Drafting Papers: The Introduction 3

If a paper has an interesting Title, and an informative Abstract indicating that the paper provides novel information of interest to readers of the target journal, it will already be well on the way to being accepted. However, there are several other sections to consider, the next being the Introduction.

The Introduction should explain why the study was conducted (and why the subject is important) by describing: the context of the study, with references to previous studies; the phenomena investigated; the reasons for studying them; and (very briefly) how they were investigated.

This should be done by first describing the rationale of the study in much more detail than in the Abstract, and then briefly outlining the objectives and what was done. For this purpose, fuller statements about the rationale are required that can be used to construct convenient sub-headings (which may be subsequently deleted), as illustrated later for the two hypothetical case studies described thus far. There are also a number of potential pitfalls to avoid, some of which will be mentioned during this section on Introductions, which focuses on the case studies already mentioned.

Hypothetical Case Study

To refresh readers’ memories (and avoid any need to go back to check), the brief rationale for this study was as follows:

Substantial proportions of crops in northern Sucrosia are lost to grazing by deer (Cervus unreal) roaming from neighboring hills. Current methods for deterring the deer have been criticized for being inhumane, expensive and/or ineffective. It has been postulated that applications of volatiles from urine of wolf subspecies imaginary could be cheaper and more effective than current methods, but first it is necessary to check that wolf urine is an effective deterrent.

The objective: To test the hypothesis that wolf (subspecies imaginary) urine is an effective deterrent.

What was done: Duplicate sets of three enclosures containing grass meadow surrounding plots of wheat, maize and pea crops were established. Wolf urine was applied around the perimeters of the plots in one set of enclosures, but not the other.

Matched herds of deer were then introduced to each enclosure, and the proportions of the crops consumed in the plots surrounded by wolf urine and the control plots were observed.

As outlined earlier, the Introduction for this (and any other) study should start by expanding the rationale. Therefore, the next step is to jot down very brief subheadings for each aspect of the rationale that needs to be covered. For instance:

  • Grazing deer cause substantial losses of crops in Sucrosia
  • Current deterrents are inhumane, expensive or ineffective
  • Wolf urine volatiles could be better deterrents
  • The need to check that wolf urine is an effective deterrent.

Following these sub-headings, an initial version of the Introduction (which will need to incorporate further details later) can be drafted by expanding the rationale, based on notes made during the study, as follows:

  • Grazing deer cause substantial losses of crops in Sucrosia

Grazing by deer (Cervus imaginary) roaming from neighboring hills sometimes causes substantial losses of wheat, maize, pea and other crops in northern Sucrosia (followed by illustrative data on the amounts and costs of the losses, with references).

  • Current deterrents are inhumane, expensive or ineffective

Farmers attempt to deter the deer using fences, culls and various kinds of traps, but these methods have been criticized for being inhumane, expensive and/or ineffective (followed by illustrative data, with references).

  • Wolf urine volatiles could be better deterrents

However, Deerman (2004, fictitious essential reference) has postulated that applications of volatiles from wolf (subspecies imaginary) urine could be cheaper and more effective than current methods, since these wolves are the major predators of the deer and the deer are believed to exhibit strong aversion to sites marked by the wolves. In addition, various studies have shown that herbivores avoid areas that have been recently marked with predator urine, although there are wide variations in their responses (followed by illustrative examples from the literature).

Two major kinds of repellents in predator urine have been identified: taste repellents and odor repellents. The former only repel herbivores after they have started eating food that has come into contact with them, while the latter may repel from a distance (followed by further illustrative examples from the literature).

Clearly, spraying crop plants with either wolf urine or taste repellents derived from it is not an attractive option. Therefore, any compounds isolated from the urine to be used in this way would have to be volatiles that could be applied around crops rather than onto them. However, before seeking active wolf urine volatiles (if present) it is necessary to check that wolf urine really is an effective deterrent.

