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Researching & Writing a Scholarly Paper: 13 steps to successful academic research

This guide is there to assist you with the basics of researching and writing in the academic world


The following page is adapted from the following article:

Parise, Agustin (2010) "The 13 Steps of Successful Academic Legal Research," International Journal of Legal Information: Vol. 38: Iss 1, Article 4.

It can be accessed via the following link:


Teamwork may not seem essential, but often we unconsciously engage in teamwork without realising it.

In legal research your team will consist of the following: your colleagues / classmates you are in a similar situation, your advisors / supervisors or mentors that you look to for guidance, staff from libraries and research units that assist you with finding materials, others who have written in the same area that can provide guidance and finally, your friends and family because often in your informal discussions with them you are able to see how your study is applicable / not applicable.

Keep in mind to actively engage with these team members, and you will reap the benefits.

The 13 Steps

1. Research Proposal

Every project should start with the proposal. It shouldn't extend over 500 words and should reflect what the topic of the paper is. A proposal is not static, and changes will occur over time. This doesn't mean there were mistakes in the proposal, but rather show that the project is evolving.

2. First Readings

First readings include things like encyclopaedias and study guides / textbooks. These give an overview of the topic as well as will give you key words and special terminology. It will also indicate the leading literature and leading scholars in the area. This prevents you from time-consuming mistakes, especially with regards to terminology.

3. Library Catalog

A library is a concentration of useful sources. The catalog reflects all the resources in the library and is a great starting point to find all the books that you need. These will guide you to your first readings and to some seminal works. If you find a citation to something that you can't find in the library, you can also contact them to do an InterLibrary Loan (ILL) to find the work for you from another library.

4. Commercial Electronic Databases & the Internet

Although Google is now the first stop for doing searches, it may surprise you to know that not every database is accessible via Google. It is also well-known by now that not all resources found via Google are legitimate or truthful, or even scholarly. Commercial databases are often not accessible to Google, and so you would need to conduct searches on each database.

Topics are generally first addressed in law reviews and legal journals before appearing in books. Over a year, there are thousands of papers being published and databases help you in finding these papers.

For a breakdown of databases consult the table on the page Finding Authoritative Tools

5. International and Comparative Materials

Social sciences are affected by globalisation. You can enrich your paper by referring to the application or status of your research topic in other countries. This will expand the perspective and study of the elements under analysis, and provide the opportunity to look at other solutions.

6. Working Bibliography

You will find that you will be generating a lot of materials from your previous steps. So a working bibliography will be not only useful, but necessary. It will include a list of materials divided into the following groups: legislation, court cases, books, law reviews / journal articles, and websites. It will be a work in progress, and will grow with the project. Annotations of each work may also assist you.

7. Working with the Materials (or how to skim)

When screening your materials that you find, consider the following: the title of a work, the author, the journal and the date of publication. These will indicate the usefulness and reliability of the article. Then look at the table of contents, which will show you the outline and the main topics addressed. Then the introduction and conclusion, as these will summarise the main claims and conclusions. If you are still interested in the material, then read the first sentence of each paragraph which will present the main topic in each paragraph. This allows you to avoid useless reading.

Thereafter you need to organise the materials, perhaps by marking in the categories of relevant (R), not relevant (N/R) and interesting (I). You can do this by marking each paper physically, or by filing on your computer. Keep in mind that you will need to follow alphabetical order in your bibliography, so perhaps use the same order in your organisation of materials so that you can easily find them.

8. Structural Outline

The proposal and working bibliography will allow you to draft an outline. Outlines of papers should include, but isn't limited, to the following: introduction and state of affairs, postulation of the claim (s), analysis of the claim (s), and conclusion (s). You can add in additional information as needed.

While using the outline, make sure that you mark each tab with its sections.

9. Additional Research

Research is a knowledge-building process, and materials that may be not relevant may become relevant. Repeat steps 3 to 5 once you have completed the structural outline.

Common mistakes to be avoided when looking at research:

  • the use of improper court decisions and legislation;
  • the omission of references to seminal books and review articles; and
  • the misunderstanding of differences and similarities between different countries.

It may also be useful to consult studies from other disciplines that will provide a richer context for understanding.

10. Writing & Referencing

It is difficult to pinpoint the time to start writing, but if you find yourself going in circles with materials, it may be useful for starting to write. When writing, consider the audience you are writing for. Try to keep sentences short and develop one main idea per paragraph.

Become familiar with your referencing style and when to reference. Once you have an understanding of it, then you will be able to recognise when to reference easily. Consult the style early on in the writing process. In general, be consistent in your references. This way, even if you have made a mistake, you have consistently made that mistake and it shows your professionalism. Use your Word program fully to introduce cross-referencing, if applicable.

11. Reviewing & Editing

Writing is only as effective as its clarity. Start your reviewing process while you are writing because it will allow you to fix any unclear areas. Do not leave this till last, because it takes time! Many outside editors take a while to edit - follow their guidance and save enough time to review and edit.

12. Blue-Ribbon Draft

A blue ribbon draft is simply a high quality draft. By following the above steps and doing conscious research, writing and editing, the draft you will produce will be of high quality and will be in an almost final stage. At this point, others looking through your work may do a more thorough examination of the work.

A blue ribbon draft will include the following elements: a cover page, a table of contents, the body of the paper, a list of references, and a page for reviewers to add final comments. Hard copies are shared easily and usually preferred, but not always. Ask your reviewer which they prefer. All footnotes should already be in the correct format.

13. Feedback

Once your draft is ready, seek feedback from others. Edits and suggestions will move papers from mediocre to good or good to excellent. Feedback needs to be analysed and considered carefully. You can reject feedback, but you would need to be able to clarify your reasons why. Keep copies of all feedback with these reasons.



Guidance will give you direction, but it will not finish your paper. Seek guidance from others, but make sure that you always follow up on advice and also do basic readings first.

Time Management

Be realistic with your time and aware of how much time you need to do each activity. Allocate time to three activities: research, writing and editing. Usually the rule is that 60% of your time will be spent on research, 30% will be spent on writing and 10% will be spent on editing. You will need to adapt these according to your personal skills, and include time for events like holidays, exams, etc.


There are two aspects to organisation: you need to organise your ideas before writing but you also need to organise and maintain a working space. A working space needs to a comfortable space with good light and air, but keep in mind your computer is also your working space. Make sure your files are organised on your computer and make use of reference managers or folder management to stop the frustration of misplacing / losing a document.


References indicate the following: the authority for the assertion made; the attribution for the source, words, or ideas included; and the further reading that may be done if one wants to acquire additional knowledge. If you follow these guidelines as to whether something needs a reference, then you will rarely have issues with plagiarism. Usually a paper will rarely have a single paragraph without a reference.

Start doing references from the beginning to save time from having to go back. References give you credibility and will ensure that your research is taken seriously.


You may have the best of the above, but if you use poor language then it won't reflect. Editing your own work ensures that you are making sure that your ideas are the ones being expressed. Use spell-checking programs, dictionaries and grammar checks to ensure that you haven't missed anything. Editing requires time, and sometimes it is better to edit on a hard copy so that you don't miss anything on your screen.

Basic checklist for research

Time Management    
The 13 steps Start Date Finish Date
Research Proposal    
First Readings    
Library Catalog    
Commercial Electronic Databases & the Internet    
International and Comparative Materials    
Working Bibliography    
Working with the materials    
Structural Outline    
Additional Research    
Writing & Referencing    
Reviewing & Editing    
Blue-ribbon Draft    



Once you have finished the 13 Steps then the paper can be submitted. Make sure of the format before submitting, including line spacing, page numbers, and margins.