Writing an Empirical Legal Article
In comparison to a typical article in a law journal that you are perhaps used to, empirical articles – especially those published in social science journals – have a more standardized structure. Such articles typically start with an introduction, then discuss the methods used, subsequently report the findings in a results section, and ultimately discuss the findings and implications in a discussion section (see Figure 1). Below, we will briefly discuss some key points to take into consideration when writing an empirical legal article.
Writing the introduction
In several respects, the introduction of an empirical article mimics that of a typical law journal article. For example, the introduction is used to stress the importance of the research and to entice the reader to continue reading. However, whereas the introductions of articles in law journals are relatively short, the introduction of empirical articles comprises everything up until the methods section. Hence, the introduction then also includes a literature review, sometimes a theoretical framework, perhaps a conceptual framework, the hypotheses and justification/motivation thereof, etc.
Some pointers for the introduction are:
- Start broadly and in easy language when making your opening statements. Take the reader by the hand and guide them towards the key focus of your article. refrain from using jargon and other complex terminology in the first few lines of your introduction.
- Make it clear relatively early in the paper why the problem discussed in your article is important. Answer the “Who cares?” question. This will help make the reader enthusiastic to continue reading. For an empirical legal article, it is also important to explain why the empirical perspective is of added value for your legal research.
- Discuss what we already know about the topic in a carefully curated literature review. It is not always necessary to give a comprehensive overview of everything that has ever been said on the topic, but make sure to discuss/cite the key articles in the field and the most recent insights.
- Make it clear how your research helps the literature (and ultimately society). Are there some pressing questions that are yet to be resolved? Are there contradicting findings that you are hoping to resolve? Are you shedding new light on the assumptions underlying certain legal rules or mechanisms?
- When your goal is to test certain hypotheses, make your way towards the hypotheses and make sure it is clear to the reader why you expect a certain relationship or effect. In other words, ground them in the literature. In case your research is more exploratory in nature, therefore making it hard to formulate specific hypotheses, there is no need to arbitrarily define hypotheses. Just be transparent about the exploratory nature of your research.
- Finally, end your introduction with a short ‘bridge’ to the methods section. What are you going to do you in your study and how does that logically follow from the introduction?
Writing the methods section
The ultimate goal of this section is to make it clear to the reader what you have done. By being transparent, you allow other researchers to verify your findings through conducting the exact same study.
The method section typically discusses:
- The sample that you used, including all relevant demographic information. Take the reader by the hand and explain who (or what) your population is, how you chose your sample and why you made certain sampling decisions (e.g., random sampling, theoretical sampling, saturation).
- The design of the study. Explain what method you used. If you used a quantitative method, explain the variables (independent and dependent) and explain how you measured certain relationships. If you used a qualitative method, explain how you analyzed the data by for example explaining your coding methods.
- Make sure to clarify the procedure you followed, so that your reader knows how you’ve conducted your research. Say something about the set-up of the interview, the structure of the survey, or the design of the experiments, so the reader can understand what it was like to participate in your study.
If you want to publish your empirical research in a law journal or interdisciplinary journal, it is important to explain your methods in such a way that it is understandable for researchers that may not have any experience in empirical research. Some law journals might be a bit hesitant to include an extensive methods section and might want you to move most methodological details to an appendix, or describe them very succinctly in the text. Look for a recent edition of your target journal to see what is common for that journal, and make sure to write with your target audience in mind.
Writing the results section
In this section, you report your analyses and key findings. Regarding the text you use to describe your findings in words, make sure to first state your findings in words, and only then add the statistics. For example: “We hypothesized that judges would dole out harsher punishment if the unintended harm caused was higher. In line with this hypothesis, we found that judges awarded higher damages in the condition where they read the version of the case with the more significant collateral damage versus the cases with only minor side effects. Specifically, in the former condition the average damages awarded was USD 340.345 (SD = 23.763) versus USD 234.567 (SD = 17.345).”
You can already mention whether certain findings were in line with your hypotheses or not, but refrain from elaborately interpreting your findings in this section, as that will be done it the final part of your paper (the discussion section).
If possible, try to visualize your results in graphs and tables. Ideally, one is able to get a full picture of your findings by either looking at the visuals, or by reading the text and ignoring the visuals. It is therefore important to make clear graphs and tables with informative titles.
When publishing your empirical findings in a law journal, it is again important to write with your target audience in mind. Some journals may be hesitant to publish articles that contain a lot of statistical information. It could be that you want to focus on your key findings, and keep most of the statistical tests and number-heavy sections in your footnotes or an appendix. Similar to the methods section, we would say that the more data and information you manage to keep in the main text, the better.
Writing the discussion section
The main goal of this section is to interpret your data and explain what your results may imply. Start off by briefly reiterating the main goals of your research as well as your key findings. Then go on by critically evaluating the methods used and the robustness of your findings. What are some limitations imposed by your chosen method? How valid are your findings? To what extent might they generalize to the real world and other contexts?
Explain how your results fit in the context of your research topic as you explained in your introduction. What knowledge did you add to the existing literature? Explain what your findings mean for debates that are going in into the literature. If you find different results than other scholars, what might explain those differences? Do your findings say anything about how the law works in practice or do they confirm underlying assumptions of legal rules? Also, depending on whether your research has direct implications for (legal) practitioners, you may want to devote a subsection to the practical implications of your findings. In case any normative claims can (and should?) be made based on your findings, you can consider doing so in your article. For more information on this so-called ‘fact-value gap’ (i.e., going from data to normative implications), please see the entry on this topic in the methods portal.
Bem, D. J. (2000). Writing an empirical article. Guide to publishing in psychology journals, 3-16.