Of course, the introduction comes at the start of a piece of writing. It introduces the research by situating it (by giving background), presenting the research problem and saying how and why this problem will be solved. Without this important information the reader cannot easily understand the more detailed information about the research that comes later in the thesis. It also explains why the research is being done (rationale) which is crucial for the reader to understand the significance of the study.

After reading an introduction, the reader should be able to answer most of these questions:

  • What is the context of this problem? In what situation or environment can this problem be observed? (Background)
  • Why is this research important? Who will benefit? Why do we need to know this? Why does this situation, method, model or piece of equipment need to be improved? (Rationale)
  • What is it we don’t know? What is the gap in our knowledge this research will fill? What needs to be improved? (Problem Statement)
  • What steps will the researcher take to try and fill this gap or improve the situation? (Objectives)
  • Is there any aspect of the problem the researcher will not discuss? Is the study limited to a specific geographical area or to only certain aspects of the situation? (Scope)
  • Is there any factor, condition or circumstance that prevents the researcher from achieving all his/her objectives? (Limitations)
  • In considering his/her method, model, formulation or approach, does the researcher take certain conditions, states, requirements for granted? Are there certain fundamental conditions or states the researcher takes to be true? (Assumptions)

  • Too much detail, and hence too long. Remember, this is the introduction, a kind of overview. Although you will cover important points, detailed descriptions of method, study site and results will be in later sections. Look at the proportion of a research paper an introduction takes up. Notice it is comparatively short because it serves as a summary of what follows.
  • Repetition of words, phrases or ideas. You will have keywords that are crucial to your study. However, your reader doesn’t want to read them over and over! A high level of repetition makes your writing look careless. To reduce it, highlight repeated words or phrases – then you can easily judge if you are overusing them and find synonyms or pronouns to replace them.
  • Unclear problem definition. Without a clear definition of your research problem, your reader is left with no clear idea of what you were studying. This means that they cannot judge your work’s relevance to their own work, or its usefulness, quality, etc. As an exercise, you should be able to complete a sentence that starts, “The purpose of this study is . . . ” that encapsulates the problem you are investigating. Of course you will not include this exact sentence in your thesis, but it serves as an easy way to check that you have a clearly defined problem. In your thesis you should be able to write your research problem in one sentence – you can add details in the sentences that follow. You should also ensure that your research problem matches the title of your thesis (you’d be surprised how many don’t !) as well as its methodology and objectives.
  • Poor organization. Writing an introduction that effectively introduces your research problem and encapsulates your study is not an easy task. Often when we write we discover gradually what we want to say and how we want to say it. Writing is often a process of discovery. Bear this in mind when you write your introduction, and be prepared to go back and make big changes to what you have written, and the order in which you have presented your ideas and information. Your introduction must have a logical sequence that your reader can follow easily. Some suggestions for how to organize your introduction are given below (see the next section and the modified Swales schema).

The following schema is adapted from Swales (1984). Swales researched the structure of introductions to academic journal articles. The schema presented here is the pattern that he found occurring in a majority of the articles. It is not a set of rules for how you must write – rather, it is a useful guideline for how to think about structuring your information. An explanation of the terms and examples is given further down this page (click on the links to find the right section).

Move 1: Establish the field by:


Move 2: Define a research problem by:

Move 3: Propose a solution by:

Adapted from Swales, J. (1984). Research into the structure of introductions to journal articles and its application to the teaching of academic writing. In Common Ground: Shared interests in ESP and communication studies. [eds.] R. J. Williams, J. Swales, and J. Kirkman. Oxford: Pergamon

First you need to establish the area of research in which your work belongs, and to provide a context for the research problem. This is referred to as “establishing a territory” in the ‘CARS Model for article introductions (See Swales, 1990) and has three main elements:

Claiming Centrality: Claiming that the area of research is an important one, and therefore implying that the research done is also crucial.

