The Introduction and research gap

The main role of the Introduction in a higher degree thesis or research paper is to provide a context for the reader.

The Introduction in relation to the Literature review and Abstract

An Introduction should outline the general area of research along with the specific focus of interest to the writer. The Introduction should also outline an explicit research “gap”, and narrow down to the author’s research question or hypothesis. This often leads naturally to a thesis statement (i.e., an explicit statement outlining the author’s proposed argument) although this is sometimes absent from the Introduction and the argument revealed instead throughout the thesis or paper—though this is not optimal.

The Introduction links naturally to the Literature review. While it is the job of the Introduction to expose the research gap, it is the job of the literature review to explore the gap in more detail.

The Introduction is therefore critical as it effectively frames the thesis to follow. It provides a context, a sharpening of focus to a specific research area, a research gap, a research question/hypothesis, and—quite often—the argument of the author as well.

The stages of an Introduction

While there are many ways to write an Introduction, and there are discipline-specific conventions in terms of what can be included, It’s best to think of an Introduction as involving a series of stages:

  • Contextualisation of a problem area or area of debate
  • Outline of existing solutions to the problem or various approaches to the debate
  • Articulation of the best solution or most promising theoretical approach
  • Outline of the limitations of the current approach and articulation of the research “gap” (i.e., what’s missing or overlooked in current approaches or what could be done better);
  • Outline of a potentially novel approach, framed by a research question or hypothesis
  • Statement of the overall aim and purpose, and an outline of the proposed study.

We will go through each of these stages in turn and then provide a couple of examples.

The stages of an Introduction in detail

  1. Contextualisation: The first stage requires the author to outline the general research area or topic they are interested in and articulate why it is important. They need to convince the reader that the general context of the research warrants further, more detailed, investigation. A good Introduction will pose an unresolved problem or outline a neglected area of debate within this general area that requires further discussion. This leads to the next stage.
  2. Outline of existing solutions: The next stage requires the author to discuss the importance of the specific area within the general research area. In particular, it will address the problem or area of debate identified earlier in more detail. It will then outline conventional existing approaches to the problem or debate in sufficient detail to interest the reader, and leave them wanting to know more. Typically, this stage appeals for the need for more research in the area. This leads to the next stage.
  3. Articulation of best solution: The author will then marshall evidence or argument to articulate the most illuminating or promising solution to the problem, or the best way of understanding the dispute or debate previously identified. Reference to scholars in the field is needed here. Sufficient literature needs to be mentioned here to “hook” the readers’s interest, but this is not the place for a review of the literature (this follows the Introduction in a separate chapter, i.e., the Literature Review).
  4. Outline of limitation or knowledge gap: The author should then outline why the most promising current solution or theoretical approach falls short or is inadequate in various ways. This is called the “gap”. This requires sufficient exposition of the approach for the reader to find the brief criticisms of it to be believable and well-grounded. (Again, a more detailed critique will be given in the Literature review). It is the job of the Introduction to expose the gap; it is the job of the literature review to explore it in detail.
  5. Articulation of the research question or hypothesis of the study: The author then moves beyond the inadequacies of the current approach to outline a proposed new solution to the problem or a new way of understanding the debate. This should lead to a research question, or a formal hypothesis statement (in the case of the empirical sciences).
  6. Statement of the overall aim and purpose of the study: This section usually provides a statement of aim and purpose of the study (‘This thesis aims to …’). It may also mention the methodological approach adopted (details are left to the Methods chapter). The aim statement formally states the proposed original contribution the thesis makes to the specific area of research; the purpose statement outlines why the researcher is doing the work, and explains how the contribution will benefit, or otherwise expand scholars’ understanding of the field. This section also provides an overview of the direction of the thesis or paper in terms of outlining what will be done in each chapter that follows.

Ideally, a thesis Introduction will also outline the argument that the thesis makes in the form of a thesis statement. This is more precise than an aim statement. It articulates the argument made in the form: ‘The thesis argues that …’. But this expectation varies depending on the discipline area, so we don’t include this here. See Mapping an argument for more details on this.

Each of the six stages are represented in the following diagram.

The structure of an Introduction (from Bahadoran, Jeddi, Mirmiran, & Ghasemi, 2018).

