has excellent reflexes, and has the most magnetic gaze. The film has barely started but we lay back in our armchairs because we know we’re going to spend the next two hours riveted to the screen. That’s what I call an effective opening!

What is the goal of the opening in a scientific paper?

Characters in scientific articles are not witty explorers. They are diseases, molecules, psychological constructs, chemical processes, or societal problems. But the principle of the opening is the same: In the first few sentences, your readers should learn who your character is and what makes it so fascinating, its scientific sex appeal. In other words, the first few sentences or paragraphs of a scientific paper establish the research topic and its importance. (To figure out what your research topic see my Ultimate Guide to Scientific Writing)

Poor openings

Researchers don’t always use the most convincing arguments to establish the importance of their research topics. Here are three examples of openings to avoid.

Don’t emphasize that others are interested in the topic

A classic scientific opening is to point out that “Topic X has received a lot of attention in recent years” or “A lot of research in field X focus on …”. But the fact that other people are interested in the topic is not an argument for its relevance. If it were, researchers would all be studying cute cat videos on youtube.

Don’t just explain that there is a research gap

It is so tempting to launch a scientific project because one has stumbled upon a research question that has not yet been explored. Yet, a gap in the research does not make the question interesting.

I have fallen into this trap at the beginning of my Ph.D. thesis. I had noticed an inconsistency in the literature: Philosophers differentiated between the emotions of regret and remorse but psychologists tended to use the terms interchangeably. There it was, the gap in the literature I was looking for: I would be the first researcher to work on the psychology of remorse! I was thrilled but then, one day, a professor to whom I was explaining the scientific journey I was about to embark on asked me, “So what? What do we care about the difference between regret and remorse?”. I was dumbfounded. I had no idea why differentiating the two emotions mattered. And thus the remorse adventure ended there.

Just because a land is uncharted, it does not mean it is an El Dorado. And you won’t convince anyone that your research question is important just because no one has addressed it yet.

Don’t define the research topic

How many articles begin with a definition of the research topic? With sentences such as: ” The DSM-V defines anxiety disorders as “disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances.” Does this definition excite you? Me neither.

Sure, by starting with a definition, you make clear what the article is about (in the example above, we understand that the paper is about anxiety disorder). The problem is that you also fail to interest the reader in what you are talking about. Definitions are not sexy, and your readers’ attention is fragile: Every word counts. So better use them wisely.

Compelling openings

A compelling opening convincingly establishes the importance of the research topic. How so? Scientific sex appeal can take several forms.

Dos and donts like thumbs up or down. Like or dislike. Vector illustration line icon.

State the implications of the research topic

The relevance of a research project is mainly determined by its implications. Science is utilitarian, so the greater the implications, the more valuable they are.

Here are some examples of compelling openings:

  • Emphasize that the research topic involves many people (or animals, depending on the field of research). The more individuals can benefit from your study, the more interesting it becomes. For example:

 “In 2019, an outbreak in China of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative pathogen of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), rapidly became a global pandemic, and after a year, it has infected 100 million people and killed 2 million people” (Panpradist et al., 2021, see full article here).

  • Show that the research topic has major consequences for the planet in the short or long term. For example:

“Catastrophic consequences for global coral reef ecosystems are predicted under even the most optimistic emission scenarios, with 70 to 90% of reef-building corals expected to die under global warming of 1.5°C” (Howells et al., 2021; see full article here).

  • Point to the financial implications of the research topic. For example:

“In Europe, the ever-increasing numbers of geriatric patients and associated diseases are leading to increasing costs and burden on medical resources” (Ulbrich et al., 2014; see full article here).

  • Highlight the centrality of the research topic for a field of research. For example:

“Natural selection is an important driver of genetic and phenotypic differentiation between species.” (DiVittorio et al., 2020)

or

“Several decades ago, the cognitive demands imposed by social complexity was proposed as an explanation for why primates have unusually large brains for their body size.” (Schultz & Dunbar, 2007)

  • If you’re working on a methodological topic, show that the method you are studying is a standard tool. For example:

“Isotope labeling methodologies play an essential part in the development of new pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals” (Li et al., 2022).

