How to structure your scientific paper (Part 2: The introduction)

Have you ever struggled to write your introduction? If your answer to this question is a desperate “Yes”, don’t worry, you are not alone. The introduction is usually the hardest part of an article to write, especially if you don’t know how to structure it. Luckily, introductions of scientific articles are structured according to a defined template. In this post, I describe this template and give examples for you to see how it is concretely implemented (see here to get an overview of the structure of the whole article).

As we have seen in a previous post, the introduction of a scientific article follows an inverted triangle shape. It starts broadly with the general research topic and progressively narrows down to your research question and the study that you performed to answer this question.

1. Start by introducing your research topic

The first paragraph(s) of the introduction aim at presenting the research topic in a way that will convince the reader that it’s an important topic. Your introduction should start as broadly as possible to interest a wide audience.

Let’s take an example! Imagine that you have run a study to test the efficacy of a new treatment to cure a disease called Dragon Pox*. You could start your introduction by referring to the preponderance of Dragon Pox.

“Dragon Pox is the most common type of disease among children under the age of 12 and about 2 in 5 persons catch Dragon Pox during their lifetime. Dragon Pox can lead to serious complications (e.g., pneumonia, encephalitis) and leave serious after-effects (respiratory insufficiency, pockmarked skin). Moreover, Dragon Pox is fatal in 8,4% of the cases. It is, therefore, crucial to develop treatments to cure this serious disease.”

After having read these few sentences, your reader knows that

  1. the article is about Dragon Pox,
  2. that it’s an important topic,
  3. that your research has something to do with a cure against Dragon Pox.

* Dragon Pox is an imaginary disease that affects wizards and witches, like chickenpox (see the Harry Potter series). The symptoms are green and purple rashes as well as sparks coming out of the nostrils when the patient sneezes.

2. Situate the scientific context

Once you have established your research topic and emphasized its importance, the next step is to provide general background information about what has been done so far in this area. For instance, you could explain which virus is responsible for Dragon Pox and which treatments already exist to cure the disease.

“Dragon pox results from a primary infection caused by the varicella-monster virus (VMV). This virus is a member of the human herpes virus. Recent studies suggest that oral aclocyvir is the most efficient method against VMV. Aclocyvir is a nucleoside analog that mimics guasonine…“

3. Establish your niche

The next paragraphs focus on the problem at hand and establish your niche. The niche refers to the research gap that your study intends to fill. One could also define the niche as the problem that the study intends to solve.

Let’s go back to our example. If you have tested a new treatment for Dragon Pox, it’s likely because the usual treatment poses some problems that your new treatment aims at circumventing. That’s your niche!

“Research shows that treatment by oral aclocyvir reduces by 23% the risks of complications following VMV infection. Unfortunately, aclocyvir has many side-effects (e.g., nausea, appetite loss, diarrhea), which cause one-third of the patients to interrupt the treatment before completion. A solution to this problem has recently been proposed: Combining aclocyvir with adeninoside. This approach has already been successful for the treatment of herpes. However, so far it has never been tested in patients with VMV. The present study intends to fill this gap.”

4. State your hypotheses and/or introduce your method

We are now at the end of the introduction. You have already set the stage for your study, i.e., you have explained what motivates your research question. Now it is time to state your hypotheses, if you have any, and introduce the methods that you chose to test them. These last paragraph(s) offer a transition to the methods section.

“In the study reported in this article, we investigated the efficacy of a new treatment to cure Dragon Pox. We tested the hypothesis that the administration of adeninoside reduces the side-effects of aclocyvir and, thus, increases the treatment efficiency. To that aim, we compared two groups of patients treated with either aclocyvir alone or aclocyvir combined with adeninoside…”

5. Be convincing, not exhaustive

If you are writing a scientific article, you certainly know a lot about this topic. That’s a good thing! It’s necessary to do good research. But one thing is important to keep in mind: You don’t need to demonstrate all your knowledge in your article.

A scientific article is not an essay that your teacher will grade. It has a different purpose. Indeed, the goal of an essay is to convince your teacher that you have the knowledge and skills he/she expects from you. These expectations vary from teacher to teacher, but some teachers might enjoy seeing that you know a lot about the topic at hand. The goal of a scientific article is to captivate the attention of your reader and convince him/her of the soundness of your research. Your readers don’t care about you. They want to read something interesting that they can trust. Thus, your job is to take the reader by the hand and bring him to your research question, hypotheses, and, eventually, methods. Everything that you write in the introduction should contribute to this progression. If a piece of information is not directly useful to understand the necessity of your study, it doesn’t belong to your introduction. Go right to the point and avoid complex detours. When it comes to being convincing, less is usually more.

Good luck with your introduction! In future posts, I’ll tell you about the structure of the Material and Methods, Results, and Discussion sections.

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