Example Introductions

Stages of an IntroductionExample Introduction [excerpt only]
Contextualisation: The general area of research is identified clearly (underlined)The innovative use of information technology has become crucial for organizations to survive and succeed (Swanson, 1994). This is especially true in an era of revolutionary information technology and knowledge-based competition and competency (Nonaka, 1994). Organizations have committed large amounts of resources to acquire strategic technologies. However, there is a significant variation in the level of use of these technologies (Armstrong and Sambamurthy, 1999). This variation is referred to in prior studies as the assimilation gap (Fichman and Kemerer, 1999). Recent studies have begun to pay due attention to the factors explaining the variations in organizational IT assimilation. This study aims to investigate the influence of organizational IT-related knowledge creation mechanisms, top management team knowledge and support on organizational assimilation of a complex business information technology (IT, hereafter)
Outline of existing solutions: The specific area is identified along with the need for further research (underlined)Extant IT assimilation literature describes organizational IT assimilation as the extent to which the use of a technology diffuses across an organization’s projects or work processes and becomes a regular activity of the organization’s processes (see, for instance, Tornatzky and Klein, 1982; Cooper and Zmud, 1990; Fichman and Kemerer, 1997; Armstrong and Sambamurthy 1999; Purvis et al. 2001, Chatterjee et al. 2002). Consistent with the above definition, the phenomenon of interest for this study is the extent to which an adopted strategic technology is incorporated into the strategies and processes of the firm. IT assimilation is best depicted as an organizational learning process (Attewell 1992; Fichman and Kemerer 1997). Such a process is crucial as it allows individuals and organizations to gain the knowledge necessary to use complex technology effectively. Complex organizational technologies are characterized as those that: 1) have an abstract meaning and demand a scientific base, 2) They require “hand-holding”-aids and advice to firms which acquire them, 3) are “fragile” in the sense that they do not always operate as expected, 4) are difficult to test effectively, and 5) are “unpackaged” so that adopters cannot treat the technology as a “black box”, they need to make some changes  (i.e. complementarity) in their work environment before they are able to benefit from it (Tornatzky and Fleischer, 1990; Fichman and Kemerer 1994; Fichman and Kemerer 1997). 
Articulation of best solution (underlined)Prior research draws on the diffusion of innovation framework to explain organizations’ innovation and innovation-related behaviour (see for instance, Rogers, 1983; 1995). This framework has received widespread validation using different types of innovations, and is referred to as the traditional framework of innovation diffusion (Gallivan, 2001).  Attewell (1992) and Gallivan (2001) criticize the diffusion of innovation theory, arguing that it does not explain the pattern of the actual use of complex technology. This is because the main focus of this traditional framework is on factors which lead to the adoption of IT. Moreover, Attewell (1992) emphasizes the role of organizational learning and knowledge discovery to successfully implement and use complex technology. These three problems will be discussed in detail in the next section.
Outline of limitation or knowledge gap (underlined)A few studies have recently begun to incorporate Attewell’s suggestion to investigate IT assimilation as an organizational learning process (see, for instance, Fichman and Kemerer 1997; Boynton et al. 1994; Armstrong and Sambamurthy 1999). These studies draw mainly on Absorptive Capacity Theory. However, there are three main problems with these studies (1) They fail to meet one of the main conditions of the absorptive capacity theory, that is the intensity of effort (2) They use a static perspective on organizational knowledge. Such an approach is criticized in the knowledge management literature (Nonaka 1994; Cook and Brown 1999). (3) They provide inconclusive evidence about the role of the top management team on IT assimilation.
Articulation of the research question or hypothesis of the study (underlined)This study will overcome these problems by explicitly considering knowledge creation mechanisms. Such mechanisms will allow for a real test of the absorptive capacity theory. These mechanisms will enable the dynamic process of organizational knowledge to be captured, and to clarify the role of the top management team in the organizational IT assimilation journey.  
Outline of study to followThe remainder of this paper is organized as follows. Section two discusses the motivation for the study. Section three discusses the theory development and research model. Section four develops the hypotheses. Section five describes the research method, sample, operationalisation of the constructs and measurement of the variables, and data analysis strategy.
Sample Introduction 1

For a downloadable annotated example see attached.

Another annotated example is provided below.

