introductions – establishing significance


Introductions have to do a lot of work in a short space of time. The beginning of the conventional journal article, for instance, has to tell the reader what the paper is about and why it is important. And do that very quickly and persuasively. In a few paragraphs the opening gambit must establish a warrant for the paper – and its significance. It is crucial to establish at the outset that the reader will know something important, good and/or useful by the time they reach the conclusion.

Now, establishing significance is not the same as gap-spotting. It isn’t necessarily significant that nobody has written about a particular topic in this specific way before. Nope. The topic may just not be interesting or important enough for anyone to have bothered. Harsh but true. The topic has to have some merit, other than the absence of prior attention. Neglect isn’t significant per se.

So how do you address significance? Well, usually what you do is to locate the paper in a context. This might be policy or practice, an event, an intellectual puzzle, a way of thinking about a problem. It’s the context makes the topic important.

But there are ways and ways of addressing context. Ways of flagging up what actually is significant about your particular paper. So let’s look at an example.

Imagine you are going to write a paper base on your literature review about academic plagiarism. There are two obvious ways you could begin your paper.

Option One.

Increasing numbers of linguists, higher education scholars and philosophers have become interested in academic plagiarism. Studies have for example examined the burgeoning number of companies supplying essays on demand, the motivations of students who buy papers and the effectiveness of lecturers’ plagiarism detecting strategies. This paper adds to understandings of academic plagiarism by systematically analysing this extant research to see what further implications might be drawn for university anti-plagiarism practice.

So this introduction finds its significance warrant in adding to what’s already been done. And that will lead to implications for practice.

And the alternative, Option Two.

Academic plagiarism is an increasing problem for students and universities alike. Students who produce all-my-own-work resent competing for grades and places with peers who pay for their papers. Universities worry that their credibility as purveyors of academic work is diminished. To date, the major solution has been a combination of proprietary software and the development of administrative guidelines about dealing with those caught cheating. As there is no sign of the plagiarism plague getting any smaller, there is an urgent need to find other interventions. This paper offers a systematic review of the research literature which provides new possibilities for action, as well as pointers for further research.

This paper finds its significance in higher education policy and practice. It too promises possible solutions.

Now there is nothing wrong with either of these options. They are both OK.  And you will see examples of both of these kinds of introductions in journals. However, they each do different kinds of work. The introductions signal papers which live in different worlds.

Stephen Pinker argues that academics live in two universes – one is the world of the thing that they study– and the other is the world of their profession: getting articles published, going to conferences, keeping up with the trends and gossip. Pinker says that most of a researcher’s waking hours are spent in the second world and it’s easy for him (sic) to confuse the two. (p 40-41)

Pinker says that writing an introduction like Option One is the result of such confusion. Option One, remember, had its context as the second researcher world of literatures. Pinker is pretty down on this option because he says it makes the activities of professors more important than the real world problem that they are studying.  As he puts it,

No offence, but very few people are interested in how professors spend their time. Classic style ignores the hired help and looks directly at what they are being paid to study. (p. 41)

Pinker sees an introduction which focuses on the world of the profession as narcissism. Researchers have lost sight of what is most important, he suggests. Instead of writing directly on their topic, he says, they discuss the workings and interests of what he calls their ‘guild’ – other researchers and their obsessions.

While there is a case for writing for graduate students or insiders in a disciplinary community, Pinker argues, a lot of academics actually aim to make a difference in the world but write in a self-serving way. The work is inward-looking, rather than looking out to the world which it hopes to influence. It constructs a kind of echo-chamber which is alienating to potential readers who are interested in the substantive topic, not the state and scope of the literatures. It looks in the rear vision mirror, so to speak.

Pinker might also have gone on to say that it is actually much easier to write concluding statements about the significance of a paper and the research it reports when the introduction starts with the actual topic. And not the state of scholarship. Remember our example –  Option One situates the paper as contributing to an emerging body of research on plagiarism, Option Two sets the problem as widespread plagiarism and the answer as the paper.  Option Two thus makes a clearer case for significance – it might change what people do about the problem, rather than first if all what they read.

(Yes I hear you. Sometimes, of course, it is important to change what people read and think – but such a paper would start by talking about why particular kinds of reading and thinking are a problem; it wouldn’t start with the literatures.)

So how useful do you think Pinker’s distinction is? Well, you mightn’t agree with him entirely. And I’m sure you can think of more exceptions to his rule.

But nevertheless his view may be a useful provocation to consider – is the significance of the study found in the academic world or in the world in which the substantive topic occurs. Even if you don’t quite share Pinker’s characterisation of academic ivory-towerism, he may still offer a something significant to consider when writing an introduction.

Photo by Elijah Hail on Unsplash


About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, introduction, location, significance, Stephen Pinker and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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