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Researching & Writing a Scholarly Paper for Law Library Guide: Stages in planning and authoring a scholarly paper

This guide combines guidelines for researching and writing scholarly papers, with a specific focus on legal writing.

Stage 1: Getting to a topic

First rule: get the help of peers and your supervisor to clarify your topic

A research question doesn't have to be a question. It can also be a statement, a proposition or a hypothesis.

Research question Research statement Research proposition / hypothesis
Can principles of corporate governance have an impact on the pay gap within organisations? The principles of corporate governance are not designed to address the pay gap between entry-level and top-tier pay within organisations. Corporate governance reform with a view to addressing the pay gap between entry-level and top-tier pay within organisations


Stage 2: Proposal stage

A research proposal is a working document that acts as a blueprint.

The format is dependent on the intention of your paper but the following elements need to be in a research proposal:

  1. Descriptive title (can be a working title)
  2. Reasons for choosing the subject: indicate the reasons (academic / practical / other) for undertaking the research
  3. Outline of the problem / thesis: make your claim upfront - can be stated as a problem / proposition. Then outline the problems and questions that you will be examining to support your claim. Show how they are linked and how they sustain your proposition (this is about validating your argument).
  4. Major sources: refer to the major authorities you will be using. Indicate both primary and secondary sources that you will rely on to validate your argument. Make sure you have located the major works in the field and express your views on them.
  5. Method: Most law projects are desktop studies that involve analysis of literary sources - both primary and secondary sources. Therefore you may not discuss a method. However, if you are doing an empirical study or a survey (etc) you will then need to include a method discussion.
  6. Comparative studies: If relevant, indicate which systems you will compare with and why it is relevant, including the extent of comparison.
  7. Structure: Give a rough outline of the divisions / sections in your paper and describe briefly what each section will deal with.
  8. Provisional / Running bibliography: this must be included and be kept up to date.

Format of the proposal:

The research proposal only needs to be 1-2 pages (between 500-1000 words) and should address the following questions:

The WHY - why this research: public interest, personal reasons

The WHAT - the specifics of the paper: problem statement including goals and purpose

The HOW - research methodology

Stage 4: Elements of a 'good' scholarly paper

The following are typically present in a good scholarly paper:

  • A 'golden thread' - an overall line of argument - running through the paper, holding it together
  • 'Sign-posts' - crisp titles, sub-titles and headings that identify the direction being followed
  • 'Authority' - good engagement with existing literature and a comprehensive bibliography - the bibliography is the window to the paper and its author

Things to avoid:

  • Avoid long quotations - rather paraphrase or break up the quote with your own commentary
  • Avoid sloppy and inaccurate presentation and ensure that your references are correct

Stage 3: Writing the scholarly paper

Three phases are involved in writing an academic paper:

Phase 1: Pre-writing

Writing for yourself and exploring concepts / experimenting with ideas.

Be creative - freewrite; keep a research and reading journal - recording articles that you read and your thoughts, 'notes to self', etc

Construct a mindmap or 'table of contents'

Phase 2: Drafting and re-writing / revising       

Start expanding on your ideas - start to write for others

Develop your thread, argument, coherence of structure and ask:

  • How will the reader receive this?
  • Do I have enough authority for the claims I make?
Phase 3: Editing

Polishing stage - grammar and punctuation and 'elegance' of writing style

Check also the correctness of references


Stage 5: Choosing a title for your paper

Your title should contain the following functions:

  • conveying the content of your paper
  • catching the readers' attention
  • differentiating your paper from similar papers

They should be brief and descriptive and indicate the following:

  1. what the paper is about
  2. any methods / techniques used
  3. who or what was studied
  4. the nature of the results