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How to Write a Research Paper Introduction (with Examples)

How to Write a Research Paper Introduction (with Examples)

The research paper introduction section, along with the Title and Abstract, can be considered the face of any research paper. The following article is intended to guide you in organizing and writing the research paper introduction for a quality academic article or dissertation.

The research paper introduction aims to present the topic to the reader. A study will only be accepted for publishing if you can ascertain that the available literature cannot answer your research question. So it is important to ensure that you have read important studies on that particular topic, especially those within the last five to ten years, and that they are properly referenced in this section. 1 What should be included in the research paper introduction is decided by what you want to tell readers about the reason behind the research and how you plan to fill the knowledge gap. The best research paper introduction provides a systemic review of existing work and demonstrates additional work that needs to be done. It needs to be brief, captivating, and well-referenced; a well-drafted research paper introduction will help the researcher win half the battle.

The introduction for a research paper is where you set up your topic and approach for the reader. It has several key goals:

  • Present your research topic
  • Capture reader interest
  • Summarize existing research
  • Position your own approach
  • Define your specific research problem and problem statement
  • Highlight the novelty and contributions of the study
  • Give an overview of the paper’s structure

The research paper introduction can vary in size and structure depending on whether your paper presents the results of original empirical research or is a review paper. Some research paper introduction examples are only half a page while others are a few pages long. In many cases, the introduction will be shorter than all of the other sections of your paper; its length depends on the size of your paper as a whole.

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Table of Contents

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The introduction in a research paper is placed at the beginning to guide the reader from a broad subject area to the specific topic that your research addresses. They present the following information to the reader

  • Scope: The topic covered in the research paper
  • Context: Background of your topic
  • Importance: Why your research matters in that particular area of research and the industry problem that can be targeted

The research paper introduction conveys a lot of information and can be considered an essential roadmap for the rest of your paper. A good introduction for a research paper is important for the following reasons:

  • It stimulates your reader’s interest: A good introduction section can make your readers want to read your paper by capturing their interest. It informs the reader what they are going to learn and helps determine if the topic is of interest to them.
  • It helps the reader understand the research background: Without a clear introduction, your readers may feel confused and even struggle when reading your paper. A good research paper introduction will prepare them for the in-depth research to come. It provides you the opportunity to engage with the readers and demonstrate your knowledge and authority on the specific topic.
  • It explains why your research paper is worth reading: Your introduction can convey a lot of information to your readers. It introduces the topic, why the topic is important, and how you plan to proceed with your research.
  • It helps guide the reader through the rest of the paper: The research paper introduction gives the reader a sense of the nature of the information that will support your arguments and the general organization of the paragraphs that will follow. It offers an overview of what to expect when reading the main body of your paper.

What are the parts of introduction in the research?

A good research paper introduction section should comprise three main elements: 2

  • What is known: This sets the stage for your research. It informs the readers of what is known on the subject.
  • What is lacking: This is aimed at justifying the reason for carrying out your research. This could involve investigating a new concept or method or building upon previous research.
  • What you aim to do: This part briefly states the objectives of your research and its major contributions. Your detailed hypothesis will also form a part of this section.

How to write a research paper introduction?

The first step in writing the research paper introduction is to inform the reader what your topic is and why it’s interesting or important. This is generally accomplished with a strong opening statement. The second step involves establishing the kinds of research that have been done and ending with limitations or gaps in the research that you intend to address. Finally, the research paper introduction clarifies how your own research fits in and what problem it addresses. If your research involved testing hypotheses, these should be stated along with your research question. The hypothesis should be presented in the past tense since it will have been tested by the time you are writing the research paper introduction.

The following key points, with examples, can guide you when writing the research paper introduction section:

  • Highlight the importance of the research field or topic
  • Describe the background of the topic
  • Present an overview of current research on the topic

Example: The inclusion of experiential and competency-based learning has benefitted electronics engineering education. Industry partnerships provide an excellent alternative for students wanting to engage in solving real-world challenges. Industry-academia participation has grown in recent years due to the need for skilled engineers with practical training and specialized expertise. However, from the educational perspective, many activities are needed to incorporate sustainable development goals into the university curricula and consolidate learning innovation in universities.

  • Reveal a gap in existing research or oppose an existing assumption
  • Formulate the research question

Example: There have been plausible efforts to integrate educational activities in higher education electronics engineering programs. However, very few studies have considered using educational research methods for performance evaluation of competency-based higher engineering education, with a focus on technical and or transversal skills. To remedy the current need for evaluating competencies in STEM fields and providing sustainable development goals in engineering education, in this study, a comparison was drawn between study groups without and with industry partners.

  • State the purpose of your study
  • Highlight the key characteristics of your study
  • Describe important results
  • Highlight the novelty of the study.
  • Offer a brief overview of the structure of the paper.

Example: The study evaluates the main competency needed in the applied electronics course, which is a fundamental core subject for many electronics engineering undergraduate programs. We compared two groups, without and with an industrial partner, that offered real-world projects to solve during the semester. This comparison can help determine significant differences in both groups in terms of developing subject competency and achieving sustainable development goals.

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tioc meaning in research introduction

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You can use the same process to develop each section of your article, and finally your research paper in half the time and without any of the stress.

The purpose of the research paper introduction is to introduce the reader to the problem definition, justify the need for the study, and describe the main theme of the study. The aim is to gain the reader’s attention by providing them with necessary background information and establishing the main purpose and direction of the research.

The length of the research paper introduction can vary across journals and disciplines. While there are no strict word limits for writing the research paper introduction, an ideal length would be one page, with a maximum of 400 words over 1-4 paragraphs. Generally, it is one of the shorter sections of the paper as the reader is assumed to have at least a reasonable knowledge about the topic. 2 For example, for a study evaluating the role of building design in ensuring fire safety, there is no need to discuss definitions and nature of fire in the introduction; you could start by commenting upon the existing practices for fire safety and how your study will add to the existing knowledge and practice.

When deciding what to include in the research paper introduction, the rest of the paper should also be considered. The aim is to introduce the reader smoothly to the topic and facilitate an easy read without much dependency on external sources. 3 Below is a list of elements you can include to prepare a research paper introduction outline and follow it when you are writing the research paper introduction. Topic introduction: This can include key definitions and a brief history of the topic. Research context and background: Offer the readers some general information and then narrow it down to specific aspects. Details of the research you conducted: A brief literature review can be included to support your arguments or line of thought. Rationale for the study: This establishes the relevance of your study and establishes its importance. Importance of your research: The main contributions are highlighted to help establish the novelty of your study Research hypothesis: Introduce your research question and propose an expected outcome. Organization of the paper: Include a short paragraph of 3-4 sentences that highlights your plan for the entire paper

Cite only works that are most relevant to your topic; as a general rule, you can include one to three. Note that readers want to see evidence of original thinking. So it is better to avoid using too many references as it does not leave much room for your personal standpoint to shine through. Citations in your research paper introduction support the key points, and the number of citations depend on the subject matter and the point discussed. If the research paper introduction is too long or overflowing with citations, it is better to cite a few review articles rather than the individual articles summarized in the review. A good point to remember when citing research papers in the introduction section is to include at least one-third of the references in the introduction.

The literature review plays a significant role in the research paper introduction section. A good literature review accomplishes the following: Introduces the topic – Establishes the study’s significance – Provides an overview of the relevant literature – Provides context for the study using literature – Identifies knowledge gaps However, remember to avoid making the following mistakes when writing a research paper introduction: Do not use studies from the literature review to aggressively support your research Avoid direct quoting Do not allow literature review to be the focus of this section. Instead, the literature review should only aid in setting a foundation for the manuscript.

Remember the following key points for writing a good research paper introduction: 4

  • Avoid stuffing too much general information: Avoid including what an average reader would know and include only that information related to the problem being addressed in the research paper introduction. For example, when describing a comparative study of non-traditional methods for mechanical design optimization, information related to the traditional methods and differences between traditional and non-traditional methods would not be relevant. In this case, the introduction for the research paper should begin with the state-of-the-art non-traditional methods and methods to evaluate the efficiency of newly developed algorithms.
  • Avoid packing too many references: Cite only the required works in your research paper introduction. The other works can be included in the discussion section to strengthen your findings.
  • Avoid extensive criticism of previous studies: Avoid being overly critical of earlier studies while setting the rationale for your study. A better place for this would be the Discussion section, where you can highlight the advantages of your method.
  • Avoid describing conclusions of the study: When writing a research paper introduction remember not to include the findings of your study. The aim is to let the readers know what question is being answered. The actual answer should only be given in the Results and Discussion section.

To summarize, the research paper introduction section should be brief yet informative. It should convince the reader the need to conduct the study and motivate him to read further. If you’re feeling stuck or unsure, choose trusted AI academic writing assistants like Paperpal to effortlessly craft your research paper introduction and other sections of your research article.

1. Jawaid, S. A., & Jawaid, M. (2019). How to write introduction and discussion. Saudi Journal of Anaesthesia, 13(Suppl 1), S18.

2. Dewan, P., & Gupta, P. (2016). Writing the title, abstract and introduction: Looks matter!. Indian pediatrics, 53, 235-241.

3. Cetin, S., & Hackam, D. J. (2005). An approach to the writing of a scientific Manuscript1. Journal of Surgical Research, 128(2), 165-167.

4. Bavdekar, S. B. (2015). Writing introduction: Laying the foundations of a research paper. Journal of the Association of Physicians of India, 63(7), 44-6.

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  • Methodology
  • Open access
  • Published: 05 July 2014

Theory of Change: a theory-driven approach to enhance the Medical Research Council's framework for complex interventions

  • Mary J De Silva 1 ,
  • Erica Breuer 2 ,
  • Lucy Lee 1 ,
  • Laura Asher 1 ,
  • Neerja Chowdhary 3 ,
  • Crick Lund 2 &
  • Vikram Patel 1 , 3  

Trials volume  15 , Article number:  267 ( 2014 ) Cite this article

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The Medical Research Councils’ framework for complex interventions has been criticized for not including theory-driven approaches to evaluation. Although the framework does include broad guidance on the use of theory, it contains little practical guidance for implementers and there have been calls to develop a more comprehensive approach. A prospective, theory-driven process of intervention design and evaluation is required to develop complex healthcare interventions which are more likely to be effective, sustainable and scalable.

We propose a theory-driven approach to the design and evaluation of complex interventions by adapting and integrating a programmatic design and evaluation tool, Theory of Change (ToC), into the MRC framework for complex interventions. We provide a guide to what ToC is, how to construct one, and how to integrate its use into research projects seeking to design, implement and evaluate complex interventions using the MRC framework. We test this approach by using ToC within two randomized controlled trials and one non-randomized evaluation of complex interventions.

Our application of ToC in three research projects has shown that ToC can strengthen key stages of the MRC framework. It can aid the development of interventions by providing a framework for enhanced stakeholder engagement and by explicitly designing an intervention that is embedded in the local context. For the feasibility and piloting stage, ToC enables the systematic identification of knowledge gaps to generate research questions that strengthen intervention design. ToC may improve the evaluation of interventions by providing a comprehensive set of indicators to evaluate all stages of the causal pathway through which an intervention achieves impact, combining evaluations of intervention effectiveness with detailed process evaluations into one theoretical framework.

