How to write a scientific introduction

Key message: A scientific introduction should arouse the reader's interest. It describes the problem, the goal and the method.


What is the structure of a scientific introduction?

A thesis or dissertation is intended to solve a challenging problem from a scientific field using scientific methods. A thesis or dissertation starts with a scientific introduction.


How to write a scientific introduction? Three parts relevance, goal, approach -


1. The representation of the importance of the scientific work


A scientific work should deliver new knowledge and should be useful. If the work helps to solve an improtant problem it is of great benefit.


"Of course, the scientific significance is determined by how indispensable the new investigation is." (Eco, Umberto (2005).) How to write a scientific thesis, Heidelberg: C. F. Müller)


A benefit always requires a need. So the introduction first describes the need for this work: What is the problem that this work wants to solve or wants to contribute to its solution? And why is it important to solve this problem?

Only in the rarest cases one scientific paper alone can solve an important problem. If the work refers to a larger general problem then it will only solve a specific problem (a subproblem). In the introduction, the specific problem must be named and explained. Whether I derive the specific problem from the general problem depends on whether the reader knows the context or not. The readers should not get bored by reading things they already know.

For example, there are many overweight people (that's the general problem). A bachelor's or master's thesis could examine whether a particular diet contributes to weight reduction (that's the specific problem).


The specific problem must be presented so clearly that the goal of the work can be deduced therefrom (in the second part of the introduction). Here are some sentences from the introduction to a book on literary interpretation:


"Interpretation has in recent years once again become the focus of literary criticism. ... Not only numerous writers but also literary scholars are systematically thinking about the usefulness of literature ... The starting point of [this book] is the question of the usefulness of literature and the interpretation of literature ... "(Schutte, J. (1993). Stuttgart, Weimar: Publisher JB Metzler)


The first of these sentences is a good starting sentence for an introduction. If it is not clear to every reader that interpretation has returned to center stage, this statement must be confirmed by arguments or references. Then the reason must be described, why the interpretation is the center of attention. With the previous findings on the interpretation of the literature, there seems to be a problem. The aim of the book is therefore to answer the question of the usefulness of literature.

In a PhD dissertation, the presentation of the problem must be backed up by several references, because a scientific paper always points to the state of knowledge on a problem and then tries to add new findings. The bibliography should show in a dissertation that the author at the beginning of his work has carried out a systematic review of the relevant literature. A systematic literature search finds all important literature on a research question.


In a thesis/dissertation the presentation of the problem must be backed up by several references, because a scientific paper always points to the state of knowledge on a problem and then tries to add new findings. The bibliography should show that the author at the beginning of his work has carried out a systematic review of the relevant literature. A systematic literature search finds all important literature on a research question. Later, when the latest state of research is presented in the chapter on theory, this literature must be presented in more detail.


If the work deals with a topic that is not currently being discussed, it can nevertheless be very important for a small group of the population or for a single company. Or the topic may become important in the future and only then become the focus of public interest.


Other questions that can be answered in the introduction include: How did the problem arise? How has it evolved over time? Is the approach to the problem new in this work? ...


2. The representation of the goal of the work


After presenting the specific problem that the work wants to work on, the goal of the work should be named and explained. The goal of the work is to contribute to the solution of this problem. If the problem was clearly described in the first part of the introduction, the goal of the work can be convincingly deduced.


The goal can be formulated as a statement: "The goal of the work is ..." or as a question: "The aim of the work is to answer the following question (research question): ....?" To solve the problem, a thesis can be set up, which should be proven by the work.


The theme of the work is the main idea or main subject of the work. A goal is a desired future outcome, which is precisely determined in terms of content, time and scope. According to this definition, the goal of the work must be precisely formulated. A reader (the supervisor) will not be satisfied with a vague goal formulation.


Most scientific papers, as well as Bachelor's and Master's theses, are limit by the time and scope of the work, so the goal must be limited. For some Bachelor's or Master's theses the limitation of the goal belongs to the task. In such a case, the limitation should be explained along with the goal.


3. The representation of the way of proceeding


Next is a brief outline of what to do and what methods should be used to achieve the goal. The way of proceeding and the applied methods are also in the abstract, but they are only mentioned there. In the introduction, the reader should get a little more information, for example: Why was this approach chosen? What are the advantages or disadvantages of the methods? Are these recognized methods or who has used the methods so far? Did the methods have to be adapted to particular experimental conditions?


For the introduction of a scientific article, which is much shorter than the introduction of a bachelor or master thesis, there is this advice: "Give the study's design but not the conclusion ... I ask authors to give a one sentence description of their study at the end of the introduction. Other editors may think differently. "(Hall, G. (2003) How to Write a Paper, London: BMJ Publishing Group, p.)


After describing the way of proceeding, the structure of the work (chapter by chapter) can be explained. Is the structure of the work a normal one, I personally consider such an explanation superfluous, since the reader can get a good overview on the basis of the table of contents. Reading the table of contents as text only costs the reader time and does not give him any advantage. An extraordinary structure of the work must of course be explained at this point.


There are different views on how to present the content of the work in the introduction, which is why a guideline leaflet for the Bachelor's degree program should be looked up or the supervisor should be asked.


What purpose should the introduction fulfill?

How does a potential reader decide if he wants to read the paper or not? First he reads the title, then the table of contents, the introduction and the abstract. The order in which the last three are read depends on the reader's personal preference or specific question.


The introduction is of special importance, because it allows conclusions on the way the author works. Authors who work thoughtfully and carefully will not write a "confused" or boring introduction.


An introduction is boring if it make only generall statements or makes allegations that are not explained by appropriate references or practical examples. Optimal suitable references can only be found through a systematic review of the relevant literature (systematic review, see above).


A potential reader will think: If you can write a short and interesting introduction, you will also work precisely and your work will be trustworthy (exceptions confirm the rule). Since not every person is gifted, the reverse is not true: despite a bad introduction, it can be a good work.


If I want to write a good introduction, I should read through the introduction at 5 - 10 finished scientific texts. Then it should be clear to me how pleasant it is to read a good introduction and that you should try to write a good one yourself (hopefully there was a good one among the ten introductions).


For whom is a thesis/dissertation written: for ordinary citizens, professionals or specialists?

The works are written for interested professionals of the respective study program. This means that even the fellow students who are in their final year with the author must be able to understand and comprehend the work. Therefore, special technical terms in the introduction should only be used and defined when absolutely necessary to explain the problem, the objective or the way of proceeding. Such special technical terms are usually defined and explained in the theoretical body of the thesis.


Why should a draft of the introduction be written right at the beginning of the work?

A draft of the introduction should be written right at the beginning, because the clearer the problem and the goal and their background, the more goal-oriented the work can be done. "Good writers" know that writing a text is a process that takes time. A text needs to be rewritten several times before it is optimal. When I am working on my bachelor or master thesis, I should always think about how to write it down later. "Bad writers" want to write down everything at the end of the work.


"The introduction should be brief and must state clearly the question that you tried to answer in the study. ... Nevertheless, some studies seem to develop a life of their own, and the original objectives can easily be forgotten. I find it useful to ask collaborators from time to time what question we hope to answer. If I do not receive a short clear sentence as an answer, then alarm bells ring." (Hall, G. (2003), How to Write a Paper, London: BMJ Publishing Group, p.2)


Of course, only the planned procedure can be described in the draft of the introduction. Before submitting the work, the introduction must be thoroughly revised: The content, because the level of knowledge has deepened and because the work may have been carried out differently than planned. And the style, so that the introduction to the reader makes a good impression.