  • If you’re working on a methodological topic, show that the method you are studying opens new possibilities and constitutes a technical advance: For example:

“Wireless technologies are one of the greatest success stories in the history of technology, realizing the dream of humans to communicate from anywhere at any time.” (Uysal & Nouri, 2014)

Arouse personal interest or emotions in the reader

Scientists are people like any other (although a bit nerdier 😊), and as such, we care about facts or stories that affect us directly. What form might this take in a scientific article?

  • Emphasize the relevance of the research topic for the reader. For example:

“Among all the qualities one may wish to develop, the ability to control one’s behavior when exposed to temptations is probably the most useful one.” (Kedia et al., 2019)

  • Arouse intellectual curiosity. Scientists have a thirst for knowledge and understanding. We love to learn about the beginnings of the universe or the origins of humanity. Although these questions don’t have any direct applications, they are fascinating because they contribute to our identity and give meaning to our experiences. For example:

” What, you might ask, could possibly induce a rational astrophysicist to believe that all the matter, energy, and space of the universe began fifteen billion years ago in a primeval fireball packed into a volume smaller than a marble that has been expanding ever since?” (Neil deGrasse Tyson, 1997)

  • Evoke fear, anger, or compassion in the reader. Humans tend to pay more attention to negative information, especially information that arouses fear or moral outrage. This phenomenon is called “the negativity bias.” Thus, opening your article with a sentence that evokes negative emotions will effectively capture your readers’ attention. Is it acceptable to use that kind of opening in a scientific paper? Yes, as long as your opening provides context for the study and doesn’t feel like an attempt to manipulate the reader. For example:

“Several years ago, a young woman was stabbed to death in the middle of a street in a residential section of New York City. Although such murders are not entirely routine, the incident received little public attention until several weeks later when the New York Times disclosed another side to the case: at least 38 witnesses had observed the attack—and none had even attempted to intervene.” (Darley & Latané, 1968)

How to formulate your openings?

Now that you have some ideas for the content of your openings, here are some ways to phrase them.

  • Rely on impressive statistics or numbers. For example:

“Breast cancer represents approximately 23% (1.38 million) of the total cancer cases and accounts for 14% (458,400) of cancer-related deaths.” (Tao et al., 2019)

  • Make a global assertion. For example:

“Understanding the selective pressures that have influenced primate brain evolution is among the greatest challenges in biological anthropology.” (MacLean et al., 2009)

  • State a common knowledge. For example:

“Life is much easier for those who know themselves.” (Mussweiler & Rüter, 2003)

  • Tell a story. For example:

“Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other. What do you think about that, was it OK for them to make love?” (Haidt, 2001)

  • Cite a quote. For example:

“One can state, without exaggeration, that the observation of and the search for similarities and differences are the basis of all human knowledge.” – Alfred Nobel (Ohmann et al., 2016)

  • Ask a question. For example:

“If some people are more creative than other people, then what are creative people like?” (Silvia et al., 2009)

  • Describe a paradox. For example:

“The present study was inspired by a family of ethical dilemmas familiar to contemporary moral philosophers. One such dilemma is the trolley dilemma: A runaway trolley is headed for five people who will be killed if it proceeds on its present course. The only way to save them is to hit a switch that will turn the trolley onto an alternate set of tracks where it will kill one person instead of five. Ought you to turn the trolley in order to save five people at the expense of one?” (Greene et al., 2001)

In Sum

The first few sentences of a scientific article are critical: They create a first impression on readers and set the tone of the article. In this post, we saw that the opening of an article should establish the research topic and its importance. You also learned what makes a poor or compelling opening and how to formulate it.

If you are in the process of drafting your introduction and want to boost your writing process, check out my free writing pack: It contains step-by-step instructions for writing your introduction. You won’t believe how easy it becomes then!

How to write your introduction + template

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Writing a good introduction is essential to getting your paper published in a top journal and captivating your readers. It’s essential… and challenging! With this template for writing your introduction, you will find:

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