Introduction, background to and context of the project

The section should provide a general introduction to the topic, a review of the relevant literature, the specific aims and objectives of the project, and the structure of the project. The content of this section will depend on the nature of the project you are undertaking but many of these elements will be relevant to most projects. You can put this material into more than one chapter or divide one chapter into sections. Writing the text is likely to be an iterative process and it may need to be substantially revised after the results of your work are available. Give yourself time to do this.

This section should start with a short introduction to the topic as a whole, setting the scene in terms of its importance in the field of public health or epidemiology.

This should lead on to a review of the relevant literature to set the background and context for your work and present the current state of knowledge and ideas around the topic and what their strengths and weaknesses are. The context will show the gaps in information and so the need for the study.

Finally, this section should clearly and explicitly state the aims and objectives of your project, and you may also need to give some guide to the overall structure of the work you have carried out within your project if this is not self-evident.

A few notes regarding the review of the relevant literature:

your use of the literature for this introductory chapter will be different to a “Systematic Review of the evidence”, unless that is the sole purpose of the dissertation.  A systematic review focuses on a single question or narrow topic, and tries to identify, appraise, select and synthesize all evidence relevant to that question.

The use of the literature in your dissertation, on the other hand, will be broader - sufficiently broad to encompass the relevant literature and evidence relating to your topic. For example, you may need to consider presenting definitions, policy and strategy documents, “gold standard” practice used in audits, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and management of a condition as well as epidemiological evidence, evaluations and the results of other investigations into the topic and that relate directly to your study. For example, if you are evaluating the impact of a smoking cessation initiative you will need to report evidence of the impact of previous smoking cessation initiatives.

Whilst you need to ensure that you have incorporated all the major relevant information and evidence, you do not need to provide all the detail on your search strategy, nor on every piece of information or evidence that you have identified. Rather, the emphasis is on selecting relevant material and critically appraising and synthesising the information and evidence that you have identified to “tell the story” that led to why you chose the aim and objectives of your study.

Therefore, the purpose of writing this section is to convey to your reader what knowledge and ideas have been established on a topic, and what their strengths and weaknesses are, and in particular your literature review needs to:
  • be organized around and related directly to the precise topic you are studying
  • synthesize the results into a summary of what is and is not known
  • identify areas of controversy in the literature
  • lead seamlessly towards, and justify, your aims and objectives.

In writing the literature review, your purpose besides enlarging your knowledge about the topic, is that it lets you gain and demonstrate skills in three areas:

  1. information seeking: the ability to scan the literature efficiently, using manual or computerized methods, to identify a set of useful articles, books, published data, reports etc.
  2. critical appraisal: the ability to identify unbiased and valid studies. Internal and External Examiners are highly critical of students who do not demonstrate this skill.
  3. synthesis of information/evidence: the ability to draw the information and evidence together to provide an appropriate and relevant summary of the key points, including areas where the current evidence supports or contradicts any ideas or hypotheses that you are testing in your project.

You may find it helpful to start from a broad scope but you should then narrow the focus to the information and evidence that is most relevant to your project. You will probably have read very widely around the subject, but resist the temptation to include everything, regardless of its relevance. Be selective, and ensure that the literature is directly relevant to your aim and objectives. For example, if the work is about malaria in childhood then use the early introduction to tell the reader that this is the focus of the work. You then do not need to tell the reader anything about the epidemiology of malaria among adults.

Note that, if one of the aims of your project is to conduct a systematic review of the evidence in an area of public health, then clearly you will need to ensure that your methods and results section include details of the search strategies and their results. For this type of project, the introductory chapter will, as described above, have a broader focus than the systematic review itself, and set the scene for the systematic review.

If you are unclear about whether or not, or how, to integrate and structure a systematic review, revise the session run by Dr Jo Leonardi-Bee, or talk to your supervisor.