For example:
“Minimum safe low temperatures (above freezing) and high humidity control are the most important tools for extending shelf life in vegetables.” (Barth et al., 1993). Here the words “the most important tools” indicate centrality by showing that these two factors are crucial.

General to specific: Most writing starts with general information and then moves to specific information. This is true of introductions too.

For example:
In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of the potential impact of pollutants such as heavy metals. Moreover, the traditional methods for treating aqueous streams containing metal contaminants are expensive and can have inadequate facilities (1). This is particularly true in developing countries. This has led to the use of alternative technologies. The use of biological materials is one such technology which has received considerable attention. (Ho et al., 1996)


  • The first sentence: impact of heavy metals (general).
  • The second sentence: expense and shortcomings of methods of removing heavy metals (less general).
  • The third sentence: expense and shortcomings of methods of removing heavy metals in developing countries (more specific).
  • The fourth sentence: alternative technologies to overcome expense and shortcomings of methods of removing heavy metals (yet more specific). 
  • The fifth sentence: biological materials as an example of alternative technologies to overcome the expense and shortcomings of methods of removing heavy metals (very specific).
Notice how each sentence adds a piece of information (shown in italics) to move the introduction from the general topic of “heavy metals” to the specific topic of “biological materials as an alternative method of removing heavy metals.”

Do not begin by being too general. If your work is examining the delivery of cash to ATM machines, do not start by a history of the banking system in Europe since the Middle Ages – it’s probably not relevant and will mean you will take a very long time to reach the specific area of your research. Think of “general” in terms of information which will help your reader understand the context of your research problem (rather than your whole field of study!).

Previous research: Often the introduction will refer to work already done in the research area in order to provide background (and often also to help define the research problem).

For example:
Numerous studies on the utilization of plant proteins as a partial or complete replacement for fish meal in diets have been conducted using various freshwater and marines fishes (Lovell, 1987; Tacon et al., 1983; Murai et al., 1989a; Cowey et al., 1974). (Takii et al., 1989)

Your research must be new in some way. It must add knowledge to your field so you need to show in what way your work explores an area/issue/question that has previously not been explored, or not been explored in detail, in not explored in the way that you are going to use. In other words, you need to give a rationale for your work (i.e. show the reasons for doing it). There are four ways to demonstrate that you are adding to the knowledge in your field:

Gap: A research gap is an area where no or little research has been carried out. This is shown by outlining the work already done to show where there is a gap in the research (which you will then fill with your research).

For example:
Numerous studies on the utilization of plant proteins as a partial or complete replacement for fish meal in diets have been conducted using various freshwater and marines fishes (Lovell, 1987; Tacon et al., 1983; Murai et al., 1989a; Cowey et al., 1974). However, very little is known about the feasibility of using soybean meal as a dietary protein source in practical feeds for yellowtail Seriola quinqueradiata. (Takii et al., 1989)

Raising a question: The research problem is defined by asking a question to which the answer is unknown, and which you will explore in your research.

For example:
The question we address here is how technological change occurs when it is the overall system that needs to be changed. In particular, how can we begin and sustain a technological transition away from hydrocarbon based technologies? (Street and Miles, 1996)

Continuing a previously developed line of enquiry: Building on work already done, but taking it further (by using a new sample, extending the area studied, taking more factors into consideration, taking fewer factors into consideration, etc.).

For example:
Taking all these elements and their possible variations into account is often far too complex and tedious for determining efficient gas development patterns with simple back of the envelope calculations. In their survey of these elements, Julius and Mashayeki [8] present a detailed analysis of these different interactions. They suggest that these be taken into account through gas planning models constructed in the same spirit as the planning models developed in the power generation sector.

