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Chapter 1 Research Paper Definition Section

I've often encountered this type of problem in my own academic writing (and not only in theses). The problem is that it's often difficult to talk about something before you've defined what it is. But at the same time, it's awkward to write so much expository material before being able to talk about your own stuff. It's up to you to work out, for your document in particular, the best way to present these necessary definitions.

Given that you want to say what your work is about as soon as possible, you can't avoid mentioning at least a few of these technical terms before introducing them formally. For one thing, you may well have to put them in the title! Often, you can present just enough in the abstract and introduction to allow readers to get an idea of the technicalities, but not overwhelm them with detail. The trick is to make sure your presentation is accurate and useful. If you make it too vague ("the Riemann Hypothesis is a very hard problem") then nobody is helped.

A literature review chapter is often a natural place to put definitions. It's hard to say anything meaningful about the literature if you haven't introduced the terms that the literature talks about. Also, exploring the past contributions to your subject certainly includes identifying who came up with particular definitions, who disagreed, how they adapted the definitions, and so on. This is the case for the dissertation in your first link, which defines "research" in the literature review, in the context of conflicting definitions of what research actually is (p19). The author still talks about research in the preceding pages - but that is the point where she sets the scene for her own work, using that definition in particular.

Material which is more basic or less contested could be introduced earlier, if you like. If it is general background, which readers need to know in order to understand anything you've done, but which the thesis is not particularly "about", then the introduction is a fine place for it.

Equally, definitions could be in their own section - either towards the beginning, or as an appendix. I often see this in documents where the definitions are basic reference material. Some readers will know them already, and skip the chapter; others can read in more detail. Again, this option separates the definitions from the literature review, on the basis that the definitions are simply fundamental to the field.

Ultimately, the choice is yours, unless your institution tells you what to do. I hope these thoughts will be helpful as you consider which option is best for presenting your work.

answered Apr 13 '14 at 18:56

Providing background information in the introduction of a research paper serves as a bridge that links the reader to the topic of your study. Precisely how long and in-depth this bridge should be is largely dependent upon how much information you think the reader will need to know in order to fully understand the topic being discussed and to appreciate why the issues you are investigating are important.

From another perspective, the length and detail of background information also depends on the degree to which you need to demonstrate to your professor how much you understand the research problem. Keep this in mind because providing pertinent background information can be an effective way to demonstrate that you have a clear grasp of key issues and concepts underpinning your overall study. Don't try to show off, though! And, avoid stating the obvious.

The structure and writing style of your background information can vary depending upon the complexity of your research and/or the nature of the assignment. Given this, here are some questions to consider while writing this part of your introduction:

  1. Are there concepts, terms, theories, or ideas that may be unfamiliar to the reader and, thus, require additional explanation?
  2. Are there historical elements that need to be explored in order to provide needed context, to highlight specific people, issues, or events, or to lay a foundation for understanding the emergence of a current issue or event?
  3. Are there theories, concepts, or ideas borrowed from other disciplines or academic traditions that may be unfamiliar to the reader and therefore require further explanation?
  4. Is the research study unusual in a way that requires additional explanation, such as, 1) your study uses a method of analysis never applied before; 2) your study investigates a very esoteric or complex research problem; or, 3) your study relies upon analyzing unique texts or documents, such as, archival materials or primary documents like diaries or personal letters that do not represent the established body of source literature on the topic.

Almost all introductions to a research problem require some contextualizing, but the scope and breadth of background information varies depending on your assumption about the reader's level of prior knowledge. Despite this assessment, however, background information should be brief and succinct; save any elaboration of critical points or in-depth discussion of key issues for the literature review section of your paper.


Background of the Problem Section: What do you Need to Consider? Anonymous. Harvard University; Hopkins, Will G. How to Write a Research Paper. SPORTSCIENCE, Perspectives/Research Resources. Department of Physiology and School of Physical Education, University of Otago, 1999; Green, L. H. How to Write the Background/Introduction Section. Physics 499 Powerpoint slides. University of Illinois; Woodall, W. Gill. Writing the Background and Significance Section. Senior Research Scientist and Professor of Communication. Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse, and Addictions. University of New Mexico.