Conclusions

Incorporating a ToC approach into the MRC framework holds promise for improving the design and evaluation of complex interventions, thereby increasing the likelihood that the intervention will be ultimately effective, sustainable and scalable. We urge researchers developing and evaluating complex interventions to consider using this approach, to evaluate its usefulness and to build an evidence base to further refine the methodology.

Trial registration

Clinical trials.gov: NCT02160249

Peer Review reports

The updated Medical Research Council (MRC) framework for complex interventions[ 1 ] is a set of guidelines for designing and evaluating complex interventions which has been widely influential in the field[ 2 ]. The framework emphasizes four phases of intervention development, feasibility and piloting, evaluation, and implementation which take place as an iterative rather than a linear process. However, the MRC framework has been criticized for not including theory-driven approaches to evaluation[ 3 ]. Although the framework does reference theory-driven approaches, it does not explicitly recommend any, or provide guidance on how to incorporate them into the design and evaluation of complex interventions[ 1 ]. The evaluation of complex interventions has also been criticized for not providing a clear explanation of the mechanisms of change through which the intervention leads to real-world impact, and for not examining how the intervention interacts with context[ 4 ]. These omissions reflect the paucity of practical examples of the use of theory-driven approaches that have been shown to work, resulting in calls for researchers to provide such examples so that the MRC framework can reflect current best practice[ 2 , 3 , 5 ].

In order to develop complex interventions which are more likely to be effective, sustainable and scalable, evaluators need to understand not just whether, but how and why an intervention has a particular effect, and which parts of a complex intervention have the greatest impact on outcomes. For this, a prospective, theory-driven process of intervention design and evaluation is required.

In this article we propose a theory-driven approach to the design and evaluation of complex interventions by adapting and integrating an existing approach, Theory of Change (ToC), into the MRC framework. We provide a guide to what ToC is, how to construct one, and how to integrate its use into research projects seeking to design, implement and evaluate complex interventions using the MRC framework.

What is Theory of Change?

Theory-driven approaches to program evaluation can be traced back to the 1930s[ 6 ], with further development by among others Kirkpatrick in the late 1950s[ 7 ] and Chen in the 1980s[ 8 ]. Their basic tenet is that understanding the theory underlying a program approach is necessary to understand whether, and how, it works[ 6 ]. ToC developed organically, influenced by program evaluation theorists, theories of social change[ 9 ] and the work of the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change in the 1990s[ 10 – 12 ]. This organic development has resulted in no standardized definition of ToC[ 13 ]. We will refer to ToC as that developed by the Aspen Institute and promoted by organizations such as ActKnowledge, who set up the Centre for Theory of Change and support capacity building in its use a .

ToC is ‘a theory of how and why an initiative works’[ 10 ] which can be empirically tested by measuring indicators for every expected step on the hypothesized causal pathway to impact. It is developed in collaboration with stakeholders and modified throughout the intervention development and evaluation process through an ‘ongoing process of reflection to explore change and how it happens’[ 9 ]. It is visually represented in a ToC map which is a graphic representation of the causal pathways through which an intervention is expected to achieve its impact within the constraints of the setting in which it is implemented (see Figure  1 for an example).

figure 1

SHARE Theory of Change: peer counselling for maternal depression in Goa, India.

ToC has been used to design and evaluate development programs in many different contexts globally[ 14 – 18 ]. Recognizing its capacity to provide a framework for monitoring, evaluation and learning throughout a program cycle[ 11 ], ToC is increasingly being used by international donors such as the Gates Foundation, the UK Department for International Development (DfID), Comic Relief and Grand Challenges Canada, to monitor and evaluate their research and development programs[ 9 , 13 ].

ToC is not a sociological or psychological theory such as Complexity Theory[ 19 ] or the Theory of Planned Behaviour[ 20 ], but a pragmatic framework which describes how the intervention affects change. The ToC can be strengthened by inserting sociological or psychological theories at key points to explain why particular links happen. For example, behavioral change theories may explain why community awareness-raising activities increase uptake of services as one link in a ToC describing how to improve maternal and child health outcomes. Equally, a ToC approach is complimentary to other frameworks which seek to reduce the chance of implementation failure, such as Normalization Process Theory (NPT)[ 21 ]. While NPT provides a framework detailing what questions should be asked to design an intervention that is more likely to be ‘normalized’ into routine practice, ToC provides an explanation for how these questions can be answered. ToC can also be used to strengthen randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and other evaluations by building and validating program theories of interventions that are then empirically tested[ 4 ].

Although similar to other theory-driven approaches to evaluation, ToC differs in a number of key ways. Logic models, for example, present a simplified model of action in a rigid linear way which articulates inputs, activities and outcomes but which does not make explicit how they are linked, or measure whether they have been achieved. Logical frameworks (log frames) are also rigidly structured and include resources, inputs, outputs, outcomes, impacts and assumptions, as well as indicators for success and specific milestones to measure. However, log frames do not necessarily explain how the various components work together in a causal pathway to achieve the impact[ 22 ], and do not link activities to outcomes. Although suitable for program monitoring and evaluation, these approaches are less useful in a research setting where the understanding of the mechanisms underlying the intervention is a key goal in unpacking the ‘black box’ of complex health interventions.

ToC has a number of advantages over these approaches. Firstly, ToC is a more flexible format which makes explicit the causal pathways through which the outcomes and activities work to achieve the desired impact, but which does not impose a pre-defined structure (such as linear structures in logic models or a cycle as in project cycle management)[ 23 ]. Instead, ToC allows for multiple causal pathways, levels of interventions and feedback loops which better reflect the reality of how complex interventions achieve their impact. Secondly, the articulation of the evidence base as the rationale for each link (pre-condition) in the causal pathway ensures that each step along the causal pathway is evidence based. Lastly, as the achievement of each pre-condition is measured through an indicator, this allows for a detailed understanding of how and whether an intervention is working and which components of a complex intervention are the most important in achieving impact.

Although ToC has been used in a research context, it is not a well-known approach in evaluation methods for complex health interventions. In a systematic review in preparation, we found 51 articles which used ToC to some extent in the design, implementation or evaluation of public health interventions (E Breuer, personal communication). However, most did not use ToC systematically throughout the research process or did not describe in significant detail how the ToC informed the development or evaluation of their intervention. None of the papers reported using ToC in RCTs or suggested using ToC together with the MRC framework.

We are currently piloting the use of ToC to design, implement and evaluate complex interventions for mental health in a number of research projects in low- and middle-income countries. These include both RCTs and observational designs to which ToC is also suited. Throughout the paper we use the example of the South Asian Hub for Advocacy, Research and Education on mental health (SHARE) trial b to illustrate the process of developing a ToC within the MRC framework. SHARE is adapting an evidence-based counselling intervention for maternal depression delivered by Community Health Workers in Pakistan[ 24 ] to be delivered by peer support workers as this is more sustainable in a low resource context. The effectiveness of the peer-delivery system is being evaluated through a cluster RCT in Pakistan and an individual RCT in India. The SHARE example also demonstrates that ToC can be used both to develop new interventions and also to adapt existing interventions to new contexts or models of service delivery. To provide further examples, Case Study 1 describes the use of ToC in the Rehabilitation Intervention for people with Schizophrenia in Ethiopia (RISE) trial, and Case Study 2 describes the use of ToC in a non-randomized evaluation in the PRogramme for Improving Mental health care (PRIME), integrating mental health into primary care in five low- and middle-income countries.

Ethical approval

Ethical approval for SHARE, including the ToC workshops, was granted by the Indian Council of Medical Research, Sangath Institutional Review Board, India, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK (reference 7141). Ethical approval for RISE was including the ToC workshops was granted by the Addis Ababa University College of Health Sciences Institutional Review Board (reference 039/13/PSY), the Addis Ababa University Department of Psychiatry (reference MF/PSY/212/2005) and from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK (reference 6408). Ethical Approval for PRIME was granted by the University of Cape Town (reference HREC 412/2011) and from Institutional Review Boards in each of the five participating countries, as well as by the World Health Organization. Either verbal or written informed consent was obtained from all of the participants in the ToC workshops in all the projects.

The results describe how ToC was applied to each phase of the MRC framework (development, piloting, evaluation and dissemination) in the context of the SHARE trial. The two case studies provide further practical examples of how ToC can be used in combination with each stage of the MRC framework to develop and evaluate complex interventions.

Development of complex interventions using Theory of Change

At the start of the intervention development phase, ToC uses a participatory approach by bringing together a range of stakeholders (for example health service planners, healthcare workers and service users) to develop a ToC map and to encourage stakeholder buy-in to the project[ 25 ]. This takes the form of a series of workshops, interviews or focus groups, with the choice of method based upon what is locally feasible and acceptable[ 15 ].

In the workshop, stakeholders first agree on the real-world impact they want to achieve. They then identify the causal pathways through which this change can be achieved in that context using the available resources. These are articulated as a series of preconditions leading to outcomes, the order of which can be adjusted as the pathway develops. Determining what contextual conditions are necessary to achieve the outcomes, what resources are required to implement the interventions, and how the program gains the commitment of those resources are crucial outputs of the process. There are several guidelines available which may assist with conducting ToC workshops[ 12 , 26 ].

Additional components of the ToC map include: identifying the interventions needed to move from one precondition on the causal pathway to the next and articulating the evidence for each link in the pathway. This rationale may be drawn from a range of sources including research evidence, behaviour change theories, local knowledge or from primary research conducted as part of the intervention feasibility and piloting stage. Drawing on a more diverse set of evidence and experience should produce a more plausible intervention. In addition, the key assumptions which set out the conditions which the causal pathway needs to achieve impact are highlighted. Through this process, potential barriers and interventions needed to overcome these barriers can be identified so that the ultimate impact can be achieved. Lastly, indicators are identified for each precondition in the pathway to evaluate whether each stage of the pathway leading to the final impact is achieved.

All these components are displayed graphically on a ToC map, often with an accompanying narrative that describes the pathways and key assumptions. Figure  1 presents the ToC map for SHARE India and Table  1 elaborates on common ToC terminology and definitions outlined above.In SHARE, the research team who developed the original intervention in Pakistan constructed a ToC map describing how the intervention worked. This was used as the basis of ToC workshops in India to modify the intervention to be delivered by peer support workers, adapt it to the Indian context and facilitate stakeholder buy-in to the project. Eighteen health professionals (9 doctors, 3 gynecologists and 2 psychiatrists) and 11 other professionals (3 counsellors, 5 staff nurses and 3 community maternal health workers) participated in a half-day ToC workshop held in the district hospital where the trial was to be conducted, facilitated by the research team. The output from the SHARE workshop comprised a ToC map (Figure  1 ) and a detailed report generated from an analysis of the group discussions outlining the barriers in delivering the intervention and strategies to overcome them.

