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Monday, June 27, 2011

Writing a good journal paper introduction

I have been serving as an Associate Editor of an international journal for over two years now. In that time I have seen over 400 papers submitted to the journal and have been responsible for ushering a percentage of them through to publication. What follows is a personal opinion and is not the opinion of any journal or publishing house.

We (the reviewers and editors) frequently guide the authors through one or more revisions to their papers before they are deemed ready for publication. For a number of papers, particularly when they were written by non-English speakers, there is a need for considerable editing of the manuscript to bring it to an acceptable standard in terms of language. I don't mind this. For many papers we require that more explanation or analysis is included in the main content of the paper. This is fine by me.

But one aspect of many papers continues to annoy me. And that is poorly constructed an uninformative introductions.

An unreasonably high number of journal paper introductions contain a section similar to this:
The [topic of interest] was first identified by Researcher et al. (year). Someone & Other (year) studied the problem in more detail. The issue was studied using computer modelling by Modeller & Geek (year). Navier & Stokes (year) compared different modelling techniques within this area. More recently Experimentalist et al. (year) confirmed the existence of the issue in a series of laboratory scale tests.
And so on. Imagine that padded out to a whole page of text. Basically just a list of names and references. The problem I have with this is all it really tells me is which papers the authors have heard of. It doesn't even tell me that the authors have read these papers. It rarely tells me what Someone & Other actually did or what their conclusions were. While these details are actually what I need to know.

This is my plea. If you are writing a journal paper, please do not write introductions like this! A good introduction only needs three elements:
  1. A short section explaining to the non-expert reader why the topic under consideration is relevant and worthy of study, and
  2. A section summarising the conclusions of past research into the topic. This should not be a list of names, but rather a brief discussion of facts or theories.
  3. A very short section which explains why the methodology used in the present study was chosen and why it will provide new insights.
If you intend to work in one field for a significant period of time (e.g. you are doing a PhD) and are likely to publish several papers on related topics, then a great idea is to publish a review paper and simply refer to that in the introductions to all your other papers.

Finally, I would recommend that when you are writing a scientific paper, that you write the main content first, and then go back and write the introduction. You only need to cite papers in your introduction that are actually relevant to your study within the topic. Your introduction only needs to provide the reader with two things:
  1. Enough information regarding previous work so that they can understand your work, in context. And,
  2. Sufficient references to relevant publications so that the reader can tell that you know enough about the subject that your research / opinion is worthy of consideration.
So, in summary, please keep introductions short and full of content, not names. Thank you.


Jack Cropley said...

Extremely helpful and concise, will be changing my introduction! Thank you

izyani mistar said...

Your words really help me..thank you brother.

bookal said...

I now decided to rewrite my whole intro part after reading this.. thanks

Narine said...

Thank a lot! Extremely helpful.

melody said...

This is what I really need to know! Thank you so much for sharing this valuable knowledge. It's a jewel one must have for scientific writing.

GathaEditor Onlinegatha said...

Your article really help me, Thanks for your effort
research paper for publication

cza said...

Thank you for your article. It brings me into a new insight of writing a concise introduction.