Chapter 3: Writing the Introduction Section

Introduction Goal 2: Identifying a Niche

The second goal of an Introduction is to Identify a Niche or state the problem that your paper is trying to address. In doing this, you will call attention to an area of interest in the current research and specify weaknesses/drawbacks in existing studies. When you identify your niche, you have underscored a gap in some part of your field,  and this gap is called your niche.

Accomplishing this second goal gives you the opportunity to show where you intend to make your contribution to the discipline. It also allows you to narrow the focus of the paper from a more general focus to a more specific area of the field where there is the potential for more research (your research).

Here are some excerpts from research articles. The bold language shows you the words that act as indicators that the writer is working to accomplish Goal 2: Identifying a Niche.


  • Processed products containing OFSP have been studied in Kenya [7] and it has been shown that porridge made using OFSP flour was widely accepted by consumers. However, information on how well provitamin A survives processing is still patchy.[1]
  • Despite the advancement in therapeutic cocktails, the outcome of chemotherapy remains unsatisfactory. The development of multidrug resistance (MDR) has gradually become a major cause of the failure of cancer chemotherapy [1] .[2]
  • How do emotions arise? Do they arise via low-level processes that provide quick, bottom-up affective analyses of stimuli? Or do they arise via high-level, top-down cognitive appraisal processes that draw upon stored knowledge?[3]

As you can see in the excerpts, the authors are pointing out missing pieces in the current research trends and specifying weaknesses or drawbacks in existing research. In many cases, this starts with a word that demonstrates contrast, such as however or despite. Writers use such a word to make the transition from establishing their territory (Goal 1) to identifying the niche (Goal 2). There are many other ways to accomplish Goal 2, so let’s explore the main strategies that writers use to accomplish it.

To identify a niche, you must signal a turn from the overview of a disciplinary territory and narrow the paper down to one aspect of that territory that still needs to be addressed. This identification includes flagging limitations or incompleteness in the current research and/or practice and emphasizing the need to address the limitations. The visual below represents how the identification of the niche (signaled in red) is embedded within an establishment of territory (signaled in blue), further narrowing the scope of the argument for the necessity and value of the current research study.

Visual depiction of the introduction's goals in three concentric circles outlining goal 1 - an overview, goal 2 - the problem, and goal 3, the solution presented by the current research project.

Strategies for Introduction Goal 2: Identifying a Niche

  • Indicating a gap
  • Highlighting a problem
  • Raising general questions
  • Proposing general hypotheses
  • Presenting justification

Notice that the words “and/or” follow each strategy. This is an indication that the strategies are not a checklist that must be accomplished. Each of them is one way that you can accomplish the goal of identifying a niche. However, you do not have to use all of them. In fact, some disciplines typically use certain strategies and not others; moreover, certain writing styles may prefer some over others. So, think of this as a list of options.

Authors generally utilize these strategies to further their critical analysis of previous research. After introducing the niche, the authors may choose to emphasize the need to address it by providing a justification; thus, an Introduction’s second goal usually begins with a word indicating that the following sentence is going to oppose or negate the previous sentence. Frequently, Goal 2 is initiated with words such as however, nevertheless, yet, unfortunately, but, etc. In addition, the function of Goal 2 can be expressed by the words/phrases:

  • Negative or quasi-negative quantifiers: no, little, none (of), (very) few, neither… nor
  • Terminology of negation expressed by
    • verbs (e.g., fail, lack, overlook) and/or
    • adjectives (e.g., inconclusive, misleading, scarce, elusive, limited, questionable) and/or
    • nouns (e.g., failure, limitation, gap, dearth, lack) and/or
    • adverbs (e.g., rarely, scarcely, barely, hardly)

Introduction Goal 2 Strategy: Indicating a Gap

Indicating a gap is the first possible way that authors can claim a lack of research on a certain topic or area. That is, this strategy reveals a gap in the targeted research trend that needs to be filled. You can use this strategy to underscore the unknown, show connections between what is known in the field and what requires investigation, demonstrate critical evaluation of the current general research topic, and possibly connect to the goals of the present study in implicit or explicit ways.

Now, let’s examine some excerpts of what these strategic options look like in real, published manuscripts. Be on the lookout for the example language noted above.