Feasibility and piloting complex interventions using Theory of Change

Before an intervention is implemented, the ToC should be tested in the feasibility and piloting phase of the MRC framework. This involves using assumptions articulated in the ToC to formulate research questions to test in formative research. This may help reduce implementation failure as weak links in the causal pathway are tested and strengthened, leading to a revision of the intervention where necessary. The ToC is then modified to reflect changes resulting from the feasibility and piloting phase and a revised ToC is taken forward for formal testing in the evaluation phase. Developing a ToC must be a continual process of reflection and adaptation as barriers to implementation arise and new evidence comes to light, requiring pathways to be changed and strengthened.The assumptions generated by SHARE’S ToC were used to generate questions to be tested in the intervention’s formative research. Key assumptions being tested through qualitative interviews with community members and mothers include ‘peer support workers with the necessary qualities to be counsellors exist in the community and have the time and motivation to be counsellors’ (Figure  1 , assumption B), and ‘mothers are willing to receive counselling by peer support workers’ (Figure  1 , assumption E). Other formative research methods to test key assumptions include an analysis of patient flow through the antenatal and immunization clinics where mothers with depression will be identified, an assessment of the existing referral system for specialist mental health care, and qualitative interviews with clinic staff to determine the most acceptable and feasible methods of screening mothers attending the clinics.

Evaluating complex interventions using Theory of Change

The evaluation stage of a complex intervention using a ToC approach involves identifying at least one indicator for every precondition within that framework to measure whether it has been achieved. Indicators must be specific enough to describe what change is necessary in the precondition to move up the causal pathway (for example how many people need to be trained in order to deliver the intervention as intended). Pre-specifying the level of change needed to achieve an precondition makes it easier to design the components of the intervention to achieve that target. It also ensures that the indicators are meaningful measures of whether a precondition has been achieved or not. For example in SHARE, we measure whether the peer support workers have acquired the skills from training in order to deliver the counselling as intended, rather than simply recording how many people have been trained.

Evaluation using a ToC framework involves measuring indicators at all stages of implementation, not just an intervention’s primary and secondary outcomes. This includes a wider range of input, process, output and outcome indicators than may normally be measured, with a clear focus on measuring whether key stages in the causal pathway are achieved. ToC can therefore be used as the theoretical framework on which to base a detailed process evaluation necessary to unpack the ‘black box’ of a complex intervention[ 5 , 27 ]. ToC allows for multiple outcomes of the intervention to be pre-specified within a theoretical framework, thereby explicitly evaluating the multiple outcomes that complex interventions may lead to. In SHARE, multiple preconditions to be captured by the evaluation include the core competencies of peer support workers, the willingness of mothers with depression to seek and receive treatment, as well as the long-term outcomes of the impact of the intervention on maternal clinical, social and economic outcomes, as well as on child health.

As a result, an evaluation based on ToC will require a number of different methods to capture all of the indicators. In SHARE, the evaluation includes an RCT to assess the effect of peer-counselling on patient outcomes, nested studies of the fidelity of training including an assessment of the competencies achieved by peer support workers and the quality of supervision received, and collection of clinic based data to measure key preconditions in the ToC map such as the proportion of women who are referred to peer-counselling who receive treatment, and their adherence to the sessions.

The analysis of data collected using a ToC approach has the potential to combine process and effectiveness indicators into a single analysis which can help untangle whether, how and why an intervention has an impact in a particular context, and whether it may be suitable for scale-up or for adaptation to new settings. In order for this to be achieved, appropriate modelling techniques need to be applied, drawing on methods from other fields such as structural equation modelling[ 28 ], discrete-event simulation models[ 29 ], agent-based modelling[ 30 ], and system dynamics modelling[ 31 ]. The application of these methods to the analysis of complex interventions is an important area for further research.

Implementing complex interventions using Theory of Change

Experience of implementation and evidence gathered from the evaluation is combined to revise the ToC and produce the final ‘story’ of how the intervention worked in a particular setting. This provides a comprehensive description of the intervention which can be disseminated to a variety of audiences, providing information on the components of the intervention that need to be adapted for use in other settings. The MRC guidance calls for more detailed and standardized descriptions of complex interventions in published reports to facilitate exchange of knowledge and to encourage synthesis of results from similar studies[ 1 , 32 ]. As the projects described in this paper are still ongoing, it remains to be tested whether ToC is a useful tool to meet this challenge. A full description of Case Study 1 and Case Study 2 can be found below.

Case Study 1 | Use of Theory of Change in the RISE Trial

The RISE trial (Rehabilitation Intervention for people with Schizophrenia in Ethiopia) aims to develop and test in a cluster-randomized trial, community-based rehabilitation (CBR) for people with schizophrenia in Sodo, a rural district in Ethiopia. CBR is a multi-sectoral method for improving social inclusion and functioning in people with disabilities[ 33 ]. CBR has been shown to improve outcomes in people with schizophrenia in India[ 34 ], but intervention development work was needed to design an intervention suitable for Ethiopia, a setting with fewer public sector resources. A situational analysis, literature review and review of existing CBR guidelines and projects were undertaken first. This allowed us to identify potential CBR components for RISE, including health (for example adherence support), social (for example social skills training), livelihood (for example, support returning to work), empowerment (self-help groups) and education (literacy group) elements.

Development of the intervention

Two ToC workshops were held with key stakeholders to determine the feasibility of delivering these intervention components in Sodo district. The first half-day workshop involved eight national experts in CBR and mental health. The second half-day workshop was held in Sodo and included 20 community leaders, including district-level representatives of microfinance, education, police, traditional healers and religious leaders. The ToC map was created at the first workshop and presented to and refined in the second workshop. Additional file 1 lists a summary version of the ToC map. Through these workshops, the CBR components were finalized and the key delivery structures were developed. For example, the key decision was made that CBR should be delivered by CBR workers, specially recruited and trained for RISE, rather than existing government community health workers. The workshops also allowed us to recognize the richness of local resources, and how these might be utilized for CBR, for example literacy groups and edirs (burial associations).

Feasibility and piloting of the intervention

Following the ToC workshop, we conducted 16 qualitative interviews and five focus groups with people with schizophrenia, caregivers, community leaders, existing CBR workers (for people with physical disabilities), and community and primary healthcare workers to test the assumptions identified in the ToC map. For example, a key concern was that it would be difficult to find and retain local CBR fieldworkers willing to work with people with schizophrenia, due to concerns about safety and stigma. The qualitative interviews showed that if adequate safety and supervision mechanisms were provided (for example risk assessment) recruitment and retention would be possible. A second assumption, that community leaders would be willing to participate without personal gain, generated conflicting views from different stakeholder groups. Female caregivers, based on their previous experiences, were skeptical that community leaders would provide support, whilst community leaders themselves were keen to collaborate. These differing opinions highlighted the importance of the pilot in understanding how CBR will work in practice. The ToC map was amended using the qualitative results and will continue to be adapted following the pilot, which will be conducted in mid-2014.

Evaluation of the intervention

The preconditions, long-term outcomes and indicators arising from the ToC map were used to plan a comprehensive and meaningful evaluation for RISE which combines an assessment of both the effectiveness of the intervention and also the process of implementation. One strength of CBR is that it is tailored to individual needs, meaning each CBR recipient receives a different ‘version’ of CBR. However, this means it is difficult to evaluate which CBR component, or synergy between components, results in positive outcomes for recipients. Using ToC allowed us to conceptualize how different CBR components fit onto the causal pathway to improved functioning in people with schizophrenia, and to develop appropriate ways to evaluate each component. Ultimately this will allow us to determine the active ingredients of CBR and how the process of implementation affects outcomes, in order to adapt and refine the intervention for scaling up in Ethiopia, or to translate it for implementation in new settings.

A challenge of using ToC was the difficulty in operationalizing true ownership of the ToC map by stakeholders in the workshops. Although stakeholders provided the content, the map itself was created and ‘owned’ by the researchers throughout the process. This may have been due to the short time frame for explaining the concepts behind both ToC and CBR, before asking for participation in creating the map.

Case study 2 | Use of Theory of Change in the PRrogramme for Improving Mental health care (PRIME)

PRIME is developing and evaluating district level mental health care plans integrating mental health services into primary care in five low- and middle-income countries (India, South Africa, Ethiopia, Uganda and Nepal)[ 35 ]. Within PRIME, we used ToC as a conceptual framework underpinning the development and evaluation of the mental health care plans at a country level and also at a cross-country level to provide a framework highlighting commonalities across all five countries. The use of ToC in the PRIME program is described in detail elsewhere[ 36 ].

The PRIME Cross Country ToC was developed with 15 members of the PRIME team from all countries at a workshop in Goa, India at the start of the program. This initial ToC described the causal pathways of how the PRIME interventions would need to work in order to achieve the ultimate impact of ‘improved health, social, and economic outcomes for people with priority disorders and their families/carers in the PRIME districts’. A summary version of the PRIME Cross Country ToC is shown in Additional file 2 .

Following the drafting of the cross-country ToC, individual countries developed district specific ToCs during a series of ToC workshops which are described in detail elsewhere[ 36 ]. In brief, between two and four workshops were held in each country with stakeholders including policymakers, district level health planners and management, mental health specialists, researchers, and service providers. The size of the workshops varied significantly between countries with a median of 15 (interquartile range 13 to 22) stakeholders attending each workshop. The workshops provided an opportunity to develop logical, evidence-based ToC maps with stakeholders, contextualize the mental health care plans and elicit buy-in from stakeholders and acted as a forum for knowledge exchange between researchers and stakeholders. Stakeholders provided detailed knowledge on the functioning of the health system and information about local resources which could be mobilized for the implementation of the mental health care plans. The researchers provided guidance on the development on the ToC, the evidence available for potential interventions, as well as strategies to evaluate the success of the plans. The ToC maps were further developed after the ToC workshops and used as a basis for the development of the district specific mental health care plans, in combination with a variety of other methods including a situational analysis[ 37 ], a costing tool, and interviews and focus group discussions with key stakeholders. The Cross Country ToC was then further refined by comparing it to the district specific ToC maps to ensure that all the key preconditions and long-term outcomes across countries were captured.

The cross-country ToC highlighted a number of assumptions which were used to develop cross-country topic guides for formative semi-structured interview guides and focus group discussions with stakeholders designed to test the feasibility of the interventions. These were supplemented by questions designed to answer country-specific assumptions taken from the district level ToCs. The subsequent qualitative interviews and focus groups gathered information in each country on access and demand for mental health care, service delivery recovery and rehabilitation and accountability. The results of this formative research were used to refine the district specific ToCs and develop the mental health care plans in each country.

The indicators for the cross-country ToC were refined using the indicators from the district specific ToC maps and compared across countries to identify common indicators across countries that could be used as the basis of an evaluation strategy to answer cross-country research questions such as whether the mental health care plans reduce the treatment gap in the districts, and whether the patients treated by the programs have improved clinical, social and economic functioning. These indicators were used to plan the evaluation design for PRIME. A variety of evaluation methodologies are being used, including detailed process evaluations, repeat cross-sectional surveys, cohort studies and RCTs. As the PRIME evaluation is ongoing, we have not yet been able to test whether the process and outcome indicators from the ToC can be combined in a single analysis or to test the usefulness of ToC in the implementation of the interventions at scale. These will be the subject of future research by PRIME.

One of the challenges in PRIME was using multiple ToC maps at different levels. The PRIME cross-country ToC map provided us with an overall framework of the causal pathways required for the integration of mental health care into primary health care but did not specify the country specific context and resources. In particular, the interventions which will be implemented in each country as part of the mental health care plan are different for each district according to local feasibility, existing financial and human resources and cultural acceptability. For this reason, a locally adapted district level ToC was essential for each country to ensure that these factors are accounted for in the design and evaluation of their mental health care plan. However, having an overarching ToC allowed a cross-country view of how the programs were likely to work in all countries which led to the development of an evaluation design which could be used across all countries. Another limitation of the ToC approach is that if it is to be developed with stakeholders, it requires a significant amount of work facilitating the ToC workshops and compiling the resulting ToC. However, as this process is structured around the components of the ToC and has a defined output, it is an efficient way to conduct discussions with stakeholders[ 36 ]. Critical to the success of ToC in PRIME has been having a ‘ToC champion’ who took responsibility for coordinating with countries to help them develop their district level ToC, and drove forward the development and refinement of the cross-country ToC.

Our experience of using ToC in three projects designing and evaluating complex interventions to improve mental health has demonstrated a number of benefits, which we believe strengthen the existing MRC framework. Figure  2 summarizes how using ToC has the potential to strengthen each phase in the MRC framework.

figure 2

How Theory of Change can be used to strengthen the MRC framework. Adapted from Craig et al. [ 1 ].

Using a ToC approach for the development of an intervention may enhance the MRC framework in two key ways. Firstly, using a ToC approach provides a useful framework to guide stakeholder engagement. While stakeholder participation is an increasingly an important part of health services research c , using a ToC approach may prompt a deeper level of engagement than other methods as it enables stakeholders to take part in the initial design of the intervention in a formal and participatory way. This was certainly true in the PRIME and RISE projects where we found a deeper level of stakeholder engagement from a relatively short workshop. However, our experience from all three projects indicates that this stakeholder engagement in the ToC process does not extend beyond the workshops, and that a ToC champion within the project is needed to drive the process forward.

Secondly, it may improve the initial design and potential effectiveness of the intervention by explicitly designing interventions which are embedded in the local context and seek to have an impact in the real world as opposed to in a research setting. Designing a feasible intervention that is likely to work in the constraints of the context and available resources is challenging. Agreeing on how interventions lead to outcomes can be politically charged if achieving those outcomes implies a major resource reallocation, or changes in work patterns away from the current status. One of the strengths of ToC is that design and implementation issues are brought centre-stage from the start, and if any aspects of the intervention are politically unacceptable, or if the resources will not be available, then all stakeholders have to compromise and come to alternative solutions to ensure that the impact is achieved. This was demonstrated in the RISE trial where very early on in the workshop it became clear that using government community health workers to deliver the intervention as we had planned would not be politically acceptable, leading the group to decide to train dedicated CBR workers.

Another advantage of the ToC process is embedding the intervention within the context in which it is to be implemented, which enables contextual factors which may affect implementation to be highlighted and tracked, along with potential unintended consequences of the intervention. This was also shown in RISE where the workshops highlighted the richness of local resources that could be utilized for the CBR intervention, such as local literacy groups and burial associations that the CBR workers could refer people to. In PRIME, we have designed district, primary healthcare facility and community level case studies to track changes in the local context (such as changes in local health priorities or staffing levels in primary healthcare facilities) that may affect the impact that the mental health care plans have. By forcing us to measure not only the process of implementing the interventions but also the context in which it is implemented, we hope to be able to conduct a much richer analysis of how and why the PRIME mental health care plans achieve any impact. This is particularly important in evaluations of complex interventions where the context may facilitate or impede the success of the intervention[ 38 ].

One key advantage of using ToC to pilot the feasibility of interventions is that it enables the systematic identification of knowledge gaps to generate research questions for the pilot stage. Completing the rationale for each link in the causal pathway highlights which linkages lack evidence and therefore what additional work is needed to fill those gaps. Secondly, highlighting specific barriers to intervention delivery early on enables strategies to overcome these barriers to be incorporated into the intervention design. An example of this from SHARE is the need for consensus building workshops with policymakers and hospital staff to change attitudes towards using peer-counsellors for treating maternal depression, which we have now made part of the intervention.

A key intended benefit of using a ToC framework for the evaluation of complex interventions, particularly in trials, is that it breaks down the barriers between evaluations of intervention effectiveness and process evaluations by combining them into one framework. Though detailed process evaluations are becoming more widely used in trials, they are rarely combined with an assessment of intervention effectiveness in a single analysis, enabling interpretation of the outcome data in light of the process data. As the three projects we describe in the paper have not yet reached the analysis stage, it remains unknown whether this benefit will be realized. Future work needs to explore ways of modelling the pathways to impact by combining process and outcome data, enabling a more nuanced assessment of which components of the intervention may be most critical for achieving the desired outcome.

Our research has shown that ToC is useful in the implementation phase of the MRC framework as it helps to develop locally adapted, contextually relevant plans developed with stakeholders, including local policymakers, which are therefore more likely to be feasible and acceptable and work within existing resource constraints. ToC may confer important benefits for the dissemination of information about an intervention as the ToC map may be a powerful visual tool for describing the key components of an intervention and how it impacts on outcomes. This can be used by other researchers to understand how the intervention worked (for example in systematic reviews[ 39 , 40 ]) and also be used to advocate with policymakers to facilitate the scale-up of successful interventions. Using ToC in this way will be the subject of future research in the projects described in this paper.

As with any approach, there are limitations. The lack of a standardized definition causes confusion and we urge researchers to adopt the definition used by the Aspen Institute[ 11 ]. In addition, comprehensive ToC maps may contain a lot of detail with many smaller process preconditions required to achieve impact. Using a detailed ToC with many preconditions and indicators to measure whether that precondition has been achieved may result in an exhaustive list of indicators to measure and a subsequently complex and expensive evaluation plan. This was the case in PRIME, where the demands of conducting a complex evaluation across five countries had to be balanced against the resources required to carry out such an evaluation. As a result, we had to refine the cross-country ToC map to ensure that it contained only the key preconditions and long-term outcomes necessary for the impact to be achieved, and that we only evaluated the key steps in the pathway.

Many of the benefits of the ToC approach derive from the participatory nature of the development of the ToC. If stakeholders are not sufficiently consulted or engaged in the development of the ToC, it is likely that using a ToC becomes yet another box to tick rather than a deeper exploration of the pathways to achieve impact[ 13 ]. This may particularly be the case where the decision to develop a ToC is made by the funder rather than seen as an integral part of program development, as shown by the use of ToC as part of the evaluation of the Health Action Zones in the UK. However, more than three quarters of the initiatives did not develop a ToC map as implementers felt that the development of a ToC was taking resources away from implementation[ 18 ]. In our experience, having a nominated ToC champion on the research team who is tasked with overseeing the ToC process and driving it forward throughout the project, is critical to the success of the approach.

Our experiences resonate with other examples of applications of theory-driven evaluation approaches, including ToC, which are reported in the literature. Afifi et al. [ 41 ] found that using a participatory approach to developing a logic model as the basis for a mental health promotion intervention for youth in a refugee community in Beirut improved the design of their intervention. In their program, a community youth committee was involved in the development of the logic model and provided input into the content and delivery format of the intervention resulting in a more relevant, feasible and sustainable intervention. Similarly, Hernandez and Hodges[ 42 ] used ToC developed with stakeholders to organize services for youth in contact with the juvenile justice system. They found that ToC assisted with creating a shared vision among stakeholders which promoted service integration across a variety of sectors. This also allowed planners to envisage what is expected within a community and how the actions of stakeholders can bring this about. Other experiences also highlight that ToC can assist with structuring and prioritizing the evaluation of complex interventions[ 17 , 43 – 46 ]. However, few provide enough detail to understand how ToC informed both the design of the program and the subsequent evaluation.

It is still in the early stages. While we have tested the use of ToC in three research projects across six countries, these are all mental health programs in low- and middle-income countries, and none have completed the evaluation, analysis or dissemination of the evaluation. Further research is needed in other settings, for other types of complex interventions, and into the usefulness of ToC as a framework for analysis and dissemination of results.

This paper is the first to describe the use of ToC in conjunction with the MRC framework for the development and evaluation of complex interventions, and to provide three case studies testing this approach. Indications from our initial experiences are that, used in conjunction with the MRC framework, ToC may be a useful tool to improve the development and evaluation design of complex interventions in research projects. We urge researchers to consider using this approach and to evaluate its usefulness within a research context.

a http://www.theoryofchange.org/

b http://www.centreforglobalmentalhealth.org/projects-research/share-south-asian-hub-advocacy-research-and-education-mental-health

c See for example: Patient and Public Involvement http://www.ccf.nihr.ac.uk/PPI/Pages/default.aspx and the James Lind Alliance http://www.lindalliance.org/ .

Abbreviations

  • Theory of Change

Medical Research Council

Department for International Development.

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Acknowledgements

The concept was developed as part of a wider research consortium, the PRogramme for Improving Mental health carE (PRIME), funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) for the benefit of LMIC (HRPC10). It was further developed as part of a project to develop a Theory of Change for Grand Challenges Canada Global Mental Health program. The South Asian Hub for Advocacy, Research and Education on mental health program is funded by the US National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) (grant number: 1U19MH095687-01). MDS is funded by an LSHTM/Wellcome Trust Fellowship and Grand Challenges Canada, EB by the UK Department for International Development (HRPC10), LA is supported by the Wellcome Trust (grant number: 100142/Z/12/Z), CL by the UK Department for International Development (HRPC10) and NIMH (grant number: U19MH095699), LL by Grand Challenges Canada, and VP by a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship in Tropical Medicine. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of any of the funders.

We are grateful to all of our project partners and collaborators on the SHARE, PRIME, RISE and Grand Challenges Canada projects for working with us to develop the use of Theory of Change for the design and evaluation of complex interventions.

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Authors’ contributions

MDS conceived the idea for this project and developed the initial use of ToC for the design and evaluation of complex interventions in conjunction with the MRC framework, with support from LL, EB, CL and VP. EB, MDS, CL and VP developed the use of ToC in the PRIME program. NC, VP and MDS developed the use of ToC in the SHARE trial. LA and MDS developed the use of ToC in the RISE trial. MDS wrote the first draft of the paper. LA wrote Case Study 1 and EB Case Study 2. All authors revised and gave final approval to the paper.

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De Silva, M.J., Breuer, E., Lee, L. et al. Theory of Change: a theory-driven approach to enhance the Medical Research Council's framework for complex interventions. Trials 15 , 267 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1186/1745-6215-15-267

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DOI : https://doi.org/10.1186/1745-6215-15-267

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Example of an Introduction

Entrepreneurial Marketing: The Critical Difference

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, John A. Welsh and Jerry F. White remind us that “a small business is not a little big business.” An entrepreneur is not a multinational conglomerate but a profit-seeking individual. To survive, he must have a different outlook and must apply different principles to his endeavors than does the president of a large or even medium-sized corporation. Not only does the scale of small and big businesses differ, but small businesses also suffer from what the Harvard Business Review article calls “resource poverty.” This is a problem and opportunity that requires an entirely different approach to marketing. Where large ad budgets are not necessary or feasible, where expensive ad production squanders limited capital, where every marketing dollar must do the work of two dollars, if not five dollars or even ten, where a person’s company, capital, and material well-being are all on the line—that is, where guerrilla marketing can save the day and secure the bottom line (Levinson, 1984, p. 9).

