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Logo for Dr Anna Clemens PhD who teaches scientific writing courses for researchers

How to Write a Scientific Paper Introduction

How to Write a Scientific Paper Introduction

This blog post outlines the 7 most common mistakes I, as an academic writing coach, see researchers make when writing their scientific paper introduction. Learn how to write a scientific introduction instead.

The Introduction section is the part of a scientific paper that many researchers struggle with. It’s hard to know how many studies from your literature review you should cite, what not to include and how to make the scientific article introduction compelling by implementing a clear storyline.

If you don’t have a clear process for how to write a scientific introduction, it can result in a text that is unclear, and thus, difficult to read Even if you eventually get there, it can take time and feel like an emotional battle. If you have the hardest time with scientific paper introductions I can assure you, you are not alone.

Ok, let’s get to it! Here are seven mistakes I find authors make when writing an introduction for a scientific paper:

1. NOT including an element of tension in your scientific paper introduction

This is a big one. I’ve read countless scientific article introductions that only provide a literature review. But the main function of the Introduction section in a scientific paper is to contextualise your study. And the scientific paper introduction is also a great place to convince your reader (including your journal editor and peer-reviewers) that the topic you decided to study is an important one that needs investigating now.

A great way to contextualise the findings in your scientific paper introduction and to provide a strong motivation for your study is by using the concept of science storytelling. According to the principles of storytelling, the introduction for a scientific research paper serves to set the scene: it should present the main characters (what are you studying), the setting (where is this research field now), and an element of tension (what is still unknown).

That element of tension is some sort of problem, perhaps your research question, e.g., a debate in the research literature, a gap in the knowledge about a scientific topic, a contradiction in the literature, a disagreement between different scientific groups, a scientific claim that is only weakly evidenced etc.

The scientific paper introduction is the place where you can make a strong case for why the problem that you decided addressing is an important and urgent one. Use that space. This will make your whole scientific paper a lot more compelling.

2. The SCientific paper introduction is TOO LONG

Often, authors write Introduction sections that are simply too long. Sometimes scientific journals specify how long the introduction should be. Science, for example, doesn’t want you to write more than one or two paragraphs in a Research Article. And they don’t mean those kind of paragraphs that fill a whole page (see mistake #3). 😉

A common mistake is that authors of scientific papers are aiming to present a full review of the literature in their field. However, the goal isn’t to present all studies that are ever so slightly related to your research. It’s better to mention those aspects that are needed to contextualise the problem that your study is solving (see mistake # 1). And ONLY those aspects. I recommend this blog post for a guide on deciding who to cite and how to cite in the best way.

One tip I often give my clients inside our scientific writing course, the Researchers’ Writing Academy, is to go through every sentence in their introduction and analyse whether the reader would still get the whole story of the scientific paper if they deleted the sentence. If that’s the case, you can probably remove or rewrite it so that only the most essential information is left. Head here for more tips on how to cut your word count in your scientific paper.

Graphic inviting scientist to register for our free interactive writing training

Does it take you a long time to write the Introduction section of your scientific paper because you don’t have a clear process for it? Or do you struggle to get a clear story line in your introduction? Our free training covers both points and shows you how you can get published without lacking structure anywhere in the writing process.

3. The paragraphs of the scientific paper introduction are too long

Not only the whole introduction section of a scientific paper is frequently too long, also the paragraphs within often are. I know this may make some academics feel uncomfortable but permission granted to write short paragraphs in your scientific paper. You are not presenting less valuable information by doing so.

The optimal paragraph length for a scientific paper is 100-200 words. Nobody likes to read big walls of text (check your own reading behaviour if you don’t believe me). Short paragraphs also help people to skim read. And it ultimately helps you, the author, too. Writing a scientific paper introduction with short paragraphs efficiently requires you to plan the section in advance. By doing this, you’ll also achieve good flow in your Introduction section, which will help make it more readable too (see mistake #6). If you want more tips on writing great paragraphs in scientific papers, check out this recent blog post. PS: This paragraph is 110 words long.

