Criteria for Success
Your introduction should include:
- General background.Your research is anchored in a general topic that everyone in your audience cares about.
- Specific background. The information provided here connects your project with the general topic that everyone cares about. The information accurately represents the field and is correctly referenced.
- Statement of problem or knowledge Gap. The question your paper addresses is clearly articulated, connected to the background, and meaningful.
- Here we show…Your findings and their implications solve the problem or fill the demonstrated gap.
Note on Structure
In some sub-fields of EECS, it may be preferable to create a separate “Related Work” or “Additional Background” section to expand on the references and discussion in your introduction—especially if there is a large volume of previous work on your topic. You don’t want to bury your “Knowledge gap” and “Here we show…” in a long introduction with a huge “Specific background” section. Wherever possible, choose only the most relevant and important background for the introduction and push anything else to the additional section.
Identify Your Purpose
Your paper’s Introduction should provide your readers with the information they need in order to grasp, appreciate, and build on the knowledge you present. The Introduction should:
- Demarcate the overall setting of your research (in the “General Background”).
- Impart the minimum essential information about the key actors: technology involved, mathematical setup, algorithmic techniques, experimental environment, etc. (in the “Specific Background”).
- Give evidence of the incompleteness of the current understanding and of the value of investigating the field further (in the “Knowledge Gap”).
- Give an overview of your findings and how they relate to or answer the central question (in the “Here we show”).
Having read the Introduction, the reader should feel well-equipped and eager to understand your paper and its significance. Should they not read beyond the introduction, they should have a clear picture of where your contribution fits into related research.
Analyze Your Audience
Scientists in your specific field will probably understand your work’s motivation whether they read your Introduction or not. They might even skip the Introduction and focus on the technical core of the paper. Outsiders are the people who will benefit most from a well-crafted Introduction. Outsiders include:
- scientists outside your research area,
- policy, education, or technical professionals who could benefit from your research, and
- editors or reviewers assessing whether your work might be a good fit for a specific journal or conference.
Focusing on outside readers will chiefly affect two parts of the Introduction:
- It will increase the General Background’s breadth. For an insider audience, you might begin with a summary of known techniques or approaches to solving a specific problem in your field. For a more general audience, you might start with a higher-level motivation for the problem you are solving. How does it fit into the broader research goals of your field?
- It leads to a less technical Knowledge Gap. The more basic the question posed in the Knowledge Gap, the more people will care about it. Take the time to identify the simplest, most fundamental question your work answers. More technical questions will attract a smaller, more specialized audience. If you make your results seem less general than they actually are, you immediately lose part of your potential audience.
Breadth, length, and comprehensiveness of the Introduction are highly dependent on your specific field and on the journal or conference you submit to. Analyze successful papers from your target venue and aim for a similar level of generality.
Orient outside readers
Start off with something everybody cares about. Then give your reader a sense of past accomplishments, current contradictions, and competing theories in the field. Cite previous work that illustrates your narrative and gives a balanced description of the landscape of research in the field. Give credit to others for their contribution to your scientific topic.
Give your readers the technical details they need (and nothing more)
After conveying the overall value of your research topic to your audience, you must give them the tools they need to understand the details of your approach and of your results. Familiarize the reader with all technology, mathematical tools, and assumed applications that are pertinent to your work. Declare all key terms and all acronyms upfront, and use them consistently throughout.
Point out how your methods stand out when contrasted to previous approaches, and how they are apt to tackle the question left unanswered by previous work. Don’t be afraid to use tables, figures, or enumerated lists to draw attention to your contributions and make them easier to compare to prior work.
Remove anything that is not related to your research results. Your purpose is not to showcase the breadth of your knowledge but instead to give readers all the tools they need to understand your results and their significance.
Define a narrative
Your introduction tells a story about your work. What questions motivated your research? Why are they important to solve? What technical innovations or insights allowed you to make progress on the problem?
This story should be woven throughout the rest of your paper, especially in the results or discussion sections. In fact, writing your introduction after writing these sections may help you decide what to include and how to best frame your contributions.