How to Write the Background of a Study

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The background to a study sets the scene. It lays out the “state of the art”. It tells your reader about other research done on the topic in question, via useful review papers and other summaries of the literature.

Updated on May 5, 2023

a pen by a pair of glasses and a notebook to prepare writing the background of a sutdy

The background to your study, sometimes called the ‘state of the art’ (especially in grant writing), sets the scene for a paper. This section shows readers why your research is important, relevant, and why they should continue reading. You must hook them in with a great background to your study, which is part of the overall introduction to your research paper.

In higher impact articles, such as those published in Nature or Science (which is what we are all aiming for, after all …), the study background is the middle section of an essentially three-part introduction. This section is framed by a presentation of ‘the question’ (first part of the introduction) and a quick explanation of ‘what this paper will do’ (the third part of the introduction).

The introduction of a research paper should be “shaped” like an upside down triangle: 

Start broad. Set the scene with a large-scale general research area [e.g., why doing a PhD erases your writing skills (ha ha) or mental health in teenagers and why this is such a widespread global issue] and then focus down to the question your research addresses (e.g., how can writing skills be improved in PhD students, or brain scans and how these can be used in treatment).

Read on to learn more about framing your next research paper with a well-written and researched background section.

What is the background of a study?

The background to a study sets the scene. It lays out the “state of the art”. It tells your reader about other research done on the topic in question, via useful review papers and other summaries of the literature. 

A background is not a literature review: No one wants to read endless citations back-to-back in this section. You don’t need to list all the papers you’ve read, or all the work done in the past on this topic. 

Set the scene and frame your question in the context of the literature. Seek out review articles in particular. The aim of this section is to build on what has come before so your reader will be armed with all the information they need to understand the remainder of your article, and why - in context - the aims of your study are important.

How to write the background to your research paper

Cater to your audience

It’s important to frame your background to the right audience.

The background of your study needs to be pitched differently depending on your target journal. A more subject-area specific journal (e.g. Journal of Brain Studies) will be read by specialists in your field. Generally, less information to set up the paper in a wider context and less background information will be required. Your readers are already experts on the topic in question.

However, if you are aiming your paper at a more general audience (a journal like Nature or Science, for example) then you're going to need to explain more in your background. A reader of a specialized journal will know about the neocortex within the brain and where this is located, but a general reader will need you to set things up more.

Readers are always the most important people in research publishing, after all: If you want your work to be read, used, and cited (and therefore drive up your H-index as well as your institution’s ranking) you’ll need a well-pitched background of your study.

What is included in the background of a study?

Remember this section sits in the middle of the introduction. Here’s a handy template for what to include:

  1. Existing research on the area of study (not everything, but a broad overview. Aim to cite review papers if you can). Start this section with preliminary data and then build it out;
  2. Mention any controversies around your topic (either that you’ve identified, or that have been picked up by earlier work. Check the discussion sections of recent articles for pointers here);
  3. Any gaps in existing research?, and;
  4. How will your study fill these gaps? State your research methodologies. Any further research that needs to be done?

list of what's included in background of a study

Aim for one paragraph, or a series of short paragraphs within one section. The last two of the topics outlined above can be short, just one or two sentences. These are there to hook the reader in and to frame your background so that the text leads into the final section of the introduction where you explain ‘What your paper is going to do’.

Simple really.

And finally…some thoughts

I used to get really bogged down with article writing, especially the shape of the introduction.

Here’s a trick to keep in mind: Remember that the average length of an academic research paper published in a peer reviewed journal is around 4,000 - 5,000 words - not too long. 

This means that you're likely going to be aiming for an article of about this length the next time you sit down to write: Not too many words for an effective and well-structured introduction. You’ve got about 1,500 - 2,000 words maximum. And aim to keep it short (this will be enforced by word count limits, especially in higher impact journals like Nature and Science). Editors at these journals are trained to cut down your writing to make sure your research fits in.

Less is more, in other words.

Keeping tight word count limits in mind means you can’t write an expansive, flowing background to your study that goes off in all directions and covers a huge amount of ground. Keep an eye on our tips for what to include, cite review papers, and keep your readers interested in the question your paper seeks to address.

A well written background to your study will ensure your paper gets read all the way through to the end. Can’t ask for more than that!

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