4. The sentences of the scientific paper introduction are too long

Yes, sorry, the sentences too. 😁 You might find yourself trying to sound fancy in your scientific writing. But sounding like an expert is not what writing a scientific paper is about! Instead, we want our reader to quickly understand exactly what you want to say. Good scientific writing, therefore, is simple and clear. And sentences spanning several lines rarely are.

Writing shorter instead of longer sentences in your scientific article introduction is harder than it may seem at first. You may not know where to chop a sentence into two while maintaining flow. Practice will get you there. Here’s the rule of thumb I share with the course members inside our Researchers’ Writing Academy: Never write more than one main and one sub-ordinate clause. A sub-ordinate clause is the part of a sentence that begins with “that”, “which”, “although”, “because” and similar words.

And there’s a little trick that sometimes works to break up sentences in your scientific paper introduction: When you want to break off a sub-ordinate clause starting with “because”, you can do so easily by using the transition “This is owing to” at the start of the new sentence. A sub-ordinate clause starting with “which” can become a new sentence starting with “This” or “These”. It’s okay to cheat sometimes! 😉

5.  The first sentence of your scientific paper introduction is boring

The first sentence in any paragraph is a powerful position but the first sentence of your whole scientific paper is even more so. Therefore, it would be a shame if you threw away this chance. There is an art to writing first sentences. The first sentence in your scientific article introduction needs to capture your readers by signaling them why they need to care about your study. A great way of doing that is giving them a hint of the wider problem your study is motivated by.

One implication of this is that the first sentence in your scientific paper introduction needs to be tailored to the readership of the journal you are submitting your paper to. For Nature, Science and co, you will need a first sentence that describes a very broad scientific problem. For more specialist journals, you can start a little deeper into the matter.

Graphic promoting a free scientific writing class for researchers

6.  There’s no flow in your scientific paper introduction

What makes a scientific paper readable is when the writing flows. Flow means that the reader can easily follow from one sentence to the next one without getting stuck. This gives you as the author an advantage because your reader will be less likely to stop reading your Introduction section.

Once your reader stops reading (even if just to think about what exactly a word meant that you wrote), they may get distracted or deem it too much of an effort to weed through the text. In both scenarios, they may end up giving up on reading your scientific paper. A journal editor might even desk-reject your scientific paper when they don’t understand the point is you’re making in the introduction of your scientific paper.

That’s why I strongly recommend connecting your sentences and paragraphs so that your Introduction section flows. In fact, I think it’s a good idea to map out your scientific paper introduction before writing it. You can learn the whole process step by step inside our scientific writing course, the Researchers’ Writing Academy.

7. You use too many synonyms in your scientific paper introduction

When we write our Introduction sections, we often feel an urge to throw in as many synonyms as possible because we fear the reader may otherwise find our writing repetitive and get bored. The opposite is the case. Readers get bored when they don’t understand what’s going on and when they have to make an effort to understand what you’re trying to communicate. That’s when their minds starts to wander (see also mistake #6).

As the author, you are so familiar with the content of your scientific paper that it can be hard to realise how other people may fail to understand what is – to you – the most obvious synonym. But just think for a second about how much your reader has to process while reading your manuscript. The area might be new to them, or the methods, or your model system – or all those things. (This, by the way, is likely the case for your Nature or Science editor who receives manuscripts from a broader scientific spectrum.) They might never realise that your fancy abbreviation and what you call “the model system” are the same thing. And remember, a journal editor may make the decision to desk-reject your article straight away when what you studied isn’t clear to them.

There you have it, the 7 most common mistakes researchers make when writing their scientific paper introduction and how to write a scientific introduction instead.

If you found this blog post helpful, I highly recommend signing up for our free scientific writing training below where you will learn how to develop a scientific paper step by step.

