Writing the Introduction to a Research Report

The introduction to a research report accomplishes two goals:

• informs the reader by providing information from the research literature necessary to

understanding the project;

• persuades the reader that the research question is valid by providing the gap in the literature.

How are these goals accomplished? The writer provides a brief review of the literature in the correct order (given below!). The content of the introduction informs; the organization of the introduction persuades.

5 steps to Writing the Introduction

1) Establish Topic -- quick, concise (what is being studied)
2) Provide significance -- research, practical, clinical (why it is generally important)
3) Review the relevant literature -- what the expert literature reveals (what we know already)
4) Point out the gap -- what's missing in the research literature (what we don't know -- motivation for study)
5) Reveal the research question (and sometimes, hypotheses) -- the specifics of this research 

Establish Topic
You might have noticed while reading in the research literature that research reports tend to start immediately – there’s very little “warm up” material involved. However, we are so used to writing this way that it may not be possible to just start at the beginning. If this is the case, go back and cross out the first couple of lines.

Example of student opening line -- note the courageous writer who manages to simply eliminate the first few sentences!

Provide Significance

The second step to the introduction is to offer the first bit of persuasion to the reader: show the importance of the topic by offering something of practical or research significance. However, it is very important for the writer to understand that “significance” does not mean an opinion about why the topic is important. Rather, the significance comes from the research literature, too. Read the examples below, then we’ll craft one from the literature on young children and computers.

    Example #1:

    Calvert, Strong, and Gallagher. Control as an engagement feature…AMERICAN BEHAVIORAL SCIENTIST, Vol. 48 No. 5, January 2005 578-589

  New interactive media are now integrated into the fabric of children’s daily lives (Rideout,Vandewater,&Wartella, 2003). Online programs for very young children are routinely accessible, and promises of enhanced learning from this potential new form of education abound. For young children, this means early computer experiences that focus on preacademic skills, such as prereading activities, can be targeted.

Analysis: The first sentence is the topic sentence. The next two point out a practical (real world) significance: first, interactive media are available; second, there may be educational benefits. The reader is now a bit more convinced that research about very small children and computer programs makes sense.

    Example #2:

    Plowman and Stephen. Children, Play and Computers, British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 36 No 2 2005,145–157

    Pre-school education is a particularly interesting area for investigating the use of computers. Pre-school environments offer opportunities to observe the relationship between formal and informal learning, the balance between learner-centred  and adult-directed activities, and the use of computers by children who are unable to follow text-based instructions.

Analysis: The topic of the report is laid out in the first sentence. The following sentence provides research significance – in other words, explains why the topic is useful as an environment for scholarly study.

Example #3

Attitudes Toward Medical and Mental Health Care Delivered Via Telehealth Applications Among Rural and Urban Primary Care Patients

   Appropriate health care services are often not available in many rural and remote areas, and this problem is expected to intensify in the near future, exacerbating existing rural health disparities that need to be addressed (Institute of Medicine, 2004). “Telehealth” interventions represent a strategy for potentially addressing such access to care problems. Although telehealth services do not directly address overall shortages of clinicians, they can improve access to health services in rural areas by providing a way for clinicians located in urban areas to deliver care to rural patients in relatively distant locations. Therefore, telehealth applications are becoming widely used to provide much needed medical and mental healthcare services to people in rural areas (Heinzelmann et al., 2005; Jennett et al., 2003).

Analysis: The topic in this case actually occurs in the second sentence as the "reply" to the significance laid out in sentence one. The rest of the paragraph lays out a bit of background on the current state of affairs.

Review the Relevant Literature

Following the first paragraph which introduces the topic and provides significance, the writer must now review the literature for the reader. The literature review (hereafter, “lit review,” the short phrase used by research writers everywhere) accomplishes many objectives at once. First, the lit review informs the reader of the most important research needed to understand the research question. Second, the lit review gives credibility to the writer as someone who knows what they are talking about. Third, the lit review is organized so that the research question is validated; in other words, the review leads the reader to a “gap” or “conflict” in the literature.