  • Although the specific purpose of adult neurogenesis is not entirely clear, there is evidence that it has major roles in adult neuroplasticity [1,2]. Ablating aNSCs through genetic manipulation in mice or by focal irradiation leads to deficits in hippocampus-dependent learning tasks [3,8].[4]
  • Adult attachment theory has made considerable progress in identifying different dimensions that produce distinctive affective responses. A relatively unexplored issue in attachment theory and research is the specificity or generality of affective reactivity to others’ behavior. In other words, does an attachment orientation produce a generalized response to others or does an attachment orientation produce responses that are specific to the kind of relationship?[5]

If you’d like to see more examples of language that you can use to signal the use of this strategy, the Academic Phrasebank website is an excellent resource. Some of the sentence starters that are suggested there include the following:

  • Previous studies of X have not dealt with …
  • Researchers have not treated X in much detail. 
  • Such approaches, however, have failed to address … 
  • Previously published studies are limited to local surveys. 
  • Half of the studies evaluated failed to specify whether … 
  • The existing accounts fail to resolve the contradiction between X and Y.
  • However, much of the research up to now has been descriptive in nature …

Introduction Goal 2 Strategy: Highlighting a Problem

Highlighting a problem articulates a problem that needs to be solved or an area for improvement in the research area. You can use this strategy to signal an existing issue, raise a concern about the issue, demonstrate critical evaluation of the issue, and possibly connect to the goals of the present study. Consider the following examples of how authors use this strategy to highlight a problem existing in their particular niche.


  • People’s tendencies to project their own opinions can alter their judgments about what others think is ethical, perhaps giving them a sense of being in the majority even when they are not. The ramifications of this false consensus effect may be problematic: if members of organizations erroneously assume that their actions are in line with prevailing ethical principles, they may subsequently learn of their misjudgment when it is too late to avert the consequences. In the present research, we examine whether brokers in a social network show evidence of false consensus in ethical decision making. [6]
  • Unfortunately, it is very easy to overfit a model to one particular dataset (Huang et al. 2003). This situation would probably result in biased predictions when the model is applied to other datasets. A misspecification of the model or a poor draw of training data from the population could also lead to biased predictions. [7]

Introduction Goal 2 Strategy: Raising General Questions

Raising general questions is the third possible strategy. This is used to highlight questions about the current body of research on your topic. There are two ways to raise general questions: (1) asking a direct question (i.e., actually using a question mark) and/or (2) asking an indirect question (i.e., presenting the question in the form of a statement). It is important to realize that this strategy is related to questions about the field; these are NOT your specific research questions. Those will be discussed later.

The following examples demonstrate how published writers raise general questions in their manuscripts:


  • With such a large and rapid infrastructure development programme, decision makers must balance three key factors when deciding the nature and characteristics of the treatment infrastructure developed: what solution provides the best economic value? [8]
  • How can the process of dynamic evaluation be studied? The issue of potential differences in judgment raises the methodological question of who is in the best position to rate in-progress artworks. It might be more ecologically valid to have artists rate their own emerging works; however, in that case there is no basis for validating artists’ own judgments against those of external observers. [9]

Introduction Goal 2 Strategy: Proposing General Hypotheses

When writers propose general hypotheses, they are predicting future findings or implications. Note that this strategy — like the previous one — includes the word general. These are NOT the specific hypotheses that you might have about your research. So, in order to do this, you need to use language that indicates the hypothetical nature of your claims. For example, you could use a conditional statement (e.g., if X were Y, then it would affect Z) and/or words such as may, might, likely, possible,  expected, etc. The following are examples of how you can implement this strategy:


  • Many studies on antimicrobial peptides have been carried out in an effort to elucidate the cause for this selectivity. One hypothesis is that the highly anionic lipids (~30 mol %) (3, 4) in the cytoplasmic membranes of bacterial and fungal cells facilitate antimicrobial action by electrostatically attracting these cationic peptides to the membrane. In contrast, the lack of negative charges in the eukaryotic membrane of higher organisms combined with the high level of cholesterol (~50 mol %) (5, 6) may reduce the extent of binding and counter the effects of these peptides on the membrane. [10]
  • However, cytogenetics and comparative morphology do not confirm this hypothesis (Zohary and Hopf, 2000). Therefore, plum may result from polyploid forms arising from cherry plums, forming a “P. cerasifera-P. domestica polyploid crop complex” (Zohary and Hopf, 2000). However, the possibility of secondary hybridisation with other species, including sloe, cannot be excluded.[11]

Introduction Goal 2 Strategy: Presenting Justification

Presenting justification, the fifth and last possible strategy in Goal 2 (Identifying a Niche), usually occurs after the writer has discussed the gap, problem, question, or hypothesis. To accomplish this strategy, you can justify or motivate the need for your research. Alternately, you can demonstrate the value or worth of the research. Note how the published authors do this in the examples below: 