Stages of an IntroductionExample Introduction [excerpt only]
Contextualisation: The general area of research is identified clearly (underlined)Lack of engagement with family services by parents who need help can have drastic consequences.  A recent report tabled in Victoria State Parliament, entitled Lost, Not Forgotten (Commission for Children and Young People, 2019), tells of the suicide of 35 children, despite contact with child protection in the year before their deaths. The state’s Principal Commissioner for Children and Young People, Liana Buchanan, spoke of how the support system failed these youngsters who were exposed to abuse and neglect. For some, child protection services referred the case to a child and family service before closing it.  The family service was unsuccessful in engaging the family and closed the case as well. Their referrals “fell into a hole” between statutory interventions and voluntary family services. In most cases the risk was judged by practitioners as inadequate for intervention. A sister of one child who died by suicide believes that early intervention for her family could have prevented his suicide (Gearin, 13 Nov 2019). 
Outline of existing solutions: The specific area is identified along with the need for further research (underlined)In Australia, uptake of universal services for family support is voluntary and some parents require more service especially when experiencing vulnerability (Moore, 2008). Targeted services to support families with concerns which impact their children have traditionally been offered by government as well as welfare agencies and charities in Australia (Shergold, 2014). In recent years, social services working with families with complex and multiple needs have established collaborative partnerships with governments and other organisations to respond more holistically to families (Scott, 2013, p. 24). The Child Wellbeing and Safety Act 2005 and the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 have changed the nature of family service policy, funding and delivery in Victoria.  Use of family services is seen as an early intervention strategy to prevent entry or re-entry into the government-based Child Protection system. Families assessed by Child Protection as lower risk for child abuse, or where intervention is needed post investigation by authorities, are referred to voluntary family services for intake and case management (Lonne et al, 2015).  This triage of cases by the Child Protection system is known as differential response (Fuller, 2015; Merkel-Holguin et al, 2015; Harries et al, 2015; Cameron et al, 2015).  
Articulation of best solution (underlined)One of the concerns in this system is of families failing to engage with available services in order to access support. Engagement is a crucial first step prior to considering the service outcome (Moore et al, 2016). Sometimes it is the families with the highest needs who do not engage (Higgins, Lonne, Herrenkohl, & Scott, 2019a; Moore, McDonald, Sanjeevan, & Price, 2012). A second concern is that after referral to services the family disengage or withdraw (Higgins et al., 2019a).

A key focus of this research project is the concept of engagement. Engagement is a vital process in forming a relationship between practitioner and client in human services.  It is the basis for enabling support for parents needing assistance with child well-being and parenting. Policies such as Victoria’s Vulnerable Children Our Shared Responsibility Strategy 2013-2022 (Victoria State Government, 2013) encourage engagement and early intervention through family services working together to enhance child well-being and safety. 
Outline of limitation or knowledge gap (underlined)While there is a considerable body of published research on engagement (Toros, DiNitto, & Tiko, 2018), only some of this literature addresses the client perspective. The engagement literature which does address this angle often focusses on child protection cases rather than cases from a range of referral sources. The majority of studies of engagement were made of statutory Child Protection Services rather than voluntary family services (Fuller, Paceley, & Schreiber, 2015; Kemp, Marcenko, Lyons, & Kruzich, 2014; Schreiber, Fuller, & Paceley, 2013; Yatchmenoff, 2005).  Some studies focussed on the views of parents where involvement with services was either a traditional child protection investigation or a trial of voluntary child protection procedures.  These investigations have been conducted in North America (Merkel-Holguin, Hollinshead, Hahn, Casillas, & Fluke, 2015; Yatchmenoff, 2005, 2008) or U.K. and Europe (Gallagher et al., 2011; Toros et al., 2018). Despite the labelling of one group as voluntary, they were all clients of the child protection agency, so they differ from family services in Australia. In Victoria, voluntary family services are provided by non-government community agencies and not all clients are referred by child protection services. One Victorian study of voluntary family services focussed on service outcomes for families rather than engagement (Lonne, Brown, Wagner, & Gillespie, 2015), while another study bordered on the concept of ‘engagement’ by examining the selective use of formal supports by sole parents, but did not address engagement directly (McArthur & Winkworth, 2017). … There has been minimal research on the implications for parents and practitioners of the referral to voluntary family services in non-government agencies when referrals are from a range of sources. Nor have many studies focussed on the influence of the source of the referral and its implications for engagement. 
Articulation of the research question or hypothesis of the study (underlined)This thesis considers the notion of ‘engagement’ in a Victorian regional and rural setting and sheds light on factors affecting engagement with voluntary family services.  It aims to examine experiences and expectations of engagement by parents referred to voluntary family services and to contrast their views with those of practitioners from these services.  The main research question for this study is:
“How do interpersonal and system factors influence engagement with voluntary family services in Inner Gippsland?” 
Subsidiary research questions include:   
1. What does ‘engagement’ mean to practitioners and parents experiencing family services?
2. What factors have an impact on the engagement experience?
3. How is voluntary engagement viewed?
4. How does referral source influence engagement?

Outline of study to followThe thesis first examines how parents and practitioners viewed the concept of ‘engagement’. It focusses on this by asking people who have been referred to voluntary services what their experience was of engagement with family services at intake or receiving case management. The thesis also asks practitioners of their experience of engaging with parents. Second, the study investigates why some referred families decline targeted family services and why some families discontinue or did not appear to benefit fully from these services. The thesis establishes key factors influencing engagement with voluntary family services.  Third, the research investigates the notion of voluntary engagement, and finally, it looks at the influence of referral sources on engagement by families experiencing vulnerability or disadvantage
Sample Introduction 2

Further reading

  • Bahadoran, Z., Jeddi, S., Mirmiran, P., & Ghasemi, A. (2018). The Principles of Biomedical Scientific Writing: Introduction. International Journal of Endochrinology and Metabolism, 16(4), e84795. 

For a downloadable helpsheet, see The Introduction and the Research Gap. See also: