I was recently asked how much literature should go in the introduction of a journal article and how much should go in a separate literature section. This is a hard, as well as a good, question. It’s something that bothers a lot of people. And judging by some of the papers I see as an Editor and a reviewer, it’s something that people have different views about.
In some ways it’s also only part of the question, because the answer requires thinking not only about literature, but also about the work of the introduction and the purpose of including literatures at that point – compared to the work that literatures might need to do later in the paper. The answer to the how much literature at the start is not simply about quantity, but also purpose.
There are two things to consider when thinking about literatures in the introduction.
(1) the introduction must spell out your purpose and process.
The introduction to a journal article is very important. It has to set out the problem, puzzle, issue that the paper is to address. The introduction has to argue that it is important that we think differently about the issue, problem, puzzle. In other words, the introduction has to establish that there is something we don’t understand and need to, or we just don’t know and ought to, or that we need to think about differently. The paper is going to help us do that.
There are various ways to describe how the introduction establishes this case. Barbara and I talk about the introduction having three moves – a locate, focus and outline.
• The locate move is where the problem is put in context, delineated and justified – the nature and significance of the topic is established. This might be through reference to policy, practice, common discourses or literatures. Typically the writer starts a journal article with something that establishes a broad context, and which connects that context to the reader. (You could this of this as the What and Why of the paper.)
• The focus is where the writer says exactly what they are doing to do in the paper to address the topic. They also usually say something here about the basis on which the paper is written – what kind of study the work draws on and the data that has been used to make the argument – library work, reasoning, empirical analysis of particular data in a specific research tradition. (You could think of this as the How, When, How Many and Who of the paper.)
• The outline of the argument shows the key steps that are to be taken, and in what order.
Now, it is not uncommon for some literatures to be cited in the introduction. However, you don’t need a lot in order to accomplish the locate work – there might be something about context and/or something related to significance – you might refer to a gap in the literatures, a common reading in the literatures, a problematic assumption in the literatures, and give a few key indicative references. But there isn’t a long list.
The real literature work comes later in the paper where you explain the work you are using as building blocks for your own work and/or the literatures you set out to challenge. This might for example be in the form of a short literature section, theoretical section, or around one or more relevant themes.
(2) the introduction must get the reader’s attention.
The second key aspect of the journal article introduction is that it must quickly convince the reader that they should give up some of their time to your work you must show them, right at the start that it is it is worthy of their effort. This means that:
• a good introduction generally isn’t too long. If the beginning of a paper goes on for pages and pages then it isn’t an introduction at all, but the paper proper. Some people suggest than an introduction consists of a set number of paragraphs – three to five is the usual number on offer – but I’m a bit skeptical about blanket rules of these kinds. I think the key thing is to understand that an introduction lays your cards on the table and spells out what is to come. It is a scene setter not the actual scene itself. If the introduction goes on for too long the reader will get impatient and give up.
• the introduction is readable – it isn’t loaded up with dense difficult prose and phalanxes of citations. These are just off-putting and they suggest to the reader that the whole article is going to be indigestible.
• the opening sentence and paragraph is lively and interesting – seductive even. Some people suggest that the writer should use quotations, vignettes, media items and so on in order to capture the reader – these are all possibilities, but of course not mandatory. A well crafted opening sentence and beginning paragraph is often quite sufficient. Of course might not get to this level of writerly writing straight away, and it is generally better to get something approximate at the first draft and then revise – crafting and honing the introduction so that it does its work succinctly and elegantly.
So this is all by way of saying that the introduction is not a literature review. It’s not a place to dazzle the reader with your analysis of the field. It’s the place to set out your stall. It’s the time to attract the reader’s attention and make your pitch.