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Research Strategy for Academic Writing: General Research Tips

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Where should I start my research?  There are so many resources out there – how do I choose which will be best for my project?  How do I keep track of it all?  And how do I know when to stop?  You can create a research plan to address these questions and more. 

Know Your Topic or Research Question

First, do some background reading and discuss with your professor to make sure you thoroughly understand your topic or research question, and when substantive questions arise as you work, go back to your professor and discuss – don't just guess and plunge ahead. 

Also, keep in mind what your work is intended to produce – a seminar paper, an article for publication in a journal, or a thesis or dissertation in partial satisfaction of a degree – this often matters concerning restraints on time and other resources.    

Create a Research Plan

A research plan will help you keep track of what you’ve already done, as well as what you haven’t yet looked at so you can be sure your research is appropriately thorough.

Here are some suggestions for creating a simple research plan:

  • Research one issue at a time, and outline the order in which you will research different types of sources
  • Start with a pathfinder or research guide to find sources in an unfamiliar area of the law: 
  • Next look at general subject sources, then work your way to more detailed and specific sources
  • Start with print sources for background reading: nutshells, hornbooks, treatises, and textbooks, then move on to other secondary sources such as law review articles
  • Identify the primary documents – it’s often helpful to start with a known case or statute, then expand using citators, key numbers, and annotated codes
  • But don't reinvent the wheel: use compilations, annotations, summaries, and 50 State Surveys
  • Check as you go to make sure your research is current – how recently were your sources updated?
  • When you're done, go back and check the most crucial parts of your research for recent changes, and use a citator: Shepards or KeyCite
  • Finally, follow legal newsletters, blogs, and journals for your subject area to learn about new developments

Understand Your Sources

Know how to evaluate:

  • Is this source authoritative?
  • Is this source current/up to date?
  • Does the source include information on how to use it?

This is important and takes practice because you can't fully understand the materials without using them, and you can't use them well without understanding them.

Keep in mind that technology has altered the format of legal materials, but not the primary materials themselves (or many of the secondary sources).

One of your goals should be to get to the point where you understand what each source does and how they fit together so you know what source to use and when, as well as what format will work best for your purposes.  

Take Good Notes Throughout the Research Process

This will enable you to easily find a source again and cite it, keep track of what you've already done, focus on each issue, and communicate what you found.  Make sure you keep track of full citations so you don’t end-up having to reconstruct them at the end of your writing process.  

Consider using a citation manager like Zotero to manage both print and online book and journal article citations as well as full-text articles, and to automatically generate footnotes and reference lists.  You can also use Zotero to annotate your readings or share your bibliographies online with others.

Keep a list of all search terms used (including which turned-out to be most productive), and a list of all databases you searched. 

Ten Tips for When You Get Stuck

  1. Review the research steps already taken
  2. Update and expand materials already located
  3. Determine if you're already done with a particular section
  4. Use new sources to come up with additional search terms
  5. Consult an expert: ask your professor or advisor, or your law librarian
  6. Try asking yourself "who (or what entity or institution) would have a reason to know about this issue?" and then contact the appropriate agency or committee for information
  7. Revisit a helpful secondary source
  8. Learn about alternative research tools by looking at other research guides
  9. Analogize using the materials you have: there may not be an exact match
  10. Sometimes there is no answer, and sometimes finding an answer will take more time than it's worth

Know When to Stop

When the deadline arrives or when you've used up the time allotted by your own plan

When you've checked everything in your plan

When you're turning up the same results in different databases

When an end source fits

Don't keep researching because you're putting off writing

But remember that proving a negative takes longer

You'll learn as you go how to work more efficiently

An Example of a No-Limitation Research Plan

  1. Decide your research track:  case law, statutory, constitutional, administrative.  Federal or state, criminal or civil, etc.
  2. General background:  CJS, AmJur, state encyclopedias, Nutshells, practitioner guides, CLE materials, subject research guides.
  3. More detail:  Treatises.  Periodicals:  Westlaw, Lexis, Hein, Index to Legal Periodicals, Google Scholar.  Restatements.
  4. Annotations:  ALR, annotated statutes.  Topical newsletters, periodicals, encyclopedias, looseleafs, subject databases.
  5. Text of the law or cases (primary authority):
    • Federal cases:  Supreme Court Reporters, Federal reporters, Fed. Supp., Westlaw, Lexis, Bloomberg, and other case law databases, free caselaw websites (not official).
    • State cases:  National Reporter system, State reporters, free case law websites, subscription databases, including those offered by your state bar (like Fastcase).
    • Additional cases:  key number searches, looseleafs, annotated codes, citators
    • Federal statutes:  USC, USCA, USCS
    • State statutes:  state code annotated
    • Local statutes:  Municipal codes and ordinances
    • Federal Constitutional law:  USC, USCA, USCS
    • State Constitutional law:  State code annotated
    • Federal administrative law:  Federal Register, CFR, administrative rulings and decisions, looseleaf services and equivalent databases.
    • State administrative law:  State administrative code.  Agency rulings, if published.  Looseleaf service, if available.  State administrative offices.
    • Local administrative law:  pamphlets, local administrative offices.
  6. Legislative history and background materials: 
    • ProQuest Congressional, USCCAN,, HeinOnline.  History notes in annotated codes.  State House and Senate journals.  Locally published materials. 
    • For cases:  Briefs, oral arguments.  Restatements.
    • Constitutional conventions, legislative history of amendments.
    • Federal Register
  7. Interpretation:  Annotated codes.  Attorney General opinions.  Looseleaf services, treatises, Restatements, law reviews.
  8. Updating:  Shepards or Keycite.  Pocket parts and advance sheets.  Topical databases and newsletters.  Blogs and topical websites.  For regulations:  LSA, Federal Register.  For pending bills:
  9. Nonlegal materials:  Business, medical, social sciences, statistical databases.  Databases @ Emory, discoverE, eJournals, other campus libraries.

Subject Guide