Skip to main content

Introductions for Research Papers

Introductions are parts of essays whose function is to create a reference framework for the reader. Introductions establish the scope and boundaries of the research project. Additionally, they let readers know the relevance of the problem discussed in the writing piece.


The five parts of introductions

According to John W. Creswell, the five components of a good introduction are the following: “(a) establishing the problem leading to the study, (b) reviewing the literature about the problem, (c) identifying deficiencies in the literature about the problem, (d) targeting an audience and noting the significance of the problem for this audience, and (e) identifying the purpose of the proposed study” (2014, p. 107).  


The first part of an introduction has two main functions. On the one hand, it limits the research area and disciplinary approach to the issue; on the other hand, it states a particular problem and its relevance. A problem might be understood as the difference between the current state of affairs and the desired one. 


The second part of an introduction sums up the most important findings regarding the problem of the article. This part presents the current controversies around the studied issue. The literature review has three main purposes. On the one hand, it positions the research project within a certain scientific tradition. On the other hand, it strengthens the ethos of the researcher by exhibiting his/her knowledge about the field. Finally, and most importantly, this part establishes the course of the research as the continuation of a discussion among the members of a discursive community. In general, as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association recommends, “all sides in the debate should be represented in balanced measure in the introduction” (p. 27, 2010).


The deficiencies model 

After the literature review, in the third part, you should show that there is a gap in the current literature that needs to be filled up. In other words, in this part you establish that the knowledge of the discipline is incomplete and, therefore, it needs to be completed. Anthropology professor Karen Kelsky suggests that in this section of the introduction you should stress your role not only as a researcher but also as a kind of hero who will save the discipline from being incomplete (2015, p. 110). To sum up, you need to show that the lack of knowledge on the topic that you’re planning to research it’s extremely negative and, as a consequence, it needs urgent action. 


In the fourth part, you have to explain why your study is relevant and necessary for a specific group of specialists. In this section, you should stress not only the benefits of your research to the community your addressing but also the opportunity to increase the understanding of the field and some of the major implications of the study (Creswell, 2014, p. 119).  


In the fifth part of the introduction, you have to explain what you want to accomplish by doing your research. This element is crucial for your essay since it sums up the whole purpose of the endeavor. In other words, the purpose statement conveys the central point of the project. As a result, it also helps readers to determine whether you have succeeded or not. According to Creswell, the general structure of the purpose statement is the following: 


The purpose of this _____ (strategy of inquiry, such as ethnography, case study, or other type) study is (was? will be?) to ____ (understand? explore? develop? discover? The ____ (central phenomenon being studied) for ____ (the participants, such as the individual, groups, organization) at ____ (research site). At this stage in the research, the ____ (central phenomenon being studied) will be generally defined as ____ (provide a general definition) (2014, p. 126). 

As you can see, the script provides a clear guide to present your purpose statement. There are certain considerations you should have in mind when writing it. Be specific: “narrow the study to one idea to be explored or understood” (2014, p.124). Be clear about what you are doing: “use words such as purpose, intent, or objective” (2014, p. 124). Avoid bias: “use neutral words and phrases” (2014, p. 125). Define your terminology: “provide a general working definition of the central phenomenon or idea, especially if the phenomenon is a term that is not typically understood by a broad audience” (2014, p. 125). 


The five parts of the introduction might be represented in the following way (Creswell, 2014, p. 112). 



Narratives in introductions

John W. Creswell argues that using narratives in articles might be beneficial to improve reader engagement (2014, p. 104). The functions of narrative hooks are two: “(a) piquing interest in the study and (b) conveying a distinct research problem or issue” (2014, p. 114). Coincidentally, Hillier, Kelly and Klinger (2016) found out that incorporating a narrative style into the article impacts positively its citation frequency. 


The five factors of narrative style in introductions

Narrative style is characterized mainly by five factors: (a) setting: it expresses the time and the location of the event or phenomenon (Hillier, Kelly & Klinger 2016, para 12); (b) Narrative perspective: the narrator is made explicit through the use of personal pronouns “such as I, we, and our”(2016, para 13); (c) sensory language: the narrator utilizes resources that express mental events such as sensations, feelings, emotions, beliefs, among others (2016, para 14); (d) conjunctions: the narrator connects the events logically using “a temporal or causal ordering of events” (2016, para 15); connectivity: it includes words that refer back to events already described in the text to create textual cohesion (2016, para 16); appeal: the narrator addresses the reader in a “moral or evaluative orientation” (2016, para 17). 

