Sunday, February 26, 2012

the arts of introducing

To be able to write a deep and meaningful publication, which at the same time s fluent to read and guides the reader through the different levels of it, is a very valuable skill in academia. If you can take your reader by the hand from the first sentence on and he doesn't want to let go until you are at the Acknowledgements, you are one of the very good "story-tellers" of your subject.

When I read a publication, I usually read through Abstract and Conclusions at first to get a feeling for the significance of the content. Then I check the experimental section, if there is one, for methods, sample preparation procedures, error estimations, etc. and then I read Results and Discussions.
The section Introduction usually does not get very much attention - maybe just the last few sentences of it, where the authors summarize what they will do. At some point during my PhD thesis I stopped reading Introductions because it was just so disappointing. In my field everybody seems to choose the same opening sentences on and on again - something along this line: "This research is so important, because it will save the world...". Which of course it will not, but that would be hard to admit. A while ago I had a discussion about this issue with some colleagues and one of them suggested to write something like this, instead: "Based on our investigations related to the funding level in various fields, this topic here seems to be the most lucrative one, so we decided to jump on it." This, of course, is a bit exaggerated as well, but it would be a bit more honest than the "we'll save the world" line.
So, the standard opening sentences are then followed by a line-up of "this group did this" and "these guys found that", which - if you are very lucky - leads to an "and based on this and for these five good reasons, we studied the following topic". Usually what you get is a totally not connected "and we studied snow flakes". So, usually, the Introduction does not give you much meaningful background and it's not used to set the scene for the authors work.
But some people really know how to use the Introduction in a way that the rest of their writing benefits from it. There will be a sentence about the general history of the topic to set the scene and to make clear why this is an interesting field. Then you'll be guided through the achievements of other researchers and the questions they tried to answer, to then finally arrive at the point where the actual paper starts. And you'll have the impression, that you start well prepared with some good background knowledge in this new piece of research - which does not mean, that you won't be hopelessly lost somewhere in the middle of the Discussion section. But at least the authors took care that you had a great start and the topic and you were well introduced to each other.
So far, I only know a handful of people, who can write engaging Introduction sections and I sometimes wonder, if they have a special skill or if they just try harder. And if this ability is reflected in the success rates of their funding proposals. And if they know about their amazing style of writing....


  1. The introductions I find worth reading in my field are those that contain a good summary of a literature review, in the guise of motivation for/history of their work. Although I knew a grad student who read introductions for the broad sweeping philosophical statements they made (our equivalent of "this will save the world") because he felt that it would enhance his ability to hand wave about the subject to non-experts. Maybe it will. I wish him luck.

  2. sounds like interesting tactics, but not good for more than a short chat....