This is not as complicated as it sounds. You’ve got the annotated bibliography to help organize the literature you’ve read. You’ve got the research question. The task is to join the two pieces.  You'll note as a reader that the lit review is where you see the most citations; you should also be able to see how well synthesized material is!  In some longer reports where the research is investigating complex interactions you may see that the lit review is organized using subheadings. Just as often it is not -- instead, the lit review is organized so that each major idea is presented in its own paragraph/s. The conventions governing science still apply: thou shalt make it as easy as possible for the reader to locate information. For this reason, do not "weave" different ideas together in the same paragraph. For complex topics, present each part separately, then write a paragraph that combines the ideas (honestly, this should make it easier to write -- concepts maps are very useful for planning this section of the paper).


Attitudes Toward Medical and Mental Health Care Delivered Via Telehealth Applications Among Rural and Urban Primary Care Patients

   Recent reviews of empirical data indicate that psychiatric interviews conducted via telehealth or telepsychiatry are reliable, and that patients and clinicians who use this medium for clinical services generally report high levels of satisfaction (Frueh et al.,2000; Hilty et al., 2004; Monnier et al., 2003; Morland et al.,2003). Although this early research suggests that clinical needs might be met via telepsychiatry among mental health patients, little is known about the acceptance of such applications among broad populations. In other words, although those who actually receive telepsychiatry services are satisfied, we do not know how such services are perceived among people who are not seeking mental health treatment but who might have cause to use such services in the future. Because telepsychiatry programs are rapidly appearing all over the world, health services research that addresses the acceptance of this mode of service delivery is needed to guide development efforts for health care systems (Frueh et al., 2000; Frueh et al., 2007; Hilty et al., 2004; Monnier et al., 2003; Morland et al., 2003; Ruskin et al., 2004).

   Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) serves as a good test case for telepsychiatry, as this disorder is prevalent in the general population at 6% to 14% (Kaplan et al., 1994), and because (compared with other psychiatric disorders) it is associated with nearly the highest rate of medical service use (e.g., Greenberg et al., 1999; Kessler et al., 1999). Additionally, individuals with PTSD may avoid treatment since avoidance and social isolation are core features of the disorder. Thus, the impact of additional barriers to care is of particular relevance to this clinical population. To date, there is preliminary evidence to support the use of telepsychiatry for PTSD specialty care among combat veterans, including strong levels of patient satisfaction and comparable clinical outcomes with traditional face-to-face care (Frueh et al., 2007).

   In a cross-sectional survey we sought to examine attitudes towards medical and mental health care delivered via telehealth applications in a sample of adult rural and urban primary care patients. We also sought to examine attitudes among a sub-sample of patients with PTSD, a group likely to need help accessing a range of relevant clinical services. 

Point out the Gap

The “gap” in the literature is a conflict or missing piece of information which your research question will answer. If the research has already been done, then why waste your time and the reader’s time with all this work? The gap also explicitly identifies the contribution a piece of research makes. It’s as though the writer is saying “See, Scientific Community, this is what we know but this is what we do not know.” The reader needs to be shown that this gap exists in order to believe that the research makes a contribution. Providing the gap is part of the writer’s job.

Example Attitudes Toward Medical and Mental Health Care Delivered Via Telehealth Applications Among Rural and Urban Primary Care Patients

   There are no extant data on how representative patient populations, such as primary care users, view telehealth interventions. Satisfaction with care has only been documented among relatively narrow populations that have already received mental health care via telehealth.

Reveal the Research Question

The final part of the Introduction is the Research Question – this is the part that everything else has been leading to. This is where the writer presents the question that will answer the gap as revealed by the literature to be a missing piece of the topic’s research puzzle! The RQ may be expressed as either an actual question or a declarative sentence. Some journals seem to prefer that research writer’s express the RQ as a question; some prefer the RQ is expressed as statement. Following the research question may be a hint of method, hypotheses, or nothing at all.

Example Attitudes Toward Medical and Mental Health Care Delivered Via Telehealth Applications Among Rural and Urban Primary Care Patients

   What remains unexplored is the acceptability of such services to a broad group of people who have not yet tried it but who may face real decisions about how to best access care in the future. These data should yield useful information regarding patients’ beliefs toward telehealth applications and ways in which to address concerns patients may have with this mode of service delivery.


Course Links

Student Resources

Attribution Info

  • Creative Commons License