• Nadine Rinderknecht

How to write an innovative paper

Updated: Jan 10

Innovation is a central component of a legal paper. But what constitutes an innovative paper and how do you write one? This article covers the 9 steps to an innovative paper.

Figure 1

Preliminary remarks

The focus of this article - just like the previous article How to write a digital economy paper - is on the topics of the digital economy. However, the tips in this post can also be used (modified if necessary) in other areas. In addition, the various points should always be critically examined and, if necessary, discussed with a (supervising) chair.

The abstractness of the university

It is astonishing that, at least at the University of Zurich, no lectures/exercises are held wherein it is explained what constitutes an innovation in the field of law in concrete terms and how it can be achieved. And yet it is supposed to form an integral part of bachelor's, master's theses and other papers... However, if you ask some of the chairs what they mean by "innovation," they mention terms such as:

  • critically evaluating the opinions of others,

  • daring to form your own opinions,

  • thinking "out of the box" or

  • developing new models and approaches.

The term "innovation" is thus already somewhat concretized. However, most chairs remain in this abstractness and do not explain how exactly these points can be achieved.

The 9 steps to an innovative paper

Step 1: Find a "free spot"

First, find a topic that, as far as can be seen, has only been worked on a few times - or, at best, never at all. Such a "free spot" can be found, for example, through these procedures:

  • An "element" (for more details on the term, see below) that has not yet been dealt with is worked on (e.g., a topic that has already been covered many times is dealt with in greater depth in a specific point).

  • Two "elements", each of which has already been discussed, are combined to create something new (e.g., two (innovative) theories are united into one).

Regarding the term "element": the new element can be legal in nature (e.g., new ruling, revised statute, innovative approach in a paper) and/or non-legal in nature (e.g., emerging technologies, new business models, or economic forms such as trust economy). One area of law that still contains many "free spots" is, for example, data protection law. This relatively young area of law contains many highly controversial provisions and is ideal for a critique and new solutions. One could almost say: the more broken the area of law, the better...

In my opinion, this first step is one of the most important, since the topic forms the framework in which innovations are created. If the topic or the research question itself is not new/innovative, it will be difficult to produce (disruptive) innovative solutions - if only because many doctrines have already tried. Of course, even here an innovation can be created. But it is rather unlikely that this solution has not yet been recognized by all the other scholars, respectively that finding this solution is all the more difficult. As a result, it is easier to "get more out" of an innovative topic than from a topic that has already been extensively studied.

However, also note:

  • Not only should a good topic be chosen, but also one that fascinates the writer. This will make writing the paper easier.

  • Being in an unexplored "free spot" also means that finding solutions can be very challenging. I think it is especially crucial to have a broad knowledge, experience in writing papers, and an abstract and creative way of thinking. If the topic is (still) too difficult according to a realistic assessment, it may be necessary to switch to another topic that has already been worked on 1-3 times. You can then build on this basis (admittedly, the degree of innovation or at least novelty tends to be lower here). Last but not least, see also tip 6 of the post How to write a digital economy paper on the "subsidiary paper", i.e., the challenging paper can still be written, but it is recommended to do it over a longer period of time.

Step 2: Choose a good timing

Especially when writing an innovative paper, timing is crucial. The paper should be written or published neither too early nor too late.

Too early means, for example, that there is still very little literature outside of the law. Here it can be difficult to even see the contours of a (controversial) topic such as a technology that is still in its early stages and will continue to evolve (e.g., Decentralized Web). An early focus on such a topic is only justified in exceptional cases (e.g., likely large impact of the technology).

On the other hand, waiting too long will lead to other people publishing legal papers on the chosen topic. This can be advantageous for those who prefer not to take a risk and build on existing publications (e.g., critique, supplement, different focus). However, persons who seek to be the first to work on a topic should not wait too long. An important indication of good timing is a large and growing number of publications outside of the law (e.g., 4D Printing). In this case, there is a chance that the topic has already been dealt with in a well-founded manner from natural science or economic point of view but has not yet been addressed from a legal perspective. Step 3 ("Assess the impact") can also help to estimate the right timing.

