In the structure of a scientific article following OCAR, the opening is synonymous with about 90% of the introduction. Crafting an effective opening for your scientific article is crucial for setting the stage and capturing the reader’s attention. The opening, or introduction, provides the context and background necessary for understanding the research presented. Here, we’ll explore the essentials of writing a strong opening for your scientific paper.
A good opening should answer “yes” to the following questions:
- Is it clear what the paper is about?
- Does it frame the problem?
- Does it introduce the critical elements?
If you are able to answer “yes” to these three questions, you have a solid start to the opening.
Why is the Opening Important?
The opening in scientific articles serves as a bridge between the reader’s current understanding and the new material presented in your article. It’s a space where you establish why the problem you are addressing is important and introduce the critical elements that will be discussed later in the paper.
An opening can really make or break a paper. The same opening could actually do both, depending on who is reading. How is that possible?
It may be first but the opening actually depends on something that came before it: the reader’s prior knowledge. The opening should connect what they already know to your research. Making those connections makes it not only easier for them to understand what will introduce. It also helps to make them interested in your research.
Key Components of an Effective Opening
- Establishing Context: Begin by giving an overview of the broader field or topic area your research falls within. This allows your reader to understand the relevance and importance of your work. You might include recent findings or debates in the field that your research addresses.
- Defining the Problem: Next, it’s crucial to clearly frame the problem or issue your research addresses. This might be a gap in existing knowledge, a debate among researchers, or a practical problem that needs solving. The reader should understand why this problem is worth investigating.
- Framing Your Research: After defining the problem, outline how your research contributes to solving this problem or filling the knowledge gap. This may involve presenting your research question or hypothesis.
- Guiding the Reader: Finally, provide a roadmap for your paper. Briefly describe what will be covered in each section. This not only prepares the reader for what’s to come but also makes your paper more navigable.
Remember, an effective opening should engage the reader, providing sufficient context and clearly stating the problem your research addresses. It’s not merely an introduction to the topic, but a crucial part of your paper’s narrative structure. Note: state the problem but don’t try to give the answer. This comes later.
Scientific Article Opening
Here is an example of the beginning of an actual scientific article opening:
Since the late 1800s, N mineralization has been the perceived centre point of the soil N cycle and the process that controls N availability to plants.
Not only is this paper going to challenge the perceived central point but it will also talk about how that has changed through history. At least, this is what we are expecting. If it does not talk about these things, this is an unrelated opening or a misdirection, both of which should be avoided.
Something else that an opening should do is target an audience. For specialists, this can be very fast because they have a solid background in the field. For example: Pianos kill people.
Specialists in this field know that pianos are heavy and they also know that humans don’t do well when hit on the head by heavy falling objects.
However for generalists, they may not understand these things, so the opening needs to be changed to help them understand the basics: Due to the weight of a piano, there is a grave risk to human health when it falls from the height of a high-rise building. Human-falling piano accidents often lead to the death of the victim.
Now even a general reader will understand that pianos hitting humans on the head is very bad.
For proposals, knowing your audience is the difference between getting the funding and being passed over. The opening must be tailored to the people reading the proposal and giving you money. If not, your proposal is going nowhere.
Help?!? Who is my audience? What if may different types of people will read my article?
If you have a broad audience, the answer is a multi-step opening. Open with an engaging issue, then focus it on the one you are going to focus on: The Arctic has become a focus of attention because global warming is expected to be the most severe at extreme latitudes. The thick organic soils of the tundra contain large stocks of carbon (C), and these soils may act as either a source or a sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).
The multistep opening uses something broad that is engaging to the audience (to capture attention) and then narrows it down to the topic that you are going to focus on. Here is another example:
Climate change is devastating biomes across the world. In Australia, more than half a billion animals have been lost to forest fires directly linked to climate change. This has led to a dramatic decrease in the koala population. With a lack of genetic diversity, we may be unable to re-establish a viable population.
Starts off with climate change, which everyone has some connection to. Then the opening moves on to koalas, which may be the focus of this paper. It also introduces the problem of a lack of genetic diversity, becoming even more focused on koala DNA and population viability.
Things NOT to do in an opening
- The worst thing you can do is fail to identify the problem. If there is no problem, what was the point of writing this article? Everything is fine and there is no need to continue reading. Also “Little is known about X” is not a problem, just a fact. It also is not engaging in any way.
- Offer a solution before defining the problem. If you tell someone how to solve a problem before they even know there is one, why should they be interested? It is like listening to someone telling you how to build a kitchen cabinet when you don’t even own a house – pointless.
- Start with a literature review. This is the fastest way to turn off a reader. A reader needs to understand the context and the problem before we can write about what other people have reported from their research. If you suddenly launch into a literature review, the reader will fail to understand why they need this information.
Look at the following openings and identify what they are doing wrong.
“Plants are a critical control of CH4 dynamics in wetland ecosystems. They supply C [carbon] to the soil methanogenic community both through production of soil organic matter, and as fresh exudates and residues. Fresh plant material may be an important CH4 precursor even in an organic matter–rich peat soil. Strong correlations between net primary productivity and system level CH4 fluxes across a wide range of ecosystems highlight the importance of plant C inputs.
Vascular plants, however, also transport CH4 out of soil and sediment, effectively bypassing the aerobic zone of CH4 oxidation.”
The problem with this opening is that it goes in the wrong direction. We start talking about plants and CH4 dynamics in wetland ecosystems. It then goes into some details about carbon supply, controlling CH4 fluxes through methanogens, etc. However, the following paragraph suddenly jumps to transporting CH4 from soil and sediment. Why the sudden jump?
If you read How to Link Paragraphs in Scientific English, you may also see that it does not flow well from one paragraph to another. This is another indicator that something may be wrong here.
Let’s try another one:
“In meiosis, genes that are always transmitted together are described as showing ‘linkage.’ Linkage, however, can be incomplete, due to the exchange of segments of DNA when chromosomes are paired. This incomplete linkage can lead to the creation of new pairings of alleles, creating new lineages with distinct sets of traits.”
If you are asking “Where are we going”, you are not alone. This opening has no direction. What is the context? This just gives textbook information, which should be known to the reader already as it is basic biological information.
Depending on what comes after this paragraph, we can probably just remove it altogether. This adds nothing in the context of the opening.
What comes next?
Interested in learning more about Scientific English? You can read a brief post on the History and Use of Scientific English here. More posts on Scientific English are available on the Scientific English page.