By reviewing the introductions to research articles in the discipline in which you are writing your research paper, you can get an idea of what is considered the norm for that discipline. Study several of these before you begin your paper so that you know what may be expected. If you are unsure of the kind of introduction your paper needs, ask your professor for more information.  The introduction is normally written in present tense.

THE METHODS SECTION

The methods section of your research paper should describe in detail what methodology and special materials if any, you used to think through or perform your research. You should include any materials you used or designed for yourself, such as questionnaires or interview questions, to generate data or information for your research paper. You want to include any methodologies that are specific to your particular field of study, such as lab procedures for a lab experiment or data-gathering instruments for field research. The methods section is usually written in the past tense.

THE RESULTS SECTION

How you present the results of your research depends on what kind of research you did, your subject matter, and your readers’ expectations. 

Quantitative information —data that can be measured—can be presented systematically and economically in tables, charts, and graphs. Quantitative information includes quantities and comparisons of sets of data. 

Qualitative information , which includes brief descriptions, explanations, or instructions, can also be presented in prose tables. This kind of descriptive or explanatory information, however, is often presented in essay-like prose or even lists.

There are specific conventions for creating tables, charts, and graphs and organizing the information they contain. In general, you should use them only when you are sure they will enlighten your readers rather than confuse them. In the accompanying explanation and discussion, always refer to the graphic by number and explain specifically what you are referring to; you can also provide a caption for the graphic. The rule of thumb for presenting a graphic is first to introduce it by name, show it, and then interpret it. The results section is usually written in the past tense.

THE DISCUSSION SECTION

Your discussion section should generalize what you have learned from your research. One way to generalize is to explain the consequences or meaning of your results and then make your points that support and refer back to the statements you made in your introduction. Your discussion should be organized so that it relates directly to your thesis. You want to avoid introducing new ideas here or discussing tangential issues not directly related to the exploration and discovery of your thesis. The discussion section, along with the introduction, is usually written in the present tense.

THE CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS SECTION

Your conclusion ties your research to your thesis, binding together all the main ideas in your thinking and writing. By presenting the logical outcome of your research and thinking, your conclusion answers your research inquiry for your reader. Your conclusions should relate directly to the ideas presented in your introduction section and should not present any new ideas.

You may be asked to present your recommendations separately in your research assignment. If so, you will want to add some elements to your conclusion section. For example, you may be asked to recommend a course of action, make a prediction, propose a solution to a problem, offer a judgment, or speculate on the implications and consequences of your ideas. The conclusions and recommendations section is usually written in the present tense.

Key Takeaways

  • For the formal academic research assignment, consider an organizational pattern typically used for primary academic research. 
  •  The pattern includes the following: introduction, methods, results, discussion, and conclusions/recommendations.

Mailing Address: 3501 University Blvd. East, Adelphi, MD 20783 This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License . © 2022 UMGC. All links to external sites were verified at the time of publication. UMGC is not responsible for the validity or integrity of information located at external sites.

Table of Contents: Online Guide to Writing

Chapter 1: College Writing

How Does College Writing Differ from Workplace Writing?

What Is College Writing?

Why So Much Emphasis on Writing?

Chapter 2: The Writing Process

Doing Exploratory Research

Getting from Notes to Your Draft

Introduction

Prewriting - Techniques to Get Started - Mining Your Intuition

Prewriting: Targeting Your Audience

Prewriting: Techniques to Get Started

Prewriting: Understanding Your Assignment

Rewriting: Being Your Own Critic

Rewriting: Creating a Revision Strategy

Rewriting: Getting Feedback

Rewriting: The Final Draft

Techniques to Get Started - Outlining

Techniques to Get Started - Using Systematic Techniques

Thesis Statement and Controlling Idea

Writing: Getting from Notes to Your Draft - Freewriting

Writing: Getting from Notes to Your Draft - Summarizing Your Ideas

Writing: Outlining What You Will Write

Chapter 3: Thinking Strategies

A Word About Style, Voice, and Tone

A Word About Style, Voice, and Tone: Style Through Vocabulary and Diction

Critical Strategies and Writing

Critical Strategies and Writing: Analysis

Critical Strategies and Writing: Evaluation

Critical Strategies and Writing: Persuasion

Critical Strategies and Writing: Synthesis

Developing a Paper Using Strategies

Kinds of Assignments You Will Write

Patterns for Presenting Information

Patterns for Presenting Information: Critiques

Patterns for Presenting Information: Discussing Raw Data

Patterns for Presenting Information: General-to-Specific Pattern

Patterns for Presenting Information: Problem-Cause-Solution Pattern

Patterns for Presenting Information: Specific-to-General Pattern

Patterns for Presenting Information: Summaries and Abstracts

Supporting with Research and Examples

Writing Essay Examinations

Writing Essay Examinations: Make Your Answer Relevant and Complete

Writing Essay Examinations: Organize Thinking Before Writing

Writing Essay Examinations: Read and Understand the Question

Chapter 4: The Research Process

Planning and Writing a Research Paper

Planning and Writing a Research Paper: Ask a Research Question

Planning and Writing a Research Paper: Cite Sources

Planning and Writing a Research Paper: Collect Evidence

Planning and Writing a Research Paper: Decide Your Point of View, or Role, for Your Research

Planning and Writing a Research Paper: Draw Conclusions

Planning and Writing a Research Paper: Find a Topic and Get an Overview

Planning and Writing a Research Paper: Manage Your Resources

Planning and Writing a Research Paper: Outline

Planning and Writing a Research Paper: Survey the Literature

Planning and Writing a Research Paper: Work Your Sources into Your Research Writing

Research Resources: Where Are Research Resources Found? - Human Resources

Research Resources: What Are Research Resources?

Research Resources: Where Are Research Resources Found?

Research Resources: Where Are Research Resources Found? - Electronic Resources

Research Resources: Where Are Research Resources Found? - Print Resources

Structuring the Research Paper: Formal Research Structure

Structuring the Research Paper: Informal Research Structure

The Nature of Research

The Research Assignment: How Should Research Sources Be Evaluated?

The Research Assignment: When Is Research Needed?

The Research Assignment: Why Perform Research?

Chapter 5: Academic Integrity

Academic Integrity

Giving Credit to Sources

Giving Credit to Sources: Copyright Laws

Giving Credit to Sources: Documentation

Giving Credit to Sources: Style Guides

Integrating Sources

Practicing Academic Integrity

Practicing Academic Integrity: Keeping Accurate Records

Practicing Academic Integrity: Managing Source Material

Practicing Academic Integrity: Managing Source Material - Paraphrasing Your Source

Practicing Academic Integrity: Managing Source Material - Quoting Your Source

Practicing Academic Integrity: Managing Source Material - Summarizing Your Sources

Types of Documentation

Types of Documentation: Bibliographies and Source Lists

Types of Documentation: Citing World Wide Web Sources

Types of Documentation: In-Text or Parenthetical Citations

Types of Documentation: In-Text or Parenthetical Citations - APA Style

Types of Documentation: In-Text or Parenthetical Citations - CSE/CBE Style

Types of Documentation: In-Text or Parenthetical Citations - Chicago Style

Types of Documentation: In-Text or Parenthetical Citations - MLA Style

Types of Documentation: Note Citations

Chapter 6: Using Library Resources

Finding Library Resources

Chapter 7: Assessing Your Writing

How Is Writing Graded?

How Is Writing Graded?: A General Assessment Tool

The Draft Stage

The Draft Stage: The First Draft

The Draft Stage: The Revision Process and the Final Draft

The Draft Stage: Using Feedback

The Research Stage

Using Assessment to Improve Your Writing

Chapter 8: Other Frequently Assigned Papers

Reviews and Reaction Papers: Article and Book Reviews

Reviews and Reaction Papers: Reaction Papers

Writing Arguments

Writing Arguments: Adapting the Argument Structure

Writing Arguments: Purposes of Argument

Writing Arguments: References to Consult for Writing Arguments

Writing Arguments: Steps to Writing an Argument - Anticipate Active Opposition

Writing Arguments: Steps to Writing an Argument - Determine Your Organization

Writing Arguments: Steps to Writing an Argument - Develop Your Argument

Writing Arguments: Steps to Writing an Argument - Introduce Your Argument

Writing Arguments: Steps to Writing an Argument - State Your Thesis or Proposition

Writing Arguments: Steps to Writing an Argument - Write Your Conclusion

Writing Arguments: Types of Argument

Appendix A: Books to Help Improve Your Writing

Dictionaries

General Style Manuals

Researching on the Internet

Special Style Manuals

Writing Handbooks

Appendix B: Collaborative Writing and Peer Reviewing

Collaborative Writing: Assignments to Accompany the Group Project

Collaborative Writing: Informal Progress Report

Collaborative Writing: Issues to Resolve

Collaborative Writing: Methodology

Collaborative Writing: Peer Evaluation

Collaborative Writing: Tasks of Collaborative Writing Group Members

Collaborative Writing: Writing Plan

General Introduction

Peer Reviewing

Appendix C: Developing an Improvement Plan

Working with Your Instructor’s Comments and Grades

Appendix D: Writing Plan and Project Schedule

Devising a Writing Project Plan and Schedule

Reviewing Your Plan with Others

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The Methodological Basis of Defining Research Trends and Fronts

  • Published: 26 February 2021
  • Volume 47 , pages 221–231, ( 2020 )

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tioc meaning in research introduction

  • N. A. Mazov 1 , 2 ,
  • V. N. Gureev 1 , 3 &
  • V. N. Glinskikh 1  

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The methodological and technical aspects of identifying research fronts and trends in the development of science are considered. Based on the literature data, a comparison of scientometric methods for finding research fronts was carried out: analysis of publication activity, direct citation analysis, co-citation analysis, bibliographic coupling, and content analysis. The advantages of the combined application of various approaches are shown, the role of expert assessment and verification of the results of scientometric analysis is emphasized. We revealed topical problems associated with the detection of scientific fronts by scientometric methods and showed promising directions in their solution.

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INTRODUCTION

The search for scientific trends and research fronts, that is, topical or promising research, is one of the most significant problems in science policy, scientometrics, and the history and philosophy of science and is of decisive importance at the stages of planning scientific activities. The topic of scientific trends and fronts is obvious if it is dictated by socio-political, environmental, and economic factors or threats to national health [ 1 ]. These can be natural disasters, terrorist attacks [ 2 ], economic crises, or the appearance of dangerous diseases in the human population, such as the outbreak of influenza A/H1N1 pandemic in 2009 [ 3 ] or SARS Cov2 in 2019–2020. In these cases, the scientific community, states, research and funding organizations are actively and consistently involved in the search for solutions to emerging problems. The fronts of science are much less obvious in the absence of such events; they then themselves become an object of study, requiring the development and use of methodological foundations and appropriate tools to identify them.