To understand how narratives can be included in an article read the following example. Selfe and Selfe (1994) started their article in the following way:

Over a casual lunch at a recent professional conference, Trent Batson, a professor at Gallaudet University, told us a story that made us think about borders and their effects. He had been visiting Mexico on a short-day trip in the company of an academic colleague who taught at Mt. Holyoke but had been born in India. On the way back into the United States, these colleagues entered two separate lines at the stations marking the official re-entry point to this country. Border guards, observing the darker skin of the one colleague stopped hi-as they did all people who, in Batson’s words, “look vaguely Mexican.” The Indian colleague, having lived and worked in this country for a number of years, had made the mistake of thinking that this border, this country was an open one. He carried only a photocopy of the green card that identified him as a resident alien. Rather than the card itself, as required by United States law (p. 480). 


The excerpt shows how narratives might be used as part of introductions. First, the authors included the time and place of the event. Second, they utilized personal pronouns that provided a narrative perspective. Third, the introduction elicited emotional reactions by expressing the sense of shock and outrage implicit in the situation. Fourth, the description of the events progressed logically. Fifth, Selfe and Selfe appealed to the reader to establish an empathic identification with the Indian researcher.

Although narratives might be beneficial for reader engagement, novice writers should stick to the five stages model of introducing a subject presented above, which involves non-narrative ways of presenting information. To appreciate the contrast check out the following example: 

Example I

Populations in developed countries are ageing rapidly and Japan's is ageing the quickest. In 1950, Japan had a very young population; in 1990, only about 12% of Japanese people were aged 65 years or older, which is about the same as in the USA in 1990, and well below the UK and other developed nations.(1, 2) However, the postwar baby boom was followed by sharply decreasing birth rates, while life expectancy rose.(2) By 2010, the number of people aged 65 years and older had almost doubled from 15 million to 29 million—23% of the population and the highest proportion in the world.1 The absolute number of older people will soon level off, at about 40 million, but the number of younger people will continue to fall rapidly.(2) Accordingly, Japan's population will have the largest proportion of old people in the world in 2050, when 40% of its population will be over 65 years of age.(1) This demographic situation means that Japan's experiences so far and its prospects for the future hold important lessons for policy makers in other nations, since they will soon be facing similar situations (Nanako, et al., 2011, p. 1183).


As you can see, the introduction starts with a very broad sentence about aging in developed countries, then the authors narrow it down to the Japanese case. Additionally, the introduction progresses logically by moving from the past to the present, and finally to the future. The last sentence of the excerpt stresses the importance of the study by saying how the Japanese experience might be applicable to other developed countries. 


Introductions for class essays

Introductions for class essays are simpler than research articles introductions. Most of the time they include the following elements: 

(1) a general problem that needs a solution; 
(2) a brief review of solutions that didn’t work out; 
(3) a research question; 
(4) a hypothesis that answers the research question. 

First, the problem addressed in the introduction should be common to many people and potentially urgent. In other words, it has to be a genuine and relevant issue. Additionally, the problem has the purpose to contextualize the discussion. Second, the review of past solutions should make explicit how others have tried to solve the problem and why their solutions did not work out. Third, although you might pose different types of questions, it’s a good idea to create “why” and “how” questions since they will give you the chance to show your argumentative prowess. Finally, hypothesis might be descriptive or normative. In other words they might describe how things work but also how things should work.  

There are several ways to introduce a subject in a class essay. In this section, we present two of the most common ways to do it: the inverted pyramid and the turnabout.

The inverted pyramid

This is the easiest type of introduction. The inverted pyramid starts from a broad theme and then gradually narrows it down to focus on a particular problem. The starting theme should not be too broad or too far from the destination topic. The inverted pyramid usually has a three tier structure. The first level is the most general. The second one connects the general topic with a smaller set of cases. The third level situates the problem in the context of the paper's discussion. 


Example II



Music plays a powerful role in both the construction and deconstruction of group identity and cultural territory. However, musicologists have tended to focus on the constructive aspects of this musical dialectic, often ignoring the ramifications of music's darker potential. There are significant exceptions to this oversight: Martin Cloonan and Bruce Johnson offer an initial investigation into various issues surrounding the use of popular music as weapon (Cloonan and Johnson 2002); confronting a period teeming with issues of musical exploitation, both Shirli Gilbert and John Eckhard analyze the employment of music in concentration camps, which served to reinforce difference as well as to torment and ridicule prisoners (Eckhard 2001; Gilbert 2005); more recently, Suzanne Cusick, in her 2006 American Musicological Society presentation and article “Music as Torture / Music as Weapon,” made us aware of the CIA's development of “no‐touch” torture or torture through music, most often music generally coded masculine in United States' culture, such as rap or the music of AC/DC. 

Source: Hirsch, L. E. (2007), Weaponizing Classical Music: Crime Prevention and Symbolic Power in the Age of Repetition. Journal of Popular Music Studies, 19: 342-358. doi:10.1111/j.1533-1598.2007.00132.x


Introducing the subject: music.

Dividing the subject in constructive aspects of music and destructive aspects of it. 

The author narrows down the topic and chooses one of the two aspects of music.


Example III



Dr. Joe D. Wray, in his 1972 Tropical Pediatrics editorial, asked, “Can we learn from successful mothers?” His question had not previously appeared in a scientific journal, possibly because it may have embarrassed many professional scientific nutrition teachers to consider it seriously. Nutritional surveys often discover well-nourished children in poor families that inhabit villages where nearly all children are both poor and malnourished. Such well-nourished children are evidence that some mothers, despite poverty, can feed and care for their children successfully. Wray pointed out that, in order to teach useful child-care and feeding practices to poor mothers, we need to learn what local, successful, poor mothers are practicing [1].

Source: Berggren W. L. & Wray J. D. (2002). Positive deviant behavior and nutrition education.  Food and Nutrition Bulletin, vol. 23, no. 4 (supplement) 2002, The United Nations University.


Introducing a general subject

Narrowing down the topic

 particular  research topic



The turnabout

This type of introduction is useful because it takes advantage of the surprise factor. First, you should state the common lore about a certain subject to make it look plausible. After adding a couple of sentences to support the point of departure, then you introduce a sharp contrast by using the adverb “however” and several sentences that show the problems of the initial view by looking at it under another light. In other words, you should mention a common opinion and then, show that in fact is not as persuasive as they might initially believed. 

A couple of examples will help us to understand this type of introduction. 


Example IV


If we want to protect our homes, the best strategy is to build a fence around it. In this way we will keep invaders off of our land. On a national level it seems that the solution is no different. To protect th United States from illegal immigration, building a wall is a reasonable proposal. As a result, intruders would not be able to cross the border freely. The reasoning seems flawless. However, we have to pay attention to the facts. History has taught us that, sometimes, walls, even the really big ones, do not work. To put an example, remember the great wall of China. As the ancient registers show, the wall’s size did not stop the success of the Mongolian invasion to China (Palafox y Mendoza, 1671). Additionally, one third of the illegal immigration in the USA does not cross physical borders. In fact, they enter into the country legally through international airports but they overstay their visas (Gilling, 2015).


In this part, the writer establishes an analogy between houses and countries. The intention is to show that the same solution can be applied to both cases.



In this part, the writer introduces a turnabout by showing that in fact the solution might not be applicable to all cases.

This part includes real-life cases that demand a more nuanced approach to the issue. 

First there is a case from ancient history. 

Second there is a contemporary case.


Example V


Social media is here to stay and that seems to be quite positive. It allows people to communicate with their friends and relatives and fosters the creation of different types of networks. Moreover, people who have a social media account have the opportunity to meet members of groups who share their interests creating virtual communities. For example, if they are interested in building tiny houses to help solving the problem of homelessness in America, they can rely on a shared pool of knowledge instead of starting from scratch. However, not everything is positive in the virtual world. According to a study run in 2012, social media can increase users’ suicidal behaviors (Luxton, June & Fairall, 2011). This is consistent with a report published in 2017 that shows that teenage suicide rates in The US have grown at the same pace as the amount of users of social media (Associated Press, 2017). In 2015, the tragic case of a teenage girl who commited suicide after being harshly harrassed by social media “friends” reached the news (McNab, 2015). These cases exhibit a sad trend. Therefore, it is urgent to ask how does social media affect teenagers’ mental health.


First, the writer introduces the general opinion about social media. 

Second, some benefits of its usage are added. 

Third, the writer provides an example to strengthen its point.



In this part, the contrast is introduced.

To support the turnabout, the writer offers three cases that are opposed to the initial idea. 



The last example is more emotional to make the reader react to the negative trend. 

A research question is introduced.