Short steps on how to read a paper. Part 4: The Introduction.
The next post in our series is about the introduction. This section is an integral part of the paper. It really “sets the scene” and the rationale for doing the study. It is also supposed to attract your attention to the article further.
When I read an introduction, I am afraid that I tend to speed read. Perhaps, I miss important features. Now that I have written this, I will slow down and try to do better.
What should we look for in the introduction?
- Most importantly, do the authors justify their decision to undertake the study?
- Do they quote the relevant literature? For example, are there similar studies? If so, have they referred to them? Similarly, if there is a related systematic review, they should cite it.
- Then we should look to see if the review is critical. Or do the authors cite papers without providing any discussion of the methods or findings? If this is the case, you may consider that the authors may not be critically addressing the question that they set out to answer.
- Are the authors selective in only citing papers that support their beliefs? This practice happens a lot, and I am guilty of this! There is also a balance to strike between summarising relevant literature and keeping the introduction concise, clear and to the point.
- Is the literature review at the correct level? For example, in a specialist journal, we do not need to be informed that “orthodontists provide treatment using fixed appliances”.
- Did they set out the aims? And can we understand them?
- Is the hypothesis (or null hypothesis) stated? I feel strongly about this, and I would suggest if they did not state the hypothesis, in a paper with statistical analysis, it might not be worth reading.
Next week, we will spend a whole post on the aims and hypotheses. These are crucial parts of the paper.
Emeritus Professor of Orthodontics, University of Manchester, UK.