Scientific trends and fronts, as a rule, are the object of research of science itself, and their identification is an attempt to search for new growth points, as represented by the most promising ideas and developments that are important for the further development of science and technology. In other words, a search is carried out for changing objects of research in their relation to existing knowledge and to each other [ 4 ]. When identifying research trends and fronts it is predominantly scientometric methods that are used.

In a continuation of previous studies in the field of scientific trends in various fields of knowledge [ 5 – 7 ] and in the absence of reviews on the topic of detecting research fronts, we further consider the concepts of research trends and fronts, classify approaches, and describe the tools for their detection, as well as study the current issues that are pending their decision. When reviewing the literature, the Scopus and RJ “Informatika” databases of VINITI were used without restrictions on time and types of documents. The request included the following keywords: “research front”, “research trend”, and “research focus”. Additionally, sources from lists of references based on search results were used.

A METHODOLOGY FOR IDENTIFICATION OF RESEARCH TRENDS AND FRONTS

In general, a research front is understood as the situation where the interests and needs of society coincide with the current scientific results [ 8 ]. The key object of analysis in identifying research fronts is the groups of scientific publications and their interrelationships. According to the classical definition of D. Price, a research front is a densely cited network of recently published papers [ 9 ]. In a more detailed definition, a research front is understood as a group of recently published articles with a common topic, which are strictly connected by a network of citations among themselves and weakly connected with publications outside the group [ 10 ]. At the same time, strong links between citations within a group are characteristic of a research front at the initial stage of its development, while at later stages, with an increase in the number of citations, including from other scientific areas, this connection weakens. The strength of citation links between publications of clusters is determined by predetermined threshold values that are unique for each scientific field. The sizes of research fronts also depend on the discipline, which usually ranges from a few publications to several dozen. As an example, in the latest report on research fronts from Clarivate Analytics the spread is from 2 to 50 articles [ 11 ]; sometimes a minimum threshold is set, for example, 10 publications [ 12 ].

The concept of a research trend is close in meaning to a research front. A research trend is the collective action of a group of researchers, each of which begins to pay considerable attention to a specific scientific topic: read scientific publications on this topic, refer to them, and publish the results of their own research [ 4 ]. At times the concepts of the research front and research trend are used synonymously [ 13 ].

The main types of research fronts according to the common classification of G. Small [ 8 ] are shown in Fig. 1 . The method for identifying the stage of a research front involves comparing clusters of publications for two or more equal consecutive periods of time.

Types of research fronts.

The Clarivate Analytics together with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in its periodic reports distinguishes only two types of research fronts: key ( key hot fronts ) and incipient ( emerging fronts ) [ 11 ]. Research fronts are also revealed by the Elsevier company based on SciVal data, where the most promising topics are determined by the Prominence indicator.

Under the influence of various factors, the research fronts of the extensive phase can turn into an intensive one, for example, when new promising research methods appear, with increased funding for the field, when there is an urgent need to develop a topic under the influence of external factors, etc. [ 1 ,  12 ]. As a result of the development of a research front, according to G. Small, it can either develop into a new discipline, or be absorbed by a broader field, which adapts the achievements of a research front to a wide group of studies [ 8 ]. In the first case, this indicates the growth of a scientific front, in the second, it indicates its influence on science. As a rule, scientific fronts of interdisciplinary research develop in separate directions, while the absorbed research fronts have little to do with interdisciplinarity, but are gaining citations faster.

Study on research fronts is significant from both fundamental and applied points of view. At the theoretical level, they determine the vector of development of scientific progress and allow tracing the origin and evolution of one field or another, the division and merging of areas of knowledge, contribute to the spread of knowledge between scientific disciplines [ 14 ], and allow adjusting organizational processes when new knowledge meets traditional paradigms that dictate research topics, standards and regulations [ 15 ]. The identification of research fronts is of practical interest for a wide range of stakeholders involved in the definition of priority areas of scientific research and their funding.

To date, three main scientometric approaches are widely used to identify research trends and fronts: analysis of the dynamics of changes in scientific production, citation analysis with its varieties, and content analysis, as well as their various combinations.

Analysis of Publication Activity to Identify Research Trends

Analysis of publication activity is usually used to identify research trends, while citation analysis is used to identify research fronts [ 4 , 16 ]. When analyzing scientific production, expressed by the number of publications, one resorts to models of the growth of scientific knowledge:

(1) in the first model, the growth of knowledge is considered as the cumulative development of new ideas based on previous recent scientific achievements;

(2) the second model assumes that the development of new ideas is based on the entire body of human knowledge, and not only on recent achievements. According to this model, there is a selective choice of grounds for a new idea from all of human scientific experience;

(3) the third model is based on the theory of scientific revolutions by T. Kuhn [ 17 ] and presupposes an intensive growth of knowledge interrupted by periods of calm.

There is no consensus about which of the proposed models most closely corresponds to reality, especially since each of them, to one degree or another, explains the ongoing scientific events in various disciplines. Each of these paradigms can correspond to some mathematical model of the growth of scientific literature, for example, linear or exponential [ 18 ]. In natural science disciplines, exponential growth often prevails; when identifying scientific trends researchers therefore turn to D. Price on the exponential growth and obsolescence of scientific literature [ 19 , 20 ]. The scattering law is used to identify a scientific information trend according to S. Bradford [ 21 ], which allows identification of the core of scientific journals of a given subject.

An example of a study using this method is the work to identify research trends in the field of tourism [ 22 ]. A circle of authors and organizations that form a research trend on this topic was determined according to zones of concentration and dispersion of Bradford’s scientific information, as well as the analysis of the scientific productivity and authoritativeness of publications. The analysis of research trends in the field of borehole geophysics was carried out by the authors of this work: the leading positions of this field in the field of earth sciences were identified, the most productive authors were detected and the redistribution of leading positions between countries over the past 20 years was shown [ 7 ]. Further identification of research trends and fronts in the field of geophysics is extremely important, since it is associated with the search for new research areas, primarily for the creation of innovative technologies. In the field of borehole geophysics, “cheap” logging technologies will be the most demanded by both large and small service companies in the near future, which is due to the end of time of “expensive” oil.

Citation Analysis to Identify Research Fronts

The main method in identifying research fronts is citation analysis, which makes it possible to trace the growth of interest and relevance of a particular topic by the dynamics of changes in the number of citations of publications of a particular field. Citation analysis is considered more objective in comparison with expert assessment, since it takes the opinion of the entire scientific world community of scientists expressed in references [ 23 ]. The approach is based on the observation that recent scientific publications are the most cited. Thus, the identification of thematic clusters of the most cited publications allows us to identify the research front of the corresponding discipline [ 9 ]. The response time to published papers varies across disciplines, but on average is 2–5 years, during which half of simultaneously published publications are cited [ 24 ]. Within the framework of citation analysis, where both cited and citing publications are clustered, a research front is understood as:

(a) a group of the most cited publications identified by direct citation analysis [ 4 , 9 ];

(b) a group of co-cited publications identified by co-citation analysis, positions 6 and 7 in Fig. 2b [ 25 – 27 ]. The cluster of a research front, in addition to co-cited publications, may include citing publications, positions 1, 6 and 7 in Fig. 2b [ 28 ]. This definition of research fronts was used by E. Garfield [ 29 ]; this approach is still implemented by the Clarivate Analytics in periodic reports on research fronts using Web of Science databases [ 11 ]. There is also a third approach, where a research front refers to publications that cited a cluster of co-cited publications, position 1 in Fig. 2b [ 30 ];

The principles of clustering publications used in identifying research fronts. A, direct citation analysis; B, co-citation analysis; B, bibliographic coupling. The top row usually represents recently published publications, the bottom row represents publications of the last 2–5 years. Citation analysis can cover out-of-sample publications.

(c) a group of publications with similar references, identified by the bibliographic coupling method, positions 3 and 4 in Fig. 2b . According to this approach, the articles of a research front themselves may not have citations [ 2 , 12 , 31 – 33 ];

(d) with the joint application of the indicated approaches, a research front is understood, for example, as a group of co-cited publications plus a group of publications with similar references [ 30 , 34 – 37 ], a group of co-cited publications plus publications citing this group [ 38 ], or several groups of publications based on the results of all three approaches [ 28 , 39 , 40 ]. As a rule, when used together, each method is used separately, after which the results are compared or combined. However, it is possible to build complex combined approaches: for example, clustering by bibliographic coupling of those publications in which clusters of co-cited publications are cited; this is then clustering of the first and second levels [ 30 ].

The formal similarity with the clusters of publications of research fronts is demonstrated by artificially created groups of articles united by chief editors, for example, within the framework of special issues of journals, where articles of each issue abundantly cite each other. When analyzing research fronts, groups of publications united by similar publication models are usually excluded from the analysis [ 8 ].

When describing research fronts, the concept of an intellectual base ( knowledge base , knowledge foundation , intellectual base , or intellectual structure ) is used, which means literature cited by publications of a research front [ 2 , 4 , 41 ]. Many studies demonstrate the thematic proximity of an intellectual base and research fronts [ 13 , 31 , 36 , 42 ]. When analyzing co-citation, sometimes confusion of these concepts occurs; while some researchers understand co-cited publications as a research front, others consider them as an intellectual base, and the citing publications as a front (see Figure 2B ). In general, the scientometric task is to identify the points of intellectual displacement (research fronts) in the relatively stable scientific literature (intellectual base).

Co-citation analysis was simultaneously proposed by I.V. Marshakova and G. Small [ 43 , 44 ]: two documents are considered co-cited and thematically related if they both appear in the reference list of a third document (with which the two cited documents also have a thematic relationship) and the citation rate is defined as the frequency with which two documents are cited together. Researchers usually choose a small group of publications that are highly cited within a given period of time as a basis for clustering. This could be 1 or 10% of the highly cited articles, the top 10, top 20 articles, etc.

This approach to the search for scientific fronts has a drawback associated with the nature of citation [ 45 ]. Accordingly, the ability to take new publications into account, which are often of the greatest interest in the search for scientific fronts, is limited [ 46 ]. In other words, co-citation is suitable for identifying a research front at a relatively late stage, and not at the very moment of its emergence [ 8 ]. According to one of the developers of the method of G. Small, the analysis of socializing does not cover the entirety of publications on a scientific front, but rather informs about the emergence of such a front; it is designed to do a quick screening of the scientific landscape rather than a definitive delineation of some specific area [ 8 ]. The approach does not depend on the vocabulary and language of publications.

The bibliographic coupling method proposed by M. Kessler [ 47 , 48 ] presupposes that two works have a meaningful relationship to each other and are thematically related if they have one or more similar references. Thus, a research front consists of publications that jointly cite other publications. Since references to the analyzed papers are not important and only their reference lists are investigated, the method is free from lag (especially if it is applied not to journal publications, but to preprints) and allows one to analyze newly published papers.

The main idea of the method is as follows: (1) a separate bibliographic reference used in two publications is called one unit of coupling between these publications; (2) several publications form a linked group G if each member of the group has at least one coupling unit with the test paper P 0 ; and (3) the coupling strength between P 0 and any member of G is measured by the number of coupling units (n) between them. Like co-citation analysis, the bibliographic coupling method is independent of the vocabulary and language of publications and can be automated. In comparison with the analysis of co-citation analysis, the method of bibliographic coupling is used less often to search for scientific fronts [ 28 , 32 ].