Promo graphic for our free scientific writing course

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How to Write a Scientific Paper Introduction

This blog post outlines the 7 most common mistakes I, as an academic writing coach, see researchers make when writing their scientific paper introduction. Learn how to write a scientific introduction instead.

The Introduction section is the part of a scientific paper that many researchers struggle with. It’s hard to know how many studies from your literature review you should cite, what not to include and how to make the scientific article introduction compelling by implementing a clear storyline.

If you don’t have a clear process for how to write a scientific introduction, it can result in a text that is unclear, and thus, difficult to read Even if you eventually get there, it can take time and feel like an emotional battle. If you have the hardest time with scientific paper introductions I can assure you, you are not alone.

Ok, let’s get to it! Here are seven mistakes I find authors make when writing an introduction for a scientific paper:

1. NOT including an element of tension in your scientific paper introduction

This is a big one. I’ve read countless scientific article introductions that only provide a literature review. But the main function of the Introduction section in a scientific paper is to contextualise your study. And the scientific paper introduction is also a great place to convince your reader (including your journal editor and peer-reviewers) that the topic you decided to study is an important one that needs investigating now.

A great way to contextualise the findings in your scientific paper introduction and to provide a strong motivation for your study is by using the concept of science storytelling. According to the principles of storytelling, the introduction for a scientific research paper serves to set the scene: it should present the main characters (what are you studying), the setting (where is this research field now), and an element of tension (what is still unknown).

That element of tension is some sort of problem, perhaps your research question, e.g., a debate in the research literature, a gap in the knowledge about a scientific topic, a contradiction in the literature, a disagreement between different scientific groups, a scientific claim that is only weakly evidenced etc.

The scientific paper introduction is the place where you can make a strong case for why the problem that you decided addressing is an important and urgent one. Use that space. This will make your whole scientific paper a lot more compelling.

2. The SCientific paper introduction is TOO LONG

Often, authors write Introduction sections that are simply too long. Sometimes scientific journals specify how long the introduction should be. Science, for example, doesn’t want you to write more than one or two paragraphs in a Research Article. And they don’t mean those kind of paragraphs that fill a whole page (see mistake #3). 😉

A common mistake is that authors of scientific papers are aiming to present a full review of the literature in their field. However, the goal isn’t to present all studies that are ever so slightly related to your research. It’s better to mention those aspects that are needed to contextualise the problem that your study is solving (see mistake # 1). And ONLY those aspects. I recommend this blog post for a guide on deciding who to cite and how to cite in the best way.

One tip I often give my clients inside our scientific writing course, the Researchers’ Writing Academy, is to go through every sentence in their introduction and analyse whether the reader would still get the whole story of the scientific paper if they deleted the sentence. If that’s the case, you can probably remove or rewrite it so that only the most essential information is left. Head here for more tips on how to cut your word count in your scientific paper.

Graphic inviting scientist to register for our free interactive writing training

Does it take you a long time to write the Introduction section of your scientific paper because you don’t have a clear process for it? Or do you struggle to get a clear story line in your introduction? Our free training covers both points and shows you how you can get published without lacking structure anywhere in the writing process.

3. The paragraphs of the scientific paper introduction are too long

Not only the whole introduction section of a scientific paper is frequently too long, also the paragraphs within often are. I know this may make some academics feel uncomfortable but permission granted to write short paragraphs in your scientific paper. You are not presenting less valuable information by doing so.

The optimal paragraph length for a scientific paper is 100-200 words. Nobody likes to read big walls of text (check your own reading behaviour if you don’t believe me). Short paragraphs also help people to skim read. And it ultimately helps you, the author, too. Writing a scientific paper introduction with short paragraphs efficiently requires you to plan the section in advance. By doing this, you’ll also achieve good flow in your Introduction section, which will help make it more readable too (see mistake #6). If you want more tips on writing great paragraphs in scientific papers, check out this recent blog post. PS: This paragraph is 110 words long.

