Establishing why the overall research question is important can help to establish common ground with readers.
Audiences interpret new information by connecting new information to previous knowledge and assumptions (National Research Council, 2000). Therefore, two principles can help clarify the beginning of a written (or spoken) presentation:
1) Clearly defining the target audience. 2) Providing the audience with clear connections to their previous knowledge and assumptions.
1) Clearly defining the target audience. A reasonable target audience for a scientific paper is a scientist in a different research field. A scientist in a different field can be expected to understand fundamental principles of the scientific method, physical and biological sciences, and statistics. However, a scientist in a different field cannot be expected to understand specific technical terminology. More importantly, a scientist in a different field cannot be assumed to consider research outside their field important enough to justify the time and effort necessary to understand the research. Therefore, it is incumbent on authors to make a compelling argument that their research is important to readers.
2) Providing the audience with clear connections to their previous knowledge and assumptions. Estimating the previous knowledge and assumptions of an audience can be challenging. For example, audiences may have values that differ from those of an author in unknown ways. To connect new information in a paper to the previous knowledge of an audience the author must establish a reasonable common ground with an audience. Once again, strongly arguing for the conclusion that a research study is important to many or all members of an audience is one potential strategy for establishing a common ground with an audience.
Arguing for the importance of a research project can help audiences commit to understanding a research paper. Therefore, one strong beginning for a scientific paper is an argument that the research study is important.
Generalities, chronologies, and absence alone are NOT strong arguments for importance.
Making general and potentially vague statements is often NOT a strong approach to beginning an Introduction. Using a "funnel approach" and beginning with general statements might seem like a reasonable strategy for establishing common ground with an audience. However, scientists are not convinced by unsupported generalities. Beginning a paper with general statements that are not supported by specific arguments may accomplish little more than eroding the reader's trust. General statements may be appropriate as premises for deductive arguments, but factual premises require references (and non-trivial, evidence-based generalities can be difficult to find). Moreover, although generality may be part of an argument for importance, generality is not a sufficient argument for importance. Strong arguments support specific conclusions. Therefore, we cannot expect readers to conclude that research is important from general premises alone.
Using a chronological framework may also seem like a reasonable approach for establishing a common ground with an audience. For example, beginning papers with time-based generalities such as "Recent research has demonstrated that..." is a tempting approach for an Introduction. However, a chronology is often the weakest framework for structuring presentations. Chronologies can be important when time is the most important variable. However, time cannot be assumed to be the most important variable in scientific research. Simply because research has been performed recently is not by itself a strong argument that the research is important.
Similar to chronologies, arguments about the absence of research studies are NOT strong arguments for importance. There are an infinite number of research questions that have not been studied. Simply finding that a question is little understood or studied is not sufficient justification for research on the question. The fact that a little or nothing is known about a research topic is only relevant if the research topic is also important for other reasons. Moreover, arguments for the absence of research are difficult to make because there could simply be research that the authors are unaware of. Therefore, arguments solely for the absence of research are not sufficient justifications for research.
Strong introductory arguments are specific and reasoned arguments for importance.
Arguing for specific reasons that answering a research question is important is a strong framework for the beginning of an Introduction. Research questions are important if they have the potential to substantially impact science or society. Examples of areas that are widely understood to have a potentially large impact are:
A) Contributing to the scientific understanding of a fundamental research question (e.g. how does the brain represent memories?). The argument can identify the specific contribution of the research to improving scientific models.
B) Contributing to new technology (e.g. how to increase battery storage capacity?). The argument can identify the specific technological advances that could result from the research.
C) Reducing medical costs (e.g. how can we prevent costly falls in the elderly?). The argument can identify the specific costs that the research could potentially reduce, and the specific contribution of the research to reducing costs.
D) Improving quality of life, either generally or for specific populations. For example: how can we restore motor function after spinal cord injury? The argument can identify how research discoveries will substantially improve quality of life for people.
E) Reducing risk, either generally or for specific populations. For example: how can we reduce the risk of opioid addiction among teens? The argument can identify how research will reduce risks of injury, illness, or other adverse events.
F) Addressing fundamental issues of fairness, equity, equality, etc. For example, how can we identify and reduce systemic biases in the workplace? Research can be important to help individuals or populations have rights and opportunities.
G) Helping to solve long-term problems or reduce long-term risks (e.g. how to prevent climate change from resulting in massive ecological and economic disruption?). Issues that may not seem important now could potentially be much more important in the future. H) Improving human performance (e.g. how to improve workplace communication and productivity). Research can contribute to improving performance for many people, or for particular populations.
Of course, many other arguments for importance can also be compelling.
To make a strong argument, the beginning of the Introduction can use deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, or both. To effectively argue for importance, premises should be based on facts and NOT assumptions. Therefore, premises should either (1) end with a parenthetical reference to one or more peer-reviewed, quantitative studies; or (2) be the sound or strong conclusion of a specific deductive or inductive argument.
For most papers, one paragraph is sufficient to argue for the importance of the research.
A strong framework for the first paragraph of the Introduction is an argument for a specific contribution that the research will make to an important research topic.