Step 3: Assess the impact

After a "free spot" has been selected and evaluated for timing, it should be estimated whether it will have a (significant) impact in the future. Avoid writing about something new if it will be obsolete or at least not very relevant in the future.

How can the impact of a topic be assessed? The following indications could speak for such an impact:

  • Someone else predicts the impact (e.g., Gartner Hype Cycle).

  • The new element has already been considered several times from a non-legal perspective (e.g., natural science papers on 4D printing or mind-reading technology). If the element consists of emerging technology, this is an indication that the technology itself could have an impact - and therefore also its legal analysis.

  • The new element was (also) founded by an influential person/company/organization and is driven by them towards market maturity (e.g., Tim Berners-Lee, together with Inrupt Inc. and World Wide Web Consortium, has a significant influence on the Decentralized Web).

  • The new element is located in a context that could have a considerable impact (e.g., trusted technology like blockchain in the trust economy).

Note, however, that life is difficult to predict because of its complexity. E.g., even the research and advisory firm Gartner Inc. did not include blockchain, which is now considered an important "foundation technology," in its Hype Cycle until eight years after it was founded (2016). And this was at a time when blockchain had already almost reached the "peak of inflated expectations" (hype). The assessment of the impact should therefore not take on too much importance. Nevertheless, one should refrain from topics whose future importance is obviously questioned.

Step 4: Create the foundations

The fourth step is to gain an overview of the topic. This includes first an in-depth reading of the relevant literature, although research outside the topic is also encouraged. Possibly this "excessive" knowledge can become still useful later (e.g., recognizing further connections).

Thereafter, the knowledge can be put down on paper. Since a topic can quickly become very complex, it is important that the ideas are written down in an orderly fashion (e.g., in a chapter on the basics of the topic). After all, the foundation on which you want to innovatively build must be as clear and understandable as possible. A good way to do this is to use abstraction. Here, the contents are grouped and the groups are described in general terms. In this way, higher-level connections between the groups become apparent (which can be concretized again later if necessary).

In addition, it is important to recognize the "essence" of a matter. Sometimes people mistakenly assume to have understood something at the first reading. However, if complex subjects are dealt with, it is advisable to read e.g., 3-4 commentaries on the same provision. This will make it clear what a particular provision is really about. Otherwise, there is a risk that it will either be misunderstood or that innovative considerations based on the fundamentals will later be argued past the issue.

Step 5: Fill the "free spot" with innovations

Fifth, the topic must be dealt with innovatively. As was presented in the introduction, innovation can refer especially to the critical appreciation of other people's opinions and/or to one's own solutions.

  • Question the mainstream: Is it the best solution? Does the solution still work today, but is there a development that will make it fail in the future? However, only deviate from the mainstream opinion if you have very good reasons. Mediocre reasons are not enough.

  • Find a problem that has not yet been solved (or that you can solve better): Your solution can consist of simply developing an already existing solution further or finding your own, more independent solution. You can also be inspired by other ideas: Search for similar problems in other areas of law where a good solution has already been found. This solution then only needs to be adapted to the new problem. In addition, you can examine what purpose an already existing solution pursues and - if the purpose is not to be questioned itself - you can look for your own solution, which fulfills the purpose better.

  • Often opinions get lost in trivialities. Here, you can examine whether the opinion corresponds also to a higher purpose.

  • Imagine you are discussing the problem you try to solve with an inspiring person. You will be given interesting answers.

Moreover, try to identify what makes papers influential. These papers are often (but not always!) also innovative papers that:

  • are cited a lot (e.g., see rankings in journals, if available; the paper shows up at the top of Google Scholar),

  • have won important prizes.

Accordingly, more concrete approaches might be:

  • Identify a social change that you think no longer fits the current law and propose a new solution (esp. fundamental critique). Example: here.

  • Identify the beginnings of a development, describe it and coin the term for it by placing a catchy term prominently in the paper (e.g., in the title). Example: here.

  • Identify an "extensive free spot" and write a comprehensive paper about it (40-50 pages). Here, it is important to have a very well-structured bibliography for clarity. Timing is also crucial (see step 2). Indeed, the paper should be written neither too early (immature research topic) nor too late (other people get ahead of you). Example: here.

Last but not least: never follow the mainstream.

Apart from the fact that the mainstream is, in my opinion, the home of the greatest boredom, you do not stand out from the crowd.

Step 6: Restrict your innovation

In most cases, it is necessary to restrict your innovation. The following constellations come into consideration:

  • Adapt the radicality of your solution to the problem: More fundamental problems require a more radical innovation than more superficial problems. For the latter, a less radical solution often makes more sense. Conversely, radical innovation is not always the best solution and needs adaptation.

  • If something new is proposed, one should anticipate the possible criticism and pre-empt it by putting it into perspective. For example, if your idea is a better solution only in certain cases, the importance of your idea can be relativized and explicitly limited to those cases. Or it may be that your solution will not only solve old problems but also create new ones. The importance of the new solution must therefore be relativized. However, in a second step, it can be argued that the new approach is nevertheless more advantageous when viewed as a whole.

  • It is often the case that extreme positions are initially held, and only with time does a balance settle in the middle. If, for example, the prevailing opinion assumes A and your paper wants to argue for B, it can still make sense if the two extreme positions A and B are combined in your paper to form a more universal solution. This way, the process towards a more balanced solution can be anticipated (to a certain degree) and you risk less that someone else completes the theory. Example: It may be that A also has advantages that cannot be fully covered by B. Both advantages can thus be combined in one theory, while the disadvantages of A and B are reduced as much as possible. As a result, approach B may be convincing on its own at first sight. However, farsightedness dictates a balanced solution of A + B already from the beginning. (If, however, A + B would make the paper too comprehensive, only B can be treated in the first paper and A + B in a second one).

Step 7: Let the innovation mature

Especially in the case of disruptive innovations it can make sense to put the paper aside (time permitting) and look at it again and again over a few weeks or even months. This is not primarily about finding grammatical errors. It is about "maturing" the innovation. Sometimes you will reach a point where you are convinced that the paper cannot get any better. The day after, however, an interesting idea may pop into your mind that has not yet been included in your paper. Or the structure of the table of contents can be presented more orderly. In short, let the innovation mature and come up with more and more sophisticated solutions.

Note, however:

  • Waiting for a longer period of time may lead to (excessive) complexity of the paper, as many new thoughts are being included. It may therefore be necessary to split the paper into two or more parts.

  • The paper will never be perfect. Do not wait for too long with the submission/publication.

Step 8: Diffuse your paper

The best paper is worth nothing if it is not read. So, make sure that your paper is spread. It might be beneficial if:

  • The paper is written in English (wider audience).

  • The paper is published in a journal that reaches many readers. This is especially true for a journal that is open-access or e.g., available on Swisslex/Beck.

  • The paper is distributed on other websites such as SSRN, ResearchGate, Academia.edu, etc. (if possible).

  • A short abstract of the paper is written. This is especially useful for longer papers of more than 15 pages. In my opinion, the hurdles to the content of the paper must be lowered for the reader as much as possible. Since readers often prefer no more than 8-12 pages, they might be discouraged by the length of a longer paper. However, it is still better if readers read a mere summary than nothing at all. Moreover, a fascinating summary can also encourage to read the paper in its entirety.

  • The publication of the paper is announced on social media (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter).

Step 9: Return to step 1

Congratulations! You've now gone through all the steps and it's time for your next paper. Here is some general advice:

  • Despite all idealism... Realize that a paper is in fact nothing else than an economic good, which also follows the economic logic (e.g., solving a problem, promoting novelty/innovation, marketing). So think also - but not only - strategically in all steps.

  • Learn from your mistakes (or from the mistakes of others).

  • Especially radical-innovative papers can meet with broad rejection, at least at the beginning. Go ahead anyway.

Do you agree with my tips? Or do you have suggestions? Feel free to write it in the comments!


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