  • The study of the solar hard X-ray (HXR) flare spectra may provide some useful information for solar flares, such as the acceleration mechanisms of energetic electrons. The solar HXR flare spectra consist of thermal and nonthermal components (Aschwanden 2004; Dennis 1985). [12]
  • Empirical evidence describing the temporal development of local plastic flow is greatly desired. Therefore, novel experimental techniques are being developed to characterize the grain and sub-grain scale deformation fields produced during deformation of polycrystalline materials. Digital image correlation (DIC) methods that utilize optical imaging are readily available for measuring macro-scale planer 2-D, and arbitrary 3-D, motion and deformation [3].[13]

The second goal of the Introduction presents the specific background information to provide your readers with an appreciation of how the paper advances the field in some way[14]. Beware of repeating what you have read in other papers. A good research writer develops an ability “to say the same things that have been said many times before but in a different, interesting, intriguing way” (Wallwork, 2016, p. 195). When you Identify a Niche, you are giving the readers an orientation to how your work fits into the field.

Now let’s practice identifying these strategies in context:


Key Takeaways

The second goal of an Introduction section in a research article is Identifying a Niche. There are five possible ways to achieve this:

  • Indicate a gap and/or
  • Highlight a problem and/or
  • Raise general questions and/or
  • Propose general hypotheses and/or
  • Present justification

Note the use of “and/or” after each strategy. This reminds you that it’s not necessary to implement all of these strategies. You can choose which ones work best for your own topic, style, and discipline.

  1. Bechoff, A., Poulaert, M., Tomlins, K., Westby, A., Menya, G., Young, S., Dhuique-Mayer, C. (2011). “Retention and bioaccessibility of β-carotene in blended foods containing orange-fleshed sweet potato flour”, Journal of agricultural and food chemistry 59(18):10373-10380.
  2. Zhang, P., Ling, G., Sun, J., Zhang, T., Yuan, Y., Sun, Y., Wang, Z., He, Z. (2011). “Multifunctional nanoassemblies for vincristine sulfate delivery to overcome multidrug resistance by escaping P-glycoprotein mediated efflux”, Biomaterials 32(23):5524-5533.
  3. Ochsner, K., Ray, R., Hughes, B., McRae, K., Cooper, J., Weber, J., Gabrieli, J., Gross, J. (2009). “Bottom-Up and Top-Down Processes in Emotion Generation Common and Distinct Neural Mechanisms”, Psychological Science 20(11):1322-1331.
  4. Guo, W., Allan, A., Zong, R., Zhang, L., Johnson, E., Schaller, E., Murthy, A., Goggin, S., Eisch, A., Oostra, B. (2011). “Ablation of Fmrp in adult neural stem cells disrupts hippocampus-dependent learning,” Nature Medicine 17(5):559-565.
  5. Sadikaj, G., Moskowitz, D., Zuroff, D., (2011). “Attachment-related affective dynamics: differential reactivity to others’ interpersonal behavior.”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100(5):905.
  6. Flynn, F., Wiltermuth, S. (2010). “Who’s with me? False consensus, brokerage, and ethical decision making in organizations”, Academy of Management Journal 53(5):1074-1089.
  7. aughn, N., Turnblom, E., Ritchie, M. (2010). “Bootstrap evaluation of a young Douglas-fir height growth model for the Pacific Northwest”, Forest Science 56(6):592-602.
  8. Patterson, T., Esteves, S., Dinsdale, R., Guwy, A. (2011). “Life cycle assessment of biogas infrastructure options on a regional scale”, Bioresource Technology 102(15):7313-7323.
  9. Kozbelt, A., Serafin, J. (2009). “Dynamic evaluation of high-and low-creativity drawings by artist and nonartist raters”, Creativity Research Journal 21(4):349-360.
  10. Mani, R., Buffy, J., Waring, A., Lehrer, R., Hong, M. (2004). “Solid-state NMR investigation of the selective disruption of lipid membranes by protegrin-1”, Biochemistry 43(43):13839-13848.
  11. Horvath, A., Balsemin, E., Barbot, J., Christmann, H., Manzano, G., Reynet, P., Laigret, F., Mariette, S. (2011). “Phenotypic variability and genetic structure in plum (< i> Prunus domestica L.), cherry plum (< i> P. cerasifera Ehrh.) and sloe (< i> P. spinosa L.)”, Scientia Horticulturae 129(2):283-293.
  12. Shao, C., Huang, G. (2009). “Comparative Study of Solar HXR Flare Spectra in Looptop and Footpoint Sources”, The Astrophysical Journal 691(1):299.
  13. Walley, J., Wheeler, R., Uchic, M., Mills, M. (2012). “In-situ mechanical testing for characterizing strain localization during deformation at elevated temperatures”, Experimental Mechanics 52(4):405-416.
  14. Wallwork, A. (2016). English for writing research papers. Springer.


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Preparing to Publish by Sarah Huffman; Elena Cotos; and Kimberly Becker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.