As the saying goes, You only get one chance at a first impression, and research papers are no exception. It’s the first thing people read, so a solid research paper introduction should lay the groundwork for the rest of the paper, answer the early questions a reader has, and make a personal impact—all while being as succinct as possible.
It’s not always easy knowing how to write introductions for research papers, and sometimes they can be the hardest part of the whole paper. So in this guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know, discussing what to include in introductions to research papers and sharing some expert tips so you can do it well.
What is a research paper introduction?
A research paper introduction is an essential part of academic writing that explains the paper’s main topic and prepares the reader for the rest of the paper. After reading the introduction, the reader should know what the paper is about, what point it’s trying to make, and why it matters.
For scientific and data-heavy research papers, the introduction has a few more formal requirements, such as briefly describing how the research was conducted. We’ll explain more on those in the next section.
The role of the research paper introduction is to make sure the reader understands all the necessary preliminary information before they encounter the discoveries presented in the body of the research paper. Learning how to write an introduction is an important part of knowing how to write a research paper.
How long should a research paper introduction be?
There are no firm rules on how long a research paper introduction should be. The only guideline is that the length of the introduction should be commensurate with the length of the entire paper. Very long papers may have an introduction that spans more than one page, while short papers can have an introduction of only a paragraph.
What to include in introductions to research papers
Generally speaking, a good research paper introduction includes these parts:
Niche (research gap)
Relevance (how the paper fills that gap)
Rationale and motivation
First, a thesis statement is a single sentence that summarizes the main topic of your paper. The thesis statement establishes the scope of the paper, defining what will and won’t be discussed.
You also want to provide some background, summarizing what the reader needs to know before you present new information. This includes a brief history of the topic and any previous research or writings that your own ideas are built on.
In academic writing, it’s good to explain the paper’s niche, the area of research that your paper contributes to. In formal research papers, you should describe the research gap, a particular area of a topic that either has not been researched or has inadequate research. Informal research papers without original research don’t need to worry much about this.
After establishing the niche, next you explain how your research paper fills that niche—in other words, your paper’s relevance. Why is this paper important? What does it teach us? In a formal research paper introduction, you explain how your paper and research attempt to close the research gap and add the missing data.
Last, mention the rationale and motivation for why you chose this topic for your research. This can be either a personal choice or a practical one, such as researching a topic that urgently needs new information. You can also mention what you hope your research accomplishes—your goals—to round out your motivations.
What to include in introductions to scientific research papers
Scientific research papers, especially if they present original research and new data, have some additional requirements for their introduction:
- Research question or hypothesis
- Literature review (previous research and current literature)
The methodology describes how you conducted your research, including which tools you used or the procedure for your tests. This is to validate your findings, so readers know your data comes from a reliable source.
A research question or hypothesis acts similarly to the thesis statement. A research question is simply the question your research aims to answer, while a hypothesis is your prediction, made before the experiments begin, of what the research will yield. By the end of the paper, your hypothesis will be proven right or wrong.
Given the nature of scientific papers, the background context is more detailed than in other research papers. A literature review explains all the research on your particular topic that’s relevant to your paper. You outline the major writings and other research papers your own research is based on, and discuss any problems or biases those writings have that may undermine their findings.
The literature review is the perfect place for establishing the research gap. Here you can explain in your own words why the current research on your topic is insufficient, and why your own research serves to fill this gap.
If you’re writing a casual paper that relies only on existing research, you don’t need to worry about these.
How to write introductions for research papers
Use the CARS model
The English scientist John Swales devised a method known as the CARS model to “Create A Research Space” in introductions. Although it’s aimed at scientific papers, this simple, three-step structure can be used to outline any research paper introduction.
- Establishing a territory: Explain the background context of your topic, including previous research.
- Establishing a niche: Explain that one area of your topic is missing information or that the current research is inadequate.
- Occupying a niche: Explain how your research “fills in” that missing information from your topic.
Swales then suggests stating the outcome of the research and previewing the structure of the rest of the paper, although these don’t apply to all research papers, particularly informal ones.
Start broad and narrow down
One common mistake in writing research paper introductions is to try fitting in everything all at once. Instead, pace yourself and present the information piece by piece in the most logical order for the reader to understand. Generally that means starting broad with the big picture, and then gradually getting more specific with the details.
For research paper introductions, you want to present an overview of the topic first, and then zero in on your particular paper. This “funnel” structure naturally includes all the necessary parts of what to include in research paper introductions, from background context to the niche or research gap and finally the relevance.
Introductions aren’t supposed to be long or detailed; they’re more like warm-up acts. Introductions are better when they cut straight to the point—save the details for the body of the paper, where they belong.
The most important point about introductions is that they’re clear and comprehensible. Wordy writing can be distracting and even make your point more confusing, so remove unnecessary words and try to phrase things in simple terms that anyone can understand.
Consider narrative style
Although not always suitable for formal papers, using a narrative style in your research paper introduction can help immensely in engaging your reader and “hooking” them emotionally. In fact, a 2016 study showed that, in certain papers, using narrative strategies actually improves how often they’re cited in other papers.
A narrative style involves making the paper more personal in order to appeal to the reader’s emotions. Strategies include:
- Using first-person pronouns (I, we, my, our) to establish yourself as the narrator
- Describing emotions and feelings in the text
- Setting the scene; describing the time and place of key events to help the reader imagine them
- Appealing to the reader’s morality, sympathy, or urgency as a persuasion tactic
Again, this style won’t work for all research paper introductions, especially those for scientific research. However, for more casual research papers—and especially essays—this style can make your writing more entertaining or at the very least interesting, perfect for raising your reader’s enthusiasm right at the start of your paper.
Write your research paper introduction last
Your introduction may come first in a research paper, but a common tip is to wait on writing it until everything else is already written. This makes it easier to summarize your paper, because at that point you know everything you’re going to say. It also removes the urge to include everything in the introduction because you don’t want to forget anything.
Furthermore, it’s especially helpful to write your introduction after your research paper conclusion. A research paper’s introduction and conclusion share similar themes, and often mirror each other’s structure. Writing the conclusion is usually easier, too, thanks to the momentum from writing the rest of the paper, and that conclusion can help guide you in writing your introduction.
Research paper introduction FAQs
What is a research paper introduction?
For academic writing like research papers, an introduction has to explain the topic, establish the necessary background context, and prepare the reader for the rest of the paper. In scientific research papers, the introduction also addresses the methodology and describes the current research for that topic.
What do you include in an introduction to a research paper?
A good research paper introduction includes:
- Thesis statement
- Background context
- Niche (research gap)
- Relevance (how it fills that gap)
- Rationale and motivation
Scientific research papers with original data should also include the methodology, a literature review, and possibly a research question or hypothesis.
How do you write an introduction for a research paper?
There are a few important guidelines to remember when writing a research paper. Start with a broad overview of the topic and gradually get more specific with the details and how your paper relates. Be sure to keep your introduction as succinct as possible, as you don’t want it to be too long. Some people find it’s easier to write the introduction last, after the rest of the paper is finished.