What is the Background in a Research Paper?

An effective Background section in your manuscript establishes the context for your study. And while original research requires novel findings, providing the necessary background information for these findings may be just as important. It lets your readers know that your findings are novel, important, and worthy of their time and attention.

Updated on October 3, 2022

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An effective Background section in your manuscript establishes the context for your study. And while original research requires novel findings, providing the necessary background information for these findings may be just as important. It lets your readers know that your findings are novel, important, and worthy of their time and attention.

A good Background section explains the history and nature of your research question in relation to existing literature – a “state of the art.” This section, along with the rationale, helps readers understand why you chose to study this problem and why your study is worthwhile. This article will show you how to do this.

Read on to better understand the:

  • Real purpose of the Background section
  • Typical length of a Background section and its placement
  • Elements of an effective Background

What is the Background section of a research paper?

The Background section is an essential element of every study, answering:

  • What do we already know about the topic?
  • How does your study relate to what's been done so far in your field?
  • What is its scope?
  • Why does the topic warrant your interest and their interest?
  • How did you develop the research question that you'll later introduce?

In grant writing, a Background section is often referred to as the “state of the art,” and this is a useful term to have in mind when writing this part of your paper.

What comes next?

After you make the above points,

  1. Formulate your research question/hypothesis. Research aims and objectives should be closely related to how you'll fill the gap you've identified in the literature. Your research gap is the central theme of your article and why people should read it.
  2. Summarize how you'll address it in the paper. Your methodology needs to be appropriate for addressing the “problem” you've identified.
  3. Describe the significance of your study. Show how your research fits into the bigger picture.

Note that the Background section isn't the same as the research rationale. Rather, it provides the relevant information the reader needs so they can follow your rationale. For example, it

  • Explains scientific terms
  • Provides available data and statistics on the topic
  • Describes the methods used so far on your topic. Especially if these are different from what you're going to do. Take special care here, because this is often where peer reviewers focus intently.

This is a logical approach to what comes after the study's background. Use it and the reader can easily follow along from the broader information to the specific details that come later. Crucially, they'll have confidence that your analysis and findings are valid.

Where should the background be placed in a research paper?

Usually, the background comes after the statement of the problem, in the Introduction section. Logically, you need to provide the study context before discussing the research questions, methodology, and results.

The background can be found in:

The abstract

The background typically forms the first few sentences of the abstract. Why did you do the study? Most journals state this clearly. In an unstructured (no subheadings) abstract, it's the first sentence or two. In a structured abstract, it might be called the Introduction, Background, or State-of-the-Art.

PLOS Medicine, for example, asks for research article abstracts to be split into three sections: Background, Methods and Findings, and Conclusions. Journals in the humanities or social sciences might not clearly ask for it because articles sometimes have a looser structure than STEM articles.

The first part of the Introduction section

In the journal Nature, for example, the Introduction should be around 200 words and include

  • Two to three sentences giving a basic introduction to the field.
  • The background and rationale of the study are stated briefly.
  • A simple phrase “Here we show ...”, or “In this study, we show ....” (to round out the Introduction).

The Journal of Organic Chemistry has similar author guidelines.

The Background as a distinct section

This is often the case for research proposals or some types of reports, as discussed above. Rather than reviewing the literature, this is a concise summary of what's currently known in the field relevant to the question being addressed in this proposed study.

How long should the Background section be?

As mentioned, there's no set length for the Background section. It generally depends on the journal and the content of your manuscript. Check the journal's author guidelines, the research center, granting agency, etc. If it's still not clear or if the instructions are contradictory, email or phone them directly.

The length of your background will depend on:

The manuscript length and content

A book-length study needs a more extensive Background than a four-page research article. Exploring a relatively unknown method or question might also need a longer Background.

For example, see this Frontiers article on the applications of artificial intelligence for developing COVID-19 vaccines. It has a seven-paragraph long Background (1,200 words) in a separate section. The authors need to discuss earlier successful uses of machine learning for therapy discovery to make a convincing case.

