What Goes In The Background Section Of A Research Paper

Finding Background Information

Read How- Encyclopedias | Periodicals | Internet

Overview - The Importance of Background Information

After choosing a topic, you will need to locate introductory sources that give basic background information about the subject. Finding background information at the beginning of your research is especially important if you are unfamiliar with the subject area, or not sure from what angle to approach your topic. Some of the information that a background search can provide includes:

  • Broad overview of the subject
  • Definitions of the topic
  • Introduction to key issues
  • Names of people who are authorities in the subject field
  • Major dates and events
  • Keywords and subject-specific vocabulary terms that can be used for database searches
  • Bibliographies that lead to additional resources

This section of the Research Tips will guide you to using encyclopedias, periodicals, and the Internet for background information.


Encyclopedias are important sources to consider when initially researching a topic. General encyclopedias provide basic information on a wide range of subjects in an easily readable and understandable format. 

If you are certain about what subject area you want to choose your topic from, you might want to use a specialized or subject encyclopedia instead. Subject encyclopedias limit their scope to one particular field of study, offering more detailed information about the subject.

  • General Encyclopedias provide information about nearly every topic. Using an encyclopedia is an effective way to quickly get a broad overview of a subject. Some encyclopedias will provide more in-depth information than others, however any general encyclopedia is a good source to consult for background information of your chosen subject area. Most encyclopedias provide the following:
    • Main concepts
    • Titles of important books written about topic
    • Names of authors who have written about topic
    • Keywords and subject terms related to topic
    • Lists of related articles or additional resources
  • Gale Virtual Reference Library
    This online encyclopedia is a vast online library giving instant access to the most authoritative and up-to-date scholarship across the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences. It is one of the largest academic reference collections online.
  • Subject-Specific Encyclopedias are important background sources for information. Unlike general encyclopedias which cover a wide range of topics, subject-specific encyclopedias focus their information in one particular subject area. Some features of subject-specific encyclopedias include:
    • Detailed articles written by experts within a field
    • Extensive and comprehensive bibliographies of important resources
    Go to Research Guides for a list of subject-specific and electronic resources including encyclopedias.
  • Wikipedia
    From Wikipedia's own page, "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit".  This includes the 10 year old down the street so reading the entry and treating it as fact is not the best thing to do.  Instead use the References or Further Readings at the end of an entry to verify the information presented in the Wikipedia entry.


Periodicals (also known as serials) are publications printed "periodically", either daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or on an annual basis. Journals, magazines, and newspapers are different types of periodicals. Examples of periodicals include the following:

  • NEWSPAPERS - New York Times
  • POPULAR MAGAZINES - Time or Vogue
  • SCHOLARLY JOURNALS/PEER-REVIEWED- Journal of Advertising Research
  • TRADE PUBLICATIONS - Consumer Marketing

Because of their up-to-date information, articles from newspapers, and popular and general interest periodical publications make great resources for choosing topics. However, scholarly or peer-reviewed journals, because they often require specialized knowledge or vocabulary, should not be used for selecting topics and instead used later in the research process when you have established a better understanding of your topic.

You may search in the following ways:

  • Keyword search example: journal and advertising
  • Title search example: american marketing journal
  • Title search example: new york times
  • Subject heading search example: advertising--periodicals

Frequently Used Databases for Newspapers

Newspapers are good sources for up-to-date as well as historical information about events and issues. Databases such as

are excellent sources for locating newspaper articles from leading newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Go to Newspaper Research in the UB Libraries for information on currently received newspaper titles, finding newspapers in the Classic Catalog and more.

Browsing Current Print Periodical Collections

It is also a good idea to browse current print periodical collections to see what the UB Libraries own, and to stay up-to-date in your subject area.

Current periodicals in the Humanities, Social Sciences, Sciences and Engineering are located in the current periodicals area, on the third floor of Lockwood Library. The periodicals are placed in an alphabetical order by title.


Using search interfaces like Google can lead you to an ocean of good and bad information.  Being critical of everything you see on the Internet is crucial when getting background information for an academic writing assignment.  Professors often prohibit students from citing Internet sites on a research paper so be careful that you understand what is acceptable and unacceptable to quote.  However, there are places on the Internet that will give you references that you may want to track down through your library.

  • Wikipedia
    From Wikipedia's own page, "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit".  This includes the 10 year old kid down the street so reading the entry and treating it as fact is not the best thing to do.  Instead use the References or Further Readings at the end of an entry to verify the information presented in the Wikipedia entry.
  • Google Books
    Enter your search terms in Google books and digitized holdings of some of the worlds greatest academic libraries will appear.  Google collaborated with some of the finest research libraries in the world to digitize items found in the "public domain".  They also provide access to chapters within contemporary books.  This might give you just enough background information to get your paper started without coming in to the library to borrow a book.
  • Google Scholar
    Here you are finding scholarly research, but from a limited number of journals.  Once you put in your search terms you can get a good overview of a topic by limiting to time period on the left. **Tip: Select "Settings" from the main page then "Library Links" (on the left).  Once there enter University at Buffalo and select the university.  This then allows you to find the article through your library by clicking the "Find it @ UB" link.

So you have carefully written your article and probably ran it through your colleagues ten to fifteen times. While there are many elements to a good research article, one of the most important elements for your readers is the background of your study. The background of your study will provide context to the information discussed throughout the research paper. Background information may include both important and relevant studies. This is particularly important if a study either supports or refutes your thesis.

In addition, the background of the study will discuss your problem statement, rationale, and research questions. It links introduction to your research topic and ensures a logical flow of ideas.  Thus, it helps readers understand your reasons for conducting the study.

Providing Background Information

The reader should be able to understand your topic and its importance. The length and detail of your background also depend on the degree to which you need to demonstrate your understanding of the topic. Paying close attention to the following questions will help you in writing background information:

  • Are there any theories, concepts, terms, and ideas that may be unfamiliar to the target audience and will require you to provide any additional explanation?
  • Any historical data that need to be shared in order to provide context on why the current issue emerged?
  • Are there any concepts that may have been borrowed from other disciplines that may be unfamiliar to the reader and need an explanation?

Related: Ready with the background and searching for more information on journal ranking? Check this infographic on the SCImago Journal Rank today!

Is the research study unique for which additional explanation is needed? For instance, you may have used a completely new method

What Makes the Introduction Different from the Background?

Your introduction is different from your background in a number of ways. First, the introduction contains preliminary data about your topic that the reader will most likely read. Secondly, the background of your study discusses in depth about the topic, whereas the introduction only gives an overview. Lastly, your introduction should end with your research questions, aims, and objectives, whereas your background should not (except in some cases where your background is integrated into your introduction). For instance, the C.A.R.S. (Creating a Research Space) model, created by John Swales is based on his analysis of journal articles. This model attempts to explain and describe the organizational pattern of writing the introduction in social sciences.

Points to Note

Your background should begin with defining a topic and audience. It is important that you identify which topic you need to review and what your audience already knows about the topic. You should proceed by searching and researching the relevant literature. In this case, it is advisable to keep track of the search terms you used and the articles that you downloaded. It is helpful to use one of the research paper management systems such as Papers, Mendeley, Evernote, or Sente. Next, it is helpful to take notes while reading. Be careful when copying quotes verbatim and make sure to put them in quotation marks and cite the sources. In addition, you should keep your background focused but balanced enough so that it is relevant to a broader audience. Aside from these, your background should be critical, consistent, and logically structured.

Writing the background of your study should not be an overly daunting task. Many guides that can help you organize your thoughts as you write the background. The background of the study is the key to introduce your audience to your research topic and should be done with string knowledge and thoughtful writing.


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