The research that you conduct will depend on the purpose of your project and how you conceive your methodological approach. It is important that everything coheres in the dissertation.

Sometimes students form the impression that they should use a particular research method (eg surveys or interviews or a Derridean analysis) because this will look impressive. This is a high risk strategy. If the research method is not suitable to your purpose and approach, or if you have selected a method which you do not firmly understand then the project may have serious flaws. So assess you research methods in the light of your purpose and approach.

Having said that, markers will generally want to see that your research is wide ranging, thorough, up to date, well-judged and appropriate to your purpose and approach.

Wide-ranging research

You should consider a wide range of different types of sources. Try not to over rely on any one source or type of source (i.e. don’t just refer to Steiner et al or Shah et al textbook on human rights; examine the primary sources and secondary sources;  do not just refer to books – show you have researched the journal articles as well).

For legal research you should consider the full range of primary legal sources (statutes, cases, treaties, EU law, etc) and also other material like ‘soft law’ documents (eg international declarations, etc). You should consider the range of relevant official documents (parliamentary committee reports, white papers, Law Commission papers, departmental consultation documents, etc).

It will be important that you show familiarity with, and engagement with, the range of academic writings relevant to your project. It is important that you go beyond relying on a small number of textbooks. You should also consider whether there are monographs or edited collections relevant to your research. Crucially you will need to show that you have sought out journal articles, especially from peer reviewed journals. Material published in peer reviewed journals may well be more up to date and more focused than some other sources; if the journal is peer reviewed then the article will have been examined by one or two experts anonymously prior to publication, so there is a guarantee of quality.

Again, depending on your purpose and approach, you should consider going beyond legal, official or legal academic sources (provided always you show judgement). You may want to rely on material from philosophy, psychology, literature, history, politics, etc. You may want to use news media sources, or reports from nongovernmental organisations. You might want to refer to (but be cautious here) blogs.

Thorough and up to date

No one can be expected to read and synthesise everything, especially not for a dissertation; similarly it would be unreasonable to expect a detailed re-write of a dissertation because of a court decision two days before submission. Nevertheless, your marker will expect your work to be thorough and up to date.

It can be disastrous if a student relies on an out of date court case – if for instance, you devote your dissertation to an extensive criticism of a High Court judgment but do not realise that it was reversed on appeal, then this is a serious problem.

Sometimes the problems stems from a tendency to round up a few textbooks and read through them. However textbooks may be out of date – it is important to do your own research into both the primary and the secondary sources.

To ensure your work is thorough and up to date, use several strategies.

If your dissertation is related to a topic covered in a module, then check the relevant module syllabus to see which sources are considered important. If a module syllabus clearly indicates that a particular court case or treaty or statute is relevant to the topic then consider carefully including it. Use a range of search techniques to sweep up the relevant sources: do not just rely on one research technique. If you rely on Lexis searches for instance this may mean you miss material only available on Westlaw or HeinOnLine. Search the databases relevant to your research carefully and patiently. If writing about the ECtHR then you will need to spend  time working with the HUDOC database for example. If a particular source is key to your argument then take some time to see what has been said about it, eg if it is a case has it been disapproved or applied? You could find the Westlaw case analysis useful for this but do not rely just on that tool.

You ensure that you are thorough and up to date by reading carefully the material you acquire: if you are reading the material carefully this will hopefully mean you pick up on what others think is important.

Well-judged and appropriate

Your thinking (and specifically your thinking about your purpose and approach) needs to feed in to what you read, research and write.

You must show judgement about which sources you rely upon and show an understanding of their relative importance.  Thus if you want to make a criticism of (say) John Rawls, you need to consider whether you are relying on an introductory textbook, or an article critiquing Rawls, or whether you have read Rawls’ own words to form your judgement.

Show a sense of judgement about what is important. There are thousands of cases on Article 6 and delay in the Italian courts – if discussing the problem of delay you do not need to mention every single case! It is not easy to be prescriptive about what cases are important: generally if a higher court says something that is new and changes the understanding of the law that is very important. Accordingly you may well be especially interested in judgements from the ECtHR Grand Chamber or the highest courts such as the UK Supreme Court or (eg) the Constitutional Court of a country.

This does not mean you will never be interested in first instance cases, and some scholars recommend more attention be paid to what happens in the majority of courts, rather than just the top court. That is also fine – what matters is that what you read and write about makes sense in light of your purpose and approach.

Be clear about which jurisdiction  / area you are writing about. If you are writing about the ICCPR then be careful about citing US cases or ECHR cases. If you are writing about US policy in Guantanamo, you should not talk about violations of the ECHR (the USA is not a party to the ECHR).

You need to be especially carefully when relying on web based resources. While the web is a valuable resource for research, it also contains much that is bad or ugly as the (sadly no longer available)  Internet Detective puts it. I once had a student who unfortunately relied on a Neo-Nazi website; the student was hardly to blame as the website was disguised to portray itself as an academic resource. The point is that you need to be sceptical about material found on the web. Always consider carefully whether the material is reliable.

You may want to rely on blogs as a resource. Certainly these should not be a major source in your dissertation. There are some excellent law blogs run by well-established academics. These provide useful insights, especially in relation to very recent developments where the law journal articles may not yet have had time to appear. Even so, remember what we said above about the range of sources you should use.

Note taking and referencing while reading

It is important that you get into good habits when it comes to note taking and in particular referencing early in your research. This is important for several reasons. First, you will have to manage a large amount of material  – a system of post its, scribbled pages and random emails won’t enable you to do this. Second, academic integrity requires that you give credit to others for their work. Third, good habits are essential to avoid unfounded accusations of plagiarism or academic malpractice.

Good practice here means that you should take a full citation note of anything you read, and make sure to take down all the relevant details. I lost a week at the end of my LLM because I had to check the Library for the first initial of every author I had read. Check what citation system you need to use early on in the project and keep the relevant details.

Where to keep the details? You may simply want to keep them listed in a word document. Another option you might consider is storing them in a spreadsheet or database programme, though it may not be easy to create references for insertion into your dissertation. The most advanced solution is to use bibliography software to manage your references. Some of these are free to use and rely on a web based interface (Refworks, or Mendeley), while others are more expensive and may require loading a programme on to a particular machine (Endnote). Some universities offer training in the use of one or other of these packages. None of them are ideal for legal sources or OSCOLA referencing though. Refworks works well with Harvard referencing but is often unsatisfactory if you want to use footnotes in your dissertation.

There are numerous advantages to using one of these systems. You can store all of your references in one place. The systems allow you to store copious amounts of relevant data. They usually make it easy to search online databases and can be integrated with your own Library. Once you have built up a collection of references you can use the system to categorise them, re-order them in different ways and search across them. Furthermore you can use them to construct bibliographies and indeed bibliographies in different styles. You can even tweak the citation styles.  Disadvantages of using these systems is that it does take some time to learn how to use them effectively. They may cost money. Often they need a lot of tweaking and do not work as seamlessly as one would hope. However if you are working on a big project or thinking of a long-term career in research they are exceedingly useful.

When taking notes, be selective, do not write everything down. As noted above, your thinking should inform your research (reading) so read bearing in mind your purpose and approach. When making notes, ensure that, if you write down a direct quote, then it will be obvious to you in 3 or 6 months’ time  that it is a direct quote.

Similarly, when making notes ensure that you write down the appropriate pinpoint (page reference or paragraph reference); this will save you needlessly having to re-read everything six months later.

Next: 3. Writing