An academic paper published in an international journal is usually around 5,000 words. Your paper needs to be balanced, with appropriate text lengths used for the different sections: It would make no sense to have a 300-word introduction and then 4,000 words for the methods, for example. In a 5,000-word manuscript, you'll be able to use about 1,500 for the introduction, which includes the background.

How much you need to show your understanding of the topic

A lengthy grant application might need a longer Background (sub-)section. That's because if they're going to grant you money, they need a very good reason to. You'll need to show that the work is both interesting and doable. The Background is where you can do this.

What should the Background of a research manuscript include?

The Background of a research paper needs to show two things:

The study's territory (scope)

First, provide a general overview of the field. Scientists in most disciplines should find it relatively easy to understand. Be broad, keep it interesting. Don't go into the specifics of your particular study.

Let's look at two examples:

  • one from basic research (seeking to generate new knowledge)
  • one from applied research (trying to solve or improve existing processes or products)

Applied research

This Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence article explores how AI can help discover treatments for COVID-19.

The background of the study can be found (i) in the abstract and (ii) in a separate section discussed at the end of this article. The abstract starts with this general overview: “SARS-COV-2 has roused the scientific community with a call to action to combat the growing pandemic.” (Arshadi et al., 2020). This is broad, and it's interesting. This is a topic that many researchers (even from outside this specific area) may want to learn more about.

Think of any theories, models, concepts, or terms (maybe borrowed from different disciplines) that may be unfamiliar to your reader. Be sure to clarify them in plainer language, if necessary.

For example, this systematic review looks at the connections of physician burnout with career engagement and quality of patient care. The Background is in the Introduction section. It starts by defining what burnout is:

  • “Burnout is defined as a syndrome related to work that involves three key dimensions.” (Hodkinson et al., 2022)

The authors go on to explain its three aspects: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of reduced personal accomplishment.

Basic research

Imagine you're investigating how universities' moves to online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic impacted students' learning outcomes in the United Kingdom. The overview could be:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown generated tremendous challenges across the higher education sector. University campuses were forced to close. Face-to-face teaching and assessment transitioned into a virtual format.

2. The niche in the field (motivation)

To establish the niche in your field, describe what drove you to explore this specific topic.

  1. Explain how (un)successfully previous studies have investigated the problem.
  2. Note the knowledge gap or present a problem with a currently used process/practice/product.

Applied research

After setting the stage, the abstract of the Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence article identifies a problem:

  • “At the time of this writing, there are as yet no novel antiviral agents or approved vaccines available for deployment as a frontline defense.” (Arshadi et al., 2020)

The authors need to support their claim that computational methods can help discover new COVID-19 treatments. They do so by referring to previous research findings:

  • “In the last decade, machine learning-based models, trained on specific biomolecules, have offered inexpensive and rapid implementation methods for the discovery of effective viral therapies.” (Arshadi et al., 2020)

Basic research

Going back to the study on students' learning outcomes after universities introduced e-learning. The background section will next identify and describe the current knowledge gap and your proposed method of fixing it. It may be something like:

  • Existing literature and studies by the UK Department for Education reveal x + y changes and effects on teaching and learning. Yet they provide little to no information on students' learning outcomes. Understanding the impact of online teaching and assessments on student outcomes is key to adopting future teaching practices and ensuring students from disadvantaged backgrounds are not left behind.

How is the background different from the literature review?

Both the background and literature review sections compile previous studies that are relevant and important to the topic.

Despite their similarities, they're different in scope and aims.

the differences between a background and a literature review

Overall, the research background could be seen as a small part of the detailed critical discussion in the literature review. Almost always, primary research articles do not include a detailed literature review.

How is the Background different from the Introduction section?

Although often part of the Introduction, the Background differs from the Introduction in scope and aim.

the differences between a background and an introduction

Breakdown of the Background in published articles

Consider this systematic review looking at the connections of physician burnout with career engagement and quality of patient care.

The Background is placed in the Introduction section. It's critical, consistent, and logically structured, moving from general to specific information.

main aspects of the background of a study

You can also check out the summary paragraph breakdown provided by Nature. (Nature's “summary paragraph” is essentially an abstract.)

And if you're looking for some help, or have an article that's finished but needs a pre-submission review click here to connect with one of our expert AJE editors.

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