Presenting the rationale in this manner clearly outlines the context of the study and highlights its importance. It should be noted that this was a very simple study in which a single clear hypothesis was formulated, very straightforward methods were applied and very clear results were obtained. Thus, there should not be any need to mention pros and cons of the methodology for this case study. In other cases discussing such aspects is critical, for reasons that are discussed in later sections.

The draft of the Introduction should conclude with a brief description of the objectives and what was done:

 To test the hypothesis that wolf (subspecies imaginary) urine is an effective deterrent, it was applied around the perimeters of one set of plots containing wheat, maize and pea crops in enclosures, but not around perimeters of plots in duplicate enclosures. Deer were then introduced to each enclosure, and the proportions of the crops consumed in the plots surrounded by wolf urine and the control plots were recorded.

A draft of an Introduction such as this is not complete, since details and referencesneed to be added. However, it is very useful because it pinpoints the data and references (essential and illustrative) that need to be added, and where they should be placed. The following parts of the guide show how to construct initial drafts of Introductions for three other case studies, and other sections of papers for this and the other case studies, to illustrate various general considerations.

 Finally, the objectives and what was done should be briefly summarized, outlining both the approach adopted to explore factors responsible for the variations and the reasons for focusing on the investigated populations. As previously mentioned, these reasons should be rational. It may be, for instance, that the real reason they were chosen is that they were the closest populations to your laboratory. We would not state that this was the reason for choosing them.

A pitfall to avoid is omitting crucial information, which frequently happens because authors are too familiar with the subject. For instance, we have frequently encountered examples such as the following:

  • Papers about monitoring compounds, for example, polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), that explain in detail the methods used, but fail to describe the sampling sites, or that PAHs can cause serious health problems (and thus why the study is important)
  • Papers about water use efficiency by crop plants that do not mention the location of the study (although water use efficiency is irrelevant in a swamp, but critical in a desert)
  • Papers about treatments that could make small percentage savings in costs of industrial processes that do not mention that the total savings could amount to millions of dollars.

Often in such cases the authors assume that readers, referees and the journal editor will already know about crucial aspects that have not been explicitly mentioned.

However, readers may not realize their significance unless they are clearly stated. If so, the importance of the study will be missed, so the chances of the paper being accepted may be severely reduced. It should be noted that referees and editors of journals also sometimes fail to see the need to mention crucial aspects explicitly (which is one of many reasons that some journals have lower impact factors than other, otherwise comparable journals), and may insist that passages describing the rationale or objectives of the study be deleted. However, the risk of a study being rejected because its significance has not been clearly stated far outweighs the risk of being asked to delete a couple of paragraphs.

It is also highly preferable to highlight the full significance of the subject at the start of the Introduction, not half way through it or close to its end. For example, if the feasibility of constructing defenses to protect a coastal town (Somewhere-on-Sea) from the sea following anticipated rises in sea level due to global warming has been examined, opening remarks such as

 According to climate models, anticipated global warming is likely to raise sea levels by between xx and yy m in the next zz years (refs.). If so, Somewhere-on-Sea and many other towns will be severely flooded, therefore there is a clear need to examine the feasibility of improving sea defenses to protect these towns, in addition to taking steps to reduce global warming.

are generally better than

 In the study presented here we examined the feasibility of improving sea defenses for Somewhere-on-Sea by analyzing the topography of the coast in the surrounding region and considering structures that could prevent flooding. . .

and then describing the methodology that can be applied in such studies before stating, later:

This is important because sea levels are expected to rise by between xx and yy m in the next zz years (refs.).

The first alternative immediately establishes the significance of the study, and the reasons for undertaking it, while the second adds the most important element of the rationale almost as an afterthought.


Note:

This hypothetical case study are fictitious; it does not necessarily reflect real situations in any way. In addition, the example is ecological, partly because ecological examples are easier to understand for scientists generally than (for instance) quantum mechanical modeling.


 Reference:

Blackwell, J., & Martin, J. (2011). A scientific approach to scientific writing (pp.16-17). Springer Science & Business Media.

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