4. The sentences of the scientific paper introduction are too long

Yes, sorry, the sentences too. 😁 You might find yourself trying to sound fancy in your scientific writing. But sounding like an expert is not what writing a scientific paper is about! Instead, we want our reader to quickly understand exactly what you want to say. Good scientific writing, therefore, is simple and clear. And sentences spanning several lines rarely are.

Writing shorter instead of longer sentences in your scientific article introduction is harder than it may seem at first. You may not know where to chop a sentence into two while maintaining flow. Practice will get you there. Here’s the rule of thumb I share with the course members inside our Researchers’ Writing Academy: Never write more than one main and one sub-ordinate clause. A sub-ordinate clause is the part of a sentence that begins with “that”, “which”, “although”, “because” and similar words.

And there’s a little trick that sometimes works to break up sentences in your scientific paper introduction: When you want to break off a sub-ordinate clause starting with “because”, you can do so easily by using the transition “This is owing to” at the start of the new sentence. A sub-ordinate clause starting with “which” can become a new sentence starting with “This” or “These”. It’s okay to cheat sometimes! 😉

5.  The first sentence of your scientific paper introduction is boring

The first sentence in any paragraph is a powerful position but the first sentence of your whole scientific paper is even more so. Therefore, it would be a shame if you threw away this chance. There is an art to writing first sentences. The first sentence in your scientific article introduction needs to capture your readers by signaling them why they need to care about your study. A great way of doing that is giving them a hint of the wider problem your study is motivated by.

One implication of this is that the first sentence in your scientific paper introduction needs to be tailored to the readership of the journal you are submitting your paper to. For Nature, Science and co, you will need a first sentence that describes a very broad scientific problem. For more specialist journals, you can start a little deeper into the matter.

Graphic promoting a free scientific writing class for researchers

6.  There’s no flow in your scientific paper introduction

What makes a scientific paper readable is when the writing flows. Flow means that the reader can easily follow from one sentence to the next one without getting stuck. This gives you as the author an advantage because your reader will be less likely to stop reading your Introduction section.

Once your reader stops reading (even if just to think about what exactly a word meant that you wrote), they may get distracted or deem it too much of an effort to weed through the text. In both scenarios, they may end up giving up on reading your scientific paper. A journal editor might even desk-reject your scientific paper when they don’t understand the point is you’re making in the introduction of your scientific paper.

That’s why I strongly recommend connecting your sentences and paragraphs so that your Introduction section flows. In fact, I think it’s a good idea to map out your scientific paper introduction before writing it. You can learn the whole process step by step inside our scientific writing course, the Researchers’ Writing Academy.

7. You use too many synonyms in your scientific paper introduction

When we write our Introduction sections, we often feel an urge to throw in as many synonyms as possible because we fear the reader may otherwise find our writing repetitive and get bored. The opposite is the case. Readers get bored when they don’t understand what’s going on and when they have to make an effort to understand what you’re trying to communicate. That’s when their minds starts to wander (see also mistake #6).

As the author, you are so familiar with the content of your scientific paper that it can be hard to realise how other people may fail to understand what is – to you – the most obvious synonym. But just think for a second about how much your reader has to process while reading your manuscript. The area might be new to them, or the methods, or your model system – or all those things. (This, by the way, is likely the case for your Nature or Science editor who receives manuscripts from a broader scientific spectrum.) They might never realise that your fancy abbreviation and what you call “the model system” are the same thing. And remember, a journal editor may make the decision to desk-reject your article straight away when what you studied isn’t clear to them.

There you have it, the 7 most common mistakes researchers make when writing their scientific paper introduction and how to write a scientific introduction instead.

If you found this blog post helpful, I highly recommend signing up for our free scientific writing training below where you will learn how to develop a scientific paper step by step.

Promo graphic for our free scientific writing course

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