Elizabeth Wager | Publications Consultant, Sideview
Most journals give little guidance about what to include in the Introduction and Discussion of your article, yet these sections are often the hardest to write. One of the most popular sessions at the ESA Scientific Writing Masterclass is how to write the Introduction and Discussion, and this article gives some hints from these sessions.
1. Remember the function
The Introduction should explain the study question and why the research was needed. The Discussion should put your findings into the context of previous work.
2. Short or long?
The Introduction should be short — I recommend just 3 paragraphs and perhaps half a dozen references. Unlike a dissertation you do not need to put your literature review into the Introduction — it’s best to save it for the Discussion. In contrast, the Discussion should include all relevant previous research so it may need to be quite long.
3. Use the right references
The Introduction needs just enough background for readers to understand the question and why the work was needed. A review article (preferably a systematic review) is an effective way of referring to what is already known and may be a helpful reference for readers who want some more background. However, in the Discussion you should cite individual studies to compare their findings to yours.
4. Follow the hourglass structure
Your Introduction should start with broad issues and end with your study question while your Discussion should start with a brief recap of your study findings and then broaden out to discuss other research. This pattern of going from broad to narrow, then from focussed to broad has been likened to an hourglass.
5. The 3-paragraph introduction
Your Introduction should answer three questions and you should aim to do this in just three short paragraphs. First, you should explain why the topic matters and why the reader should be interested. Next, you should set out the problem or uncertainty that needs to be solved. Finally, you should state your study question or hypothesis.
6. Keep your readers in mind
Especially if you are writing for a specialist journal, remember that you are writing for other specialists who know as much about anaesthetics as you do, if not more. There is therefore no need to describe, explain or define common conditions or procedures — in fact, this will simply bore your readers. However, you should not forget to explain or define any new or unusual concepts or techniques which might be unfamiliar.
7. Keep the function in mind
Do not be tempted to write a history of the topic in your Introduction or a textbook chapter about physiology or mechanisms of action. Readers can find this information elsewhere and it usually isn’t required to understand the study question. You may need to cite a few earlier studies especially if they produced inconclusive or contradictory results, which explains why your study was needed, but save the bulk of your references for the Discussion.
8. Have a plan for your Discussion, and stick to it
Crafting descriptions of a large number of studies into a readable narrative can be a challenge. Unless you have a clear structure, readers may feel you are simply hurling facts at them, at random. There is no set formula for the Discussion but it is helpful for both reader and writer if you follow a logical structure. For example, you might present studies in chronological order, from the earliest to the most recent; or you might group the studies according to features such as the techniques or products used, or the types of patient that were studied. Before starting to write this part of the Discussion, think about possible structures, then choose one and follow it.
9. Don’t forget to address study limitations
You will be criticised by reviewers and editors if you fail to address your study’s limitations. I prefer to discuss these early in the Discussion, straight after a one sentence summary of your findings. Addressing the limitations early not only follows the hourglass structure (since you are still focusing on your study before you broaden out to discuss other people’s work) but it also prevents them from weakening the conclusion. Even a perfectly executed study will have limitations created by the selection criteria, accuracy of equipment used, or the generalizability of the findings. You can mention study strengths as well as weaknesses but it is usually best to do this when comparing your work to other studies rather than in a separate section.
10. Thunder and lightning
Aim to grab readers’ attention with an arresting opening sentence, like a clap of thunder. Take care over your first sentence, as it is easy to write something boring, dull or obvious. Aim for something that will shock or surprise at least some of your readers, but make sure it is relevant to your study. Having woken your readers up with an Introduction that makes them want to read the rest of the article, aim to shed light on the problem in the Discussion with more brilliance and illuminating ideas — like lightning.
If you want more information about how to publish your research, there’s still time to register for this year’s Scientific Writing Masterclass which will take place November 23-25 in Brussels.