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My field of background is material science. I am writing a paper regarding some novel properties we discovered from a material system. I struggled a lot with the introduction. Since the entire work is a random discovery (but also pretty important), I wanted the introduction to focus on prior knowledge of the material. But my PI insists that we should have a "bigger picture" so that we can shoot for a better journal. I am wondering, is that really necessary for an editor and/or reviewer?

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An introduction should be both broad and specific.

Usually, you start with a rather broad view on the topic. It is possible to exaggerate this, if course. From this first, broader section it should become clear why it is important to work on your topic and what motivated your work. So stay focussed on what is relevant for your work.

While going further into the introduction, your text becomes more and more specific. Basically, you try to achieve a smooth transition between your broad start and the end of the introduction which should be very specific: There, you usually formulate your hypothesis in one way or another.

There are various ways to write a good introduction for a given paper, you only have to find one of those. As a general guideline, you should only write what is relevant in order to understand why your hypothesis is important and makes sense, not more, but also not less.

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I think your PI is correct here. You'll want to write different introductions depending on the audience, which depends in part on the journal. I suggest you read a sample of introductions from a few different relevant journals and analyze how they differ. If you do that, I suspect you will find that introductions in the broader scope or higher-impact journals tend to have a broader starting point and emphasize the bigger picture more, while a very focused introduction specific to a single material might make more sense in a specialist journal.

Now, ideally, the reviewer is an expert in the topic of your paper and can handle either type of manuscript, but in a generalist journal the editor and more importantly the readers are fairly unlikely to be specialists or have previous interest in the system you studied. If you don't accommodate them, why should your paper be published in that journal instead of a specialist one? If you want to say "because our finding is important" you'll want to explain why that is, which naturally leads back to explaining the bigger picture.

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Introductions are often the only part of the paper that are being read. They give you a chance to explain why your result is important (in addition to many other things such as explaining what your result is). You have thought more about your results than any reviewers will ever do (unless the circumstances are truly extraordinary) and what is clear to you (a random discovery that is "pretty important") might not be so clear to them. The same goes for readers. A bad introduction can result in an unwarranted rejection.

You probably should listen to your PI and think about the "bigger picture".

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