Release Date: June 5, 2017
Category: Manuscript Writing
Author: Emily P, Ph.D.
Following a strong title and abstract, the next step in manuscript writing is the introduction. The introduction is the first section where word constraints are not as tight as in the abstract and therefore, is a good place to spend time introducing your manuscript in a way that will hook your reader. While writing an introduction may seem rather straightforward, there are a few tips to follow to make this section as streamlined and effective as possible.
A good structure for an introduction starts big and becomes more specific as it progresses. Remember that the introduction is not just for other scientists in the field (in fact, these individuals may not even read the introduction), but also for readers who may not be experts in the field. The goal of the introduction is to provide readers with the background they need to understand the study without consulting additional resources. Therefore, the introduction typically begins with the big picture. For example, if the study is clinically relevant, describe the disease it pertains to. If the study is about a certain protein’s function, provide some history about what is known about that protein. After introducing the larger picture, it becomes natural to work down to the very specific problem the study will address. For example, once you have provided some background about your protein of interest (i.e.: its function, localization, importance in disease), you are set up to introduce the specific domain within that protein that your study investigates.
Although it is important to establish enough background information to educate a stranger to the field, it is also important to stay on topic, particularly if the journal restricts word count. A long-winded introduction can exhaust the reader before they reach the results. It is not necessary to recount every detail about the manuscript topic; simply describe the most significant findings or history that pertains to that topic. For example, if your study relates to a particular disease, give a brief introduction to the disease, maybe patient survival data, or if there is a lack of treatment options—but try to remain concise. Keep in mind that some information that feels introductory may also fit in the discussion, which can help tighten the introduction if needed.
This is perhaps the most important part of the introduction and often the most overlooked. In addition to providing background, one of the most important goals of the introduction is to relay to the reader WHY the study is important and therefore, WHY it was performed. If you have followed the above recipe for starting with the bigger picture and narrowing down to a specific focus, you already have a head start. To create an easy flow for this, define the state of the field: what is known and what is not? What is the gap in knowledge that your study addresses? What are the remaining unanswered questions? Then, describe how your study fills the gap and answers those questions. This formula sets up the rationale and significance of the study, placing it in the context of the larger field.
To make this easy, use phrases like:
After you establish the significance and rationale of the study, provide the reader with the working hypothesis. This sometimes goes against the natural inclination to keep the reader guessing, but in scientific manuscripts, it is better to let the reader know what they are about to read—it will keep them engaged and on track. The hypothesis will be based on prior knowledge and the gap in knowledge, which have already been discussed. Here, state the hypothesis, along with a brief summary of the significant findings (do not go into great detail). This should preview what is to come.
The introduction should set up the study by introducing the reader to a problem, its significance, and how your findings address that problem. It should prepare the reader for a successful discussion, where questions and problems presented in the introduction are answered in the discussion, tying the manuscript together with continuity.
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