One essential criterion for the study of research fronts is the choice of the citation window. The problem of choosing a citation window received full coverage in [ 32 ]: the model of a traditional static 5-year citation window was compared with a sliding overlapping citation window, as well as with the half-life of highly cited articles. Research with a static citation window was found to be the least labor-intensive; however, the most labor-intensive method with a sliding citation window helped to find more research fronts. At the same time, some of the emerging research fronts identified by the two methods did not intersect, which is why the joint use of static and sliding citation windows was recognized as the most effective.

Since the main scientometric approaches to identifying research fronts involve a procedure for clustering bibliographic data, the results of the analysis can be influenced by clustering methods and the choice of threshold values for the measure of similarity between the grouped elements [ 30 , 31 ]. The object of citation analysis can be both the publications themselves and the authors of these publications, journals and, less often, subject categories [ 49 ].

Co-citation analysis is used to search for scientific fronts in various fields of knowledge: HIV/AIDS [ 15 ], scientific collaboration [ 13 ], library and information science [ 27 ]. The method of bibliographic coupling was used to study the historical development of research fronts in the field of anthrax research [ 12 ]. The joint use of methods of co-citation analysis and bibliographic coupling was carried out to search for scientific fronts in the library and information science [ 36 ] and in the field of battery research [ 37 ]. Author’s citations and content analysis of links were used to identify research fronts in the field of bacterial infections [ 23 ].

The experience of identifying research fronts not for a discipline as a whole, but for an individual organization is remarkable: in [ 49 ], the intellectual base was studied by co-citation analysis; the corpus of publications cited by the organization, on the basis of which a research fronts of the organization itself were further identified. Similar studies of the publication activity and citations of a particular organization were carried out by the authors of this work for more effective information support of scientific projects [ 50 , 51 ], while the developed methods were also applicable for identifying research trends and fronts. The search for scientific fronts can also be carried out for a separate journal: for example, the Journal of the American Society for Information Science. Using the methods of bibliographic coupling and citation analysis, research fronts were identified and a significant closeness of the intellectual base with them was shown [ 31 ].

Content Analysis to Identify Research Fronts

Methods for semantic analysis of metadata and full texts of scientific publications, including neural network technologies [ 52 , 53 ] and algorithms for detecting rapidly spreading, so-called burst terms, which express new phenomena, are widely used in identifying research fronts [ 2 , 14 , 42 , 54 ]. Content analysis investigates the frequency of the use of words in metadata and full texts and, separately, keywords, as well as their joint occurrence in publications. Analysis of the frequency and co-occurrence of keywords is carried out:

(a) on the metadata of publications; in this case, author’s or additional keywords assigned in systems are investigated (for example, KeyWords Plus [ 55 , 56 ] extracted from lists of cited literature) and words from various subject thesauri and authoritative dictionaries (for example, MeSH ), as well as automatically extracted keywords from titles and annotations;

(b) on full texts, where keywords and terms are also extracted and semantically analyzed using software tools.

Some researchers refer to the results of keyword co-occurrence analysis as a research focus, while the research front is considered to be the result of co-citation analysis [ 57 ].

To search for scientific fronts in the field of informatics and accounting, the content analysis method identified topics with growing and dying interest, as well as those that have lost their relevance [ 14 ]. To extract keywords, entity linking method was used that takes the context of the keyword into account. An approach based on the combined use of searching by association rules, keyword analysis and rapidly spreading terms is presented based on the example of anticancer developments in nanomedicine [ 54 ]. Using linguistic methods for searching for the semantic similarity of texts, the identification of research fronts was described in [ 46 ]: a method of comparing phrases and fragments of identical content, not necessarily expressed by the same keywords, was presented. Cluster analysis of author’s keywords was carried out to search for scientific fronts in the field of social sciences: the result of a study in five countries was a map of national science, indicating promising areas [ 1 ].

Content analysis is often combined with citation analysis methods to identify scientific fronts. Thus, research fronts in the field of artificial intelligence were identified through the combined use of methods of bibliographic coupling and content analysis of keywords [ 58 ]. Methods of bibliographic coupling (by co-authors and documents) and content analysis were used to search for scientific fronts in the field of business [ 41 ]. A co-occurrence analysis method combined with co-citation analysis has been used to find research fronts in library and information science in Spain [ 42 ]. The same two methods were used to analyze co-citation fronts in astrophysical research [ 59 ]. A more sophisticated analysis of a research fronts of the interdisciplinary direction is presented using the example of magnetic nanoparticles, where co-citation and co-word networds were studied based on a sample of the 500 most-cited publications [ 60 ].

THE EFFICIENCY OF DIFFERENT TYPES OF SCIENTOMETRIC ANALYSIS IN REVEALING RESEARCH FRONTS

A researcher’s choice of a particular scientometric method is arbitrary in most cases, while in some situations it is necessary to correlate the method with the goals of the study and take the complexity of the calculations into account [ 28 , 39 ]. Different methods are more or less applicable to one type of research front or another. Thus, the emerging research fronts are better identified by the method of bibliographic coupling, which does not have a time delay. If topological clustering is preferable for research, then citation analysis turns out to be more applicable [ 39 ]. If it is necessary to cluster based on the textual similarity of publications, content analysis has proven itself better, in which the frequency analysis of words from metadata or full texts gives better results in comparison with the frequency analysis of an author’s keywords.

The choice of the approach has a significant impact on the results, as shown by the example of publications on environmental protection: the intersection of the results obtained in the co-citation analysis and the method of bibliographic coupling was only 33–41%, which in fact indicated different research fronts [ 30 ]. Comparison of methods of co-citation analysis and bibliographing coupling was carried out by M. Huang et al., who studies the methodological foundations of the search for scientific fronts [ 32 – 34 ]. In a series of publications, the advantages of the bibliographic coupling were shown: with its use, a greater number of fronts were identified, and several fronts were found at an earlier date [ 34 ]. The advantages of bibliographic coupling were disclosed in [ 39 ], although it was indicated that in certain narrow areas the method of direct citation analysis may be preferable, since significant publications may have few thematic links in their field but gain a large number of citations from related fields.

A comparison of direct citation analysis, co-citation analysis, and bibliographic coupling was carried out in [ 61 ] using the example of research fronts in the field of carbon nanotubes, gallium nitride, and complex network: the direct citation method showed the best results for identifying the early stages of the formation of new topics and contributed to the identification of a larger number research fronts. The next most effective methods were the method of bibliographic coupling and co-citation analysis. Another example of comparing all three methods of citation analysis is the study of scientific fronts in biomedicine, where they were additionally compared with textual analysis [ 28 ]. To test the best approach, information on grants was analyzed: since publications on a grant are thematically similar by default, a search was made for the highest concentration of publications on specific grants in each of the clusters.

Weighted Approaches to Improve the Accuracy in Identifying Research Fronts

Over time, increasingly sophisticated approaches to defining research fronts are being developed, with the goal of increasing the accuracy of clustering. One of the trends in this field is the construction of weighted citation networks. With the assignment of weight to the publications of the cluster forming scientific fronts, a series of studies was carried out by K. Fujita et al., proving the benefits of weighted citation networks [ 39 , 40 , 53 ]. The weight of the publication, automatically determined using neural network training technologies, takes the year of publication, the number of citations of the publication, the field of knowledge, and the strength of the links between the reference list of publications and keywords into account [ 39 , 53 ]. A significant advantage of the research of this group is that various bibliometric methods are widely combined here.

The analysis of collective dynamics of knowledge networks represented by weighted citation and keyword networks, which takes both incoming and outgoing connections between network elements into account, was presented in [ 4 ], which shows the advantages of this method over the analysis of direct citation networks, since it more closely approaches identifying research trends in small areas of knowledge. For more accurate clustering, the PageRank algorithm is used to assign different weights to publications of different significance levels: not only are the most cited publications recognized as the most significant in a cluster, but also publications cited by other equally significant publications of the cluster [ 35 ].

An analysis of links that establishes the relationship between the cited publications, taking their importance and position in the citation network into account, was carried out to search for research fronts in the field of shareholder activism: during the analyzed period, the development of this field was reconstructed by means of research fronts, including seven stages, from the theoretical origin of the concept to its practical implementation [ 62 ]. A weighted approach was used in the search for scientific fronts in chemical technology: 29 clusters were identified containing an average of 5.3 publications; for each cluster, the Price index was calculated, which quantitatively characterizes the degree of novelty of the field [ 38 , 63 ].

Together with the fundamental applicability of each of the approaches in identifying research trends and fronts, the results of most studies show that the least-accurate results are obtained by the direct citation analysis, although in certain situations it shows advantages over other approaches [ 39 , 61 ]. In the accuracy of its results the combination of the co-citation analysis and the bibliographic coupling is significantly superior to direct citation analysis, which does not take thematic links between publications into account [ 34 , 39 ]. The most accurate results in most cases are yielded by the method of bibliographic coupling; co-citation analysis lags slightly behind. The best results are achieved with the combined use of different approaches (and, if possible, different data sets), which should take the variability of publication activity and citation models in different disciplines into account, but such approaches are more laborious and time consuming [ 28 ]. Many researchers, for example [ 1 , 2 , 64 ], noted the importance of involving subject experts in the qualitative assessment of the results of scientometric analysis.

Software for Revealing Research Fronts

Significant attention is paid to the study of research fronts by software developers for visualization and mapping of science [ 65 , 66 ]. The visualization of bibliographic information is especially valuable for experts because it allows real-time detection of unexpected trends, gaps in scientific knowledge, statistical biases, and other important characteristics of research fronts [ 67 ]. VOSviewer [ 22 , 41 , 57 , 68 , 69 ] and CiteSpace [ 2 , 13 , 26 , 42 , 60 ] are most often used; however, ready-made programs are often seen as having limitations, since their functionality is standardized and often does not support innovative approaches [ 35 ]. Therefore, sometimes less common software products are used, for example, Cytoscape [ 15 ] or BibTechMon [ 37 ], including programs written for a specific study [ 12 ].

One of the most functional software for identifying research fronts is CiteSpace [ 2 ]. The capabilities of the program are presented by its developer using examples of the fields of “mass extinction” and “terrorism.” Research fronts are understood as emerging transitional clusters of ideas, expressed by small groups (several dozen positions) of co-cited publications. At the same time, the study solved the problem of identifying new fields on the basis of linguistic analysis of terms from the metadata of publications (although some researchers insist on involving experts in the designation of new fields [ 12 , 23 ]).

Experience in using VOSviewer was presented by the scientific library of Kent State University (United States): the methods of bibliographic coupling, citation analysis and content analysis were used to identify research fronts in the field of the Internet of things [ 69 ]. Dynamic keyword analysis in VOSviewer allowed them show changes in research fronts in this area over time.