In this paper, we present a gas planning model that fulfils some of the specifications established in Julius and Mashayeki [8]. (Boucher and Smeers, 1996)

Counter-claiming: A conflicting claim, theory or method is put forward. Here, for example, the researchers argue that previous researchers’ assessments of cost effectiveness were too complex, and that a simplified process could and should be used instead:

Evaluating the cost effectiveness of distributed generation is a crucial resource planning issue. Many have assessed cost effectiveness by dividing the utility system into many parts and estimating distributed generation’s value to each part. When this is done, total value can be composed of ten or more individual components (Hoff and Shugar, 1995), substation transformer (El-Gassier et al., 1993), transmission system, generation system, voltage support (Hoff et al., 1994) reliability, energy savings, electrical loss savings (Hoff and Shugar, 1995) minimum load savings, modularity and flexibility (Morris et al., 1993) and financial risk reduction values (Awerbuch, 1994).

Although impressive, this list of value components suggests that determining the value of distributed generation requires a team of experts assembled from each department within the utility. This paper describes a simplified evaluation process based on the observation that distributed generation is of value because it reduces variable costs or defers capacity investments. (Hoff et al., 1996)

Once the field and problem have been defined, it is time to give the “solution.” In other words, how will the research gap be filled? How will the question that was raised be answered? This last part of the introduction can also be used to show the benefits, to explain the objectives, to clarify the scope of the research, to announce what was found from doing the research and how it can be used. Notice that an introduction will discuss a number of the following points but is unlikely to cover them all.

Outlining purpose: Often researchers will described their objectives in their introduction in order for the reader to have a clear idea of what they set out to accomplish. Usually there is a general objective written in one sentence (details of more specific objectives can be given in following sentences).

For example:
This work aims to establish the extent of interaction of alginate with calcium and aluminium ions with respect to the influence of algal exudates have on the removal of humic substances by aluminium coagulation during drinking water treatment. (Gregor et al., 1996)

Hint!: always give an overall objective before giving specific objectives. This will help you explain much more clearly to your reader what your work aimed to accomplish.

Announcing present research (method): Important points about the methodology used are outlined, perhaps including the scope of the study. However, the methodology is not given in detail (since details are given in the methodology section).

For example:
This paper examines the use of peat for the removal of two metals, copper and nickel, from both mono-solute and bi-solute solutions. In particular, it reports the effect that a competing ion has on the rates of removal and examines the mechanisms which may affect the uptake of minerals. (Ho et al., 1996)

Announcing principle findings (results): Researchers may indicate the kind of results they obtained, or an overall summary of their findings.

For example:
Different operating modes of the MESFET mixers, gate mixers, drain mixers, and resistive mixers were investigated in this work and the results proved that good conversion characteristics could be achieved.(Angelov, 1991)

Indicating the structure of the research: It is useful to outline the organization of the written up research that follows so that the reader has a clear idea of what is going to follow, and in what order.

For example:
This paper is organized as follows. Alternative representations of demand and supply are discussed in sections 2 and 3 respectively. The model is described in section 4. Section 5 presents an application of the tool to a gas reserves development timing problem in Indonesia. The full set of equations is given in the appendix and is referred to throughout the text. (Boucher and Smeers, 1996)

Indicating directions for further research: Research often opens up other areas where research could or should be done, so it is common for these areas to be defined in the introduction. It is also a way of indicating that the current study is not designed to be comprehensive.

This paper takes a first step in this direction by laying out the rationale for incorporating feedback and feedforward mechanisms in decision support for dynamic tasks such as software project management (Sengupta and Abdel-Hamid, 1993).

Indicating benefits of current research: Indicating the benefits of the research helps to justify why it was carried out and emphasizes the value of the study.

For example:
The paper further suggests a multidisciplinary management approach to effect a favorable outcome for the whole fishing community (Lim et al., 1995).

Notice that the introduction includes information that is presented in other parts of the thesis. Does this mean that if you indicate your results in your Introduction that you will have nothing left to present in your Results chapter? No! Introductions literally “introduce” information to give an overview, often offering only a short summary because full details are given in later chapters.

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