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Some advice to students on improving research paper introductions: Framing and conceptual models.

April 28, 2017

This is the season of student lab reports, papers and senior theses. And I find myself repeating lots of things I have said to students in previous semesters and at previous times during the current semester about how they set up the research they are working on in an introduction. Over the years, many students have told me that they find the Introduction to be the hardest part of any paper to write. So, I thought I would right down some suggested hints Many of these can be found in writing guides but it does not hurt to repeat these and elaborate on them as well as share some things that are not so obvious. Among the things that, if you get right, help you navigate the writing of the Introduction of a scientific paper: Framing and ordering.

By framing, I am referring to the broader context in which your research will be placed. Choosing the correct frame at the beginning of the writing process makes lots of decisions further downstream easier. I will elaborate on this later when I work through an example. By ordering, I refer to the order in which you take the individual sub-topics within the broader frame and how you work your way down to the question, hypotheses that are the main thrust of your paper. This can be done in a way that makes logical sense to your audience or in a way that confuses them and dilutes your message. Too often, our students think that part persuading the audience of your point of view is not what you should be doing, but you want the intended reader to come along with you on the journey you are about to take them on and they will be more receptive to the information in your paper/presentation if you have made efforts to ease their entry into the information rather than organizing you presentation of the information in ways that makes that transition more difficult.


When you go to an art museum, you seldom see a painting that is not in a frame. In older paintings, the frame is often large and elaborate with little care taken as to whether the frame adds to or complements the artwork. If you have ever gotten some custom framing done at someplace like Michael’s, you have been confronted with the diversity of choices of frame colors and textures, mat colors, etc. And if you have taken the time to go through the options, it becomes apparent that some frames and mats work well with the art work you are framing and others don’t (see this blog post for a more in depth treatment of the topic). The same is true of your science. Some ways of framing a topic work better than others and enhance the information you are communicating rather than distracting from the information.

My students in Herpetology have been working a research project focused on the thermal biology and performance of nocturnal ectotherms. We raced winter-collected geckos in racetracks at different temperatures and also measured their preferred temperatures in thermal gradients. We also have field temperatures to compare to as well. As they have been preparing their final papers, each of them have come to me about how to get started and they all seem to have been approaching the paper from a different starting point. Some have begun with the thermal biology of nocturnal ectotherms but this seems too narrow for me as it provides no context as to why we would be interested in  nocturnal ectotherms in the first place and one thing an introduction should do is draw the audience in. Others have attempted to begin with thermal biology as a topic but did not have a well-defined conceptual model that they could use as the structural framework for a well-organized Introduction. Others have begun with the study organism. This is not a great place to start because it narrows the paper too much too soon and you have to find a way to move from the narrow biology of the organism to the broader aspects of its biology, the fact that it is a nocturnal ectotherm that then allows you to talk about thermal biology of ectotherms in a general sense. This seems backward for me.  So, instead, you should begin with thermal biology in general and work your way down to ectotherms and then to nocturnal ectotherms and then the specific study organism. Of course, this does not focus on the question at hand and focuses more on the species involved to answer the question. So, where should one begin in structuring an Introduction. My recommendation has been for them start at the end (question) and work their way out of that question into broader and more inclusive levels of information, each broader level being the information necessary to understand the current topic. This process is illustrated below.

What is the question/s we are addressing. First, the species we are working on is an introduced species that has been expanding its introduced range northward, exposing itself to increasingly cold winter temperatures. Our question about this systems is: Has this species evolved greater cold-tolerance as it has expanded north or is the species dealing with these novel environments via acclimation (which I realize can also be considered an evolved response) or is it a combination of both? In order to understand all this one needs to understand the relationship between environmental temperatures, field body temperatures and preferred temperatures as well as how body temperature relates to performance One of the potential challenges for this species in particular is that this species is a nocturnal gecko and that poses different challenges than if the species were diurnal because they have fewer options for behavioral thermoregulation. In order to understand this, one needs to understand how diurnal ectotherms thermoregulate so that the contrast with the nocturnal ectotherm can be made. In order to understand all this, one needs to understand the relationship between environmental temperatures, field body temperatures and preferred temperatures as well as how body temperature relates to performance. Having worked our way out to ectotherm behavioral thermoregulation, some students want to stop there, but if they are communicating to a broader audience, they might want to begin at something the audience can already relate to, such as the fact that they are homeotherms. This then serves as a jumping off point to ectotherms as a contrast that is easily relatable. But we are still left with the broader question as to why we should be interested in ectotherms at all. I was listening to NPR the other day and heard an interview with Brian Helmuth who works with mussels. He made the valid point that, in terms of global biodiversity, homeothermy is the exception rather than the rule. So, if we want to understand the relationship between temperature and the biology of organisms, we gain the most insight for the greatest number of species by concentrating on ectotherms.

Now, if you reverse the order of the previous paragraph, you have a logical structure for an Introduction and you have cast the Introduction inside a frame that reinforces the importance of ectotherms in studies of thermal biology and performance.

In addition to providing a frame and an order, this introduction also explains, in the process of covering other things, the underlying conceptual model about how we think ectotherms manage body temperature. This conceptual model is crucial if the reader is going to understand why nocturnal ectotherms are especially challenged, in a thermoregulatory sense, when compared to diurnal ectotherms and how diurnal ectotherms experience their environment in a very different way than we (homeotherms) do.

And in the end, you have a reader that is now well-informed about what will be coming next and who understands the conceptual underpinnings of the research you are going to be presenting in the Methods section.


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