The Problem of the Reliability of the Results of Scientometric Analysis in Identifying Research Fronts

Since the definition of research fronts is based on an array of scientific publications, the question of the legitimacy of such an approach often arises. In addition to the general criticism of bibliometric approaches, there are somewhat fair statements about the devaluation of the institute of scientific publications associated with an increase in the number of duplicate works, plagiarism, and “predatory” journals, as well as the frequent absence of descriptions of research methods in publications, which prevents their reproducibility. Another critisism concerns the role of publications in rewarding a scientist for his/her work instead of spread of knowledge and a shift of the central channels of scientific communication towards “invisible colleges”. Taken together, this leads to the main question of how much one can rely on bibliometric research of publications to identify research trends and fronts.

Other problems of identifying research fronts are associated with journal articles and, more broadly, with the market for periodicals and its internal standards. As an example, reputable international journals are more willing to publish research results on popular and global topics. Accordingly, in such a limited array of publications, research fronts that are important at the regional or national levels may not be found.

The cautious attitude of reviewers and editorial boards to advanced ideas and developments, often at odds with the scientific tradition, remains an unresolved issue [ 70 ]. Modern publishing standards often imply a comprehensive coverage of a scientific problem and a description of a ready-made set of its solutions [ 71 ]. However, precisely in relation to research fronts, at the initial stages of developing a new problem, these requirements are the least feasible and force authors to bypass key issues, whose discussion is most important for understanding the essence of the problem and its causal mechanisms [ 64 , 71 ]. At times, the overestimated requirements of the editors of journals for breakthrough work lead to the rejection of publications that are significant for science and society. One illustrative example is the article by A.K. Geim and K.S. Novoselov on a new material, graphene, that was rejected by Nature Footnote 1 (it was later published by Science ).

Another problem of using journal publications as a basis for searching scientific fronts includes the time lag from the submission of the manuscript to the editorial office to its publication. This adds to the subsequent delay in distributing the journal to libraries or indexing it in bibliographic databases. On average, the delay due to the technological publishing processes is estimated at 1 year [ 24 ]. Even if we compare this period with the total time from the birth of a scientific idea to its publication, which, for example, is 4 years in medicine [ 59 ], the publication delay appear to be significant.

The databases for the selection of publications themselves have a significant impact on the identification of research fronts [ 27 ]. Most of research is based on publications indexed in Web of Science , and less often, Scopus . In addition to the delay in indexing, such systems have limitations in terms of regional and linguistic coverage of sources; the accuracy of bibliographic metadata is not always high [ 72 ]. Despite the annually expanding indexing of conference proceedings, where advanced scientific ideas are discussed much earlier than in print, international databases still tend to predominantly cover journal articles. The need for verification of automatically processed data was already noted in early works, caused by many discrepancies in the spelling of author’s names, variations in the abbreviation of the names of journals, etc. [ 31 ]. (For more detail on the problems of identifying bibliographic objects, see [ 73 , 74 ].)

Some questions remain open, others are eventually answered. Thus, in recent years, reviewers have paid more attention to the transparency of the methodological part of the articles; more and more often initial data are provided in the form of appendices to publications, which significantly increase the reliability and reproducibility of the results. Ethics committees are working to improve the research and publication culture of authors, preventing unfair approaches to the publication of scientific results [ 75 ].

At the philosophical level, the role of publications in the system of scientific information and the degree of their applicability to identifying research fronts are analyzed. The transformation of the main properties of a research front into the form of bibliometric indicators has been substantiated, including such front characteristics as novelty, relevance, interdisciplinarity, risk factors, and a combination of fundamental and applied significance [ 64 ]. The central place of publications in scientific research fronts is proved, since in addition to the main function of information delivery, they stabilize unstable networks of various scientific practices and elements [ 76 ]. The role of scientific publications is also demonstrated in the reconstruction of the evolutionary development of science: based on the example of research fronts in scientometrics and the historical processes of the intellectual organization of knowledge in this area, their codification and structuring with a simultaneous decrease in entropy have been shown [ 77 ]. Based on the example of one area of biomedical sciences, the methodology for constructing a time scale, which allows one to visualize the development of a research front and predict the emergence of new fronts, was presented [ 12 ]. On the basis of the theory of the aging of scientific literature, the speed of dissemination of scientific ideas is investigated and the depth of research fronts was revealed [ 24 ].

The problem of publishing breakthrough articles, whose material, methodology and results differ significantly from the scientific tradition, finds its solution in the widespread dissemination of open science, the publication of preprints, the development of repositories and models of open peer review. Publication of preprints solves the lag problem. This issue is partially resolved by the development of the system of “articles in print” that are published before the formation of printed issues, as well as early indexing of such publications in bibliographic databases. One possible solution to the problem of publication lag may include the analysis of network publications, whose rate of appearance is significantly higher, as shown by the example of the search for scientific fronts in the field of XML research [ 78 ]. In this case, unlike journal databases, special systems are used, for example, CiteSeer . It is proposed to solve the problem of publication delay of journal articles by analyzing information about the dates of the publication process (the time of receipt of the manuscript, its approval, and publication); clustering of publications taking these dates into account gives more accurate results in identifying research fronts [ 59 ].

CONCLUSIONS

Over a relatively short period of studying research trends and fronts, a significant complication of the methodology is noticeable: combined approaches, neural networks, a wide range of bibliographic and network databases, and special software is increasingly used. Scientometric methods show their promise due to their rapid adaptation to the changing conditions of the functioning of science and new publication models for the dissemination of scientific information.

The review of research carried out in this article shows that scientometric tools for identifying research fronts have proven themselves well as a source of reliable and objective information for subsequent expert assessment in various fields of knowledge. A wide methodological arsenal of various types of citation analysis and content analysis has been developed. The improvement of the approaches goes in the direction of specifying citation windows, objects of analysis, and identifying the advantages and disadvantages of each of the approaches, taking the types of scientific fronts and research goals into account.

We see the immediate tasks on identifying research fronts and trends as follows. The problem of the initial distrust of the scientific community in breakthrough developments, whose results or methods do not agree well with scientific tradition, awaits a solution. A scientometric solution to this problem is outlined in a broader analysis of network publications. The second task is to increase the speed of identifying new fronts, if possible at the stage of publishing preliminary data on new fields. This requires a further search for methods to neutralize the effect of publication lag.

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This study was carried out with the financial support of the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (project no. 19-011-00531).

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Mazov, N.A., Gureev, V.N. & Glinskikh, V.N. The Methodological Basis of Defining Research Trends and Fronts. Sci. Tech. Inf. Proc. 47 , 221–231 (2020). https://doi.org/10.3103/S0147688220040036

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Research Method

Home » Research Contribution – Thesis Guide

Research Contribution – Thesis Guide

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Research Contribution

Research Contribution

Definition:

Research contribution refers to a novel and significant addition to a particular field of study that advances the existing knowledge, theories, or practices. It could involve new discoveries, original ideas, innovative methods, or insightful interpretations that contribute to the understanding, development, or improvement of a specific research area.

Research Contribution in Thesis

In a thesis , the research contribution is the original and novel aspect of the research that adds new knowledge to the field. It can be a new theory , a new methodology , a new empirical finding, or a new application of existing knowledge.

To identify the research contribution of your thesis, you need to consider the following:

  • What problem are you addressing in your research? What is the research gap that you are filling?
  • What is your research question or hypothesis, and how does it relate to the problem you are addressing?
  • What methodology have you used to investigate your research question or hypothesis, and why is it appropriate?
  • What are the main findings of your research, and how do they contribute to the field?
  • What are the implications of your research findings for theory, practice, or policy?

Once you have identified your research contribution, you should clearly articulate it in your thesis abstract, introduction, and conclusion. You should also explain how your research contribution relates to the existing literature and how it advances the field. Finally, you should discuss the limitations of your research and suggest future directions for research that build on your contribution.

How to Write Research Contribution

Here are some steps you can follow to write a strong research contribution:

  • Define the research problem and research question : Clearly state the problem or gap in the literature that your research aims to address. Formulate a research question that your study will answer.
  • Conduct a thorough literature review: Review the existing literature related to your research question. Identify the gaps in knowledge that your research fills.
  • Describe the research design and methodology : Explain the research design, methods, and procedures you used to collect and analyze data. This includes any statistical analysis or data visualization techniques.
  • Present the findings: Clearly present your findings, including any statistical analyses or data visualizations that support your conclusions. This should be done in a clear and concise manner, and the conclusions should be based on the evidence you’ve presented.
  • Discuss the implications of the findings: Describe the significance of your findings and the implications they have for the field of study. This may include recommendations for future research or practical applications of your findings.
  • Conclusion : Summarize the main points of your research contribution and restate its significance.

When to Write Research Contribution in Thesis

A research contribution should be included in the thesis when the research work adds a novel and significant value to the existing body of knowledge. The research contribution section of a thesis is the opportunity for the researcher to articulate the unique contributions their work has made to the field.

Typically, the research contribution section appears towards the end of the thesis, after the literature review, methodology, results, and analysis sections. In this section, the researcher should summarize the key findings and their implications for the field, highlighting the novel aspects of the work.

Example of Research Contribution in Thesis

An example of a research contribution in a thesis can be:

“The study found that there was a significant relationship between social media usage and academic performance among college students. The findings also revealed that students who spent more time on social media had lower GPAs than those who spent less time on social media. These findings are original and contribute to the literature on the impact of social media on academic performance, providing insights that can inform policies and practices for improving students’ academic success.”

Another example of a research contribution in a thesis:

“The research identified a novel method for improving the efficiency of solar panels by incorporating nanostructured materials. The results showed that the use of these materials increased the conversion efficiency of solar panels by up to 30%, which is a significant improvement over traditional methods. This contribution advances the field of renewable energy by providing a new approach to enhancing the performance of solar panels, with potential applications in both residential and commercial settings.”

Purpose of Research Contribution

Purpose of Research Contribution are as follows:

Here are some examples of research contributions that can be included in a thesis:

  • Development of a new theoretical framework or model
  • Creation of a novel methodology or research approach
  • Discovery of new empirical evidence or data
  • Application of existing theories or methods in a new context
  • Identification of gaps in the existing literature and proposing solutions
  • Providing a comprehensive review and analysis of existing literature in a particular field
  • Critically evaluating existing theories or models and proposing improvements or alternatives
  • Making a significant contribution to policy or practice in a particular field.

Advantages of Research Contribution

Including research contributions in your thesis can offer several advantages, including:

  • Establishing originality: Research contributions help demonstrate that your work is original and unique, and not simply a rehashing of existing research. It shows that you have made a new and valuable contribution to the field.
  • Adding value to the field : By highlighting your research contributions, you are demonstrating the value that your work adds to the field. This can help other researchers build on your work and advance the field further.
  • Differentiating yourself: In academic and professional contexts, it’s important to differentiate yourself from others. Including research contributions in your thesis can help you stand out from other researchers in your field, potentially leading to opportunities for collaboration, networking, or future job prospects.
  • Providing clarity : By articulating your research contributions, you are providing clarity to your readers about what you have achieved. This can help ensure that your work is properly understood and appreciated by others.
  • Enhancing credibility : Including research contributions in your thesis can enhance your credibility as a researcher, demonstrating that you have the skills and knowledge necessary to make valuable contributions to your field. This can help you build a strong reputation in the academic community.

About the author

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Muhammad Hassan

Researcher, Academic Writer, Web developer

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