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Finding a Paper Topic

Instruction on Process and Resources for Finding a Paper Topic

Choosing A Topic - Introduction

Selecting a topic to write on can be a challenge.  Choosing poorly can negatively impact the research and writing process.  Here are some things to think about:

  1. Too broad or too narrow.  Choosing a topic that is too broad will lead to frustration as your research will never end or you will have to stay too general in your paper to do anything meaningful.  An example of too broad is choosing to research and write about Title IX or biotech patents.  Likewise, starting a topic that is too narrow might not leave you with enough to research or write about (and you may not be able to reach any interesting conclusions in your piece or provide new analysis).  An example of a topic that is too narrow might be "Can limited liability companies in Missouri be formed with a single member?"  The answer is yes according to the state code.  Examples of topics that are just right might be, "Should domain names be treated as property that can be subject to conversion actions?" or "Does or should copyright law accommodate the unrestricted digital lending of scanned books by the Internet Archive's Open Library during COVID-19?"
  2. Not Ripe or Too Ripe.  Timing is everything in selecting research projects.  The trick is to have real legal issues that you can write about.  There are lots of stories in legal news that may be interesting, but no law has developed around the issue.  Sometimes you can get around this by writing about analogous law or by arguing policy about what the law should be.  The question in 1. about the Internet Archive's Open Library might be at risk for not being ripe enough, although you certainly could write a paper about why past law doesn't protect the Open Archive, and why it should.  If you want to write about a suit that has just been filed in federal court, it may not be ripe enough if the issues are novel.  I see this problem a lot with students writing about new technologies.  Their papers sometimes end up being all about the technology, but fail to explore the law because there just isn't any (e.g., AI and privacy--a lot of law on privacy, but how much law is there on AI and privacy?).  On the other hand, issues that are too ripe are ones that have been written about over and over again in law reviews and journals.  That's why you should always check your article in a database of law reviews and journals for recent articles.
  3. Distinguishing What You Know and What the Profession Knows.  You need to examine what you know about a topic and how long it will take to get you up to speed with what the profession (i.e., specialists in the area) generally knows about the topic, and then ideally see if you can add something to it.  I say "ideally," because for many class papers it may be enough to learn and write about what the average practitioner knows about the topic, but for publishable, law review papers you need to push the boundaries.

Concentric figures of what the student knows and what the profession knows.

Note that in the figure above, it is a waste of time to start your research beyond the green boundary of what the profession knows.  You just won't have sufficient knowledge to make sense of it.  It is also a waste of time to start your research beyond the red boundary of what you know for the same reason.  The best place to start your research is on the edge of what you know and expand it out to what the profession generally knows, and then, if you can, press a little beyond that green boundary.  Knowledge building is about linking what you know to what you don't know.