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How to Write the Background of Your Study
You can think of the background of your study as being like the story that preceded your own work. Usually, you will present this background in the introduction of your paper or thesis, although you also can elaborate on it in some cases in your discussion section. No matter where you give the background for your research, you should focus on some key goals in presenting it.
The reason you are giving your reader background is so that they understand why you asked the research question you did and how your findings add to this existing evidence. That means that as you walk the reader through the results that came before yours, you also need to show the reader where the gaps persist. One or more of these gaps is what you hope to fill with your own research.
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Although it is tempting to begin any story at the very beginning, you need to choose the right starting point in the continuum of evidence for the story of your work. If the subject of your study is island biogeography, you do not need to begin your background information by describing the 19th-century work of Alfred Russel Wallace.
Instead, you’ll need to home in on fresher findings or more recent results that highlight persistent gaps in your field.
As you unspool the evidence that pointed the way to your own work, do not go into too much detail. Background information does not need to include every detail of previous findings, every step in a biochemical pathway, or every P value or odds ratio from clinical studies you cite. Give the main finding that’s relevant to your own work and why you pursued your research question.
Connect your ideas
One common problem any writer has in presenting the background for their work is connecting the ideas and findings that create this backdrop. Sometimes, they don’t all necessarily follow on one another in a coherent, obvious story. But each of these elements has some factor or theme that led to your own work. If you’re writing your background section as part of your thesis, then your theme will be the central question or questions of your thesis. Using it as your guiding light in assembling the background for your findings will help you stick to the information that relates only to those themes.
For example, if your work is in cancer cell biology with a focus on a specific pathway, that pathway and the step or steps that you worked on are the theme. In presenting the background of this work, you should always use evidence that relates directly to that pathway, especially the specific steps your own research focused on. And you should avoid becoming more expansive and talking about other pathways or broader issues in cell or cancer biology.
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Highlight the gaps
You asked a research question because it was an open question that needed an answer. That means that somewhere in the evidence that already existed, you found a gap. As you lay out the focused, relevant evidence that took you to your research question, be sure to point to these gaps. Do not be afraid to explicitly say that they are gaps and that your research is intended in some part to fill them.
Do not write a literature review
If you are writing a thesis, the background section is not the place for the literature review. Your background relates directly to what your work addresses and should retain a focus on that theme. A literature review is broader and can encompass anything even generally related to your work. It’s a place to take the publications you mention in the background and expand on their content and implications, giving them a fuller and more detailed treatment.
3 tips for writing your background section
1. Think: as you would for writing an introduction to a research paper, think about the direct chain of evidence that led to your own work. Make a list of the most important findings that make up that chain of evidence.
2. Organize: use only a few sentences to summarize each contribution to that chain, and then form them into a story that makes sense and stays on theme. Use connecting words and phrases, such as “then” or “after that discovery” or “following on these findings” to keep the connections obvious for the reader.
3. Delete: after you have written your first draft, go through it and delete anything that is not absolutely required for the reader to follow the chain of evidence that led to your research and the gap you’re addressing. Remember that if this is your thesis, you will be able to elaborate and add in plentiful detail in your literature review section. In fact, you can think of your background section in this situation as a sort of summary of your literature review.