• Nadine Rinderknecht

How to search for online publications on the web

Updated: Mar 28

How can the literature be found in the vastness of the web? This article provides an overview of useful search engines, databases and other tools to get started with web research.

Level: Beginner

Searching for relevant publications can be difficult in the vastness of the web. This article offers useful tips on search engines, scientific databases and other tools such as browser extensions.

When searching online, connecting to your university's VPN (Virtual Private Network) is of great importance, otherwise you won't be able to access many of the databases. If you haven't already done so, you should definitely connect to the VPN (instructions for students of the University of Zurich: www.zi.uzh.ch) or otherwise use a library computer. Most of the databases mentioned here are either public or accessible for free with the VPN of the University of Zurich. (In some cases, the websites still require a free profile). Moreover, the focus of this article is on online searches for articles and books and not on searches for rulings or statutes.

1. search engines

The most widely used search engine in Europe is Google. Therefore, the following remarks will primarily deal with Google and Google Scholar.

1.1 Google

A well-known way to search the web for information is Google. When searching, the following tips can be helpful.

Tip: Get familiar with the Google search functions

Reference is made to the explanations at www.computerbild.de. Note that the most valuable tips can be found from "16. quotation marks with wildcards".

Tip: Searching for PDF format

This is a specific use case of the previous tip or rather tip "24. Nach Dateitypen suchen" at www.computerbild.de. Literature published on the web is often stored in PDF format. Therefore, it is recommended to enter PDF in the search bar next to the desired topic. PDF can also be enclosed in quotation marks, so that Google searches for content that necessarily contains the term PDF. In addition, the term filetype: can also be used together with the format (e.g., filetype:PDF). However, since Google often finds the PDFs even without the quotation marks or filetype:, these can be omitted. Accordingly, adding PDF after the subject is sufficient.

Tip: Search for results of a specific website

This is also a specific use case of the first tip or rather the tip "17. Websites durchsuchen" on www.computerbild.de. If a Google search also brings many unscientific results, also Google can be used to search individual, scientific websites. For this purpose, site: and then the URL of the web page can be added next to the topic (e.g. site:ssrn.com, site:elsevier.com). This search method is particularly suitable if you are only interested in the search results of a specific website and the search within the website does not work as well as Google. Otherwise, Google Scholar is often more effective (see section 1.2 below).

Tip: Search for the author's website

This is a useful tip in case the desired publication is located behind a paywall, which cannot be accessed with the university VPN. If an author does not publish open access, the publisher sometimes offers him the possibility to provide a link to a freely accessible PDF version of his publication on his (private) website. So, for example, if you are looking for a professor's publication, you can Google for his website and see if he has added a link to the PDF in his publication list.

1.2 Google Scholar

Google Scholar (www.scholar.google.com) is the world's largest academic search engine. It can be used to search for literature such as books, journal articles, seminar papers, preprints, and essays.


  • Google Scholar can be used to find both free and paid documents that may not be accessible even with the university VPN.

  • If you search with Google Scholar, you will automatically get books from Google Books as well. Therefore, a separate search on Google Books is often not necessary.

  • Since the ranking procedure of Google Scholar is highly intransparent, it is hard to say why a certain search result appears at the top. However, it is known that the frequent citation of a source is highly weighted. Accordingly, frequently cited sources tend to appear at the top. This can be an indication of a high scientific significance of the publication.

Tip: Ask the professor which sources are allowed

Google Scholar understands the term "scholarship" very broadly. For example, blogs also show up in the search results. Some professors believe that discussions on blogs/websites (by experts or law firms) can or should also be taken into account, especially in rapidly developing legal fields. However, if the same opinion can be found in a "scientific counterpart", this should be cited. Other professors are of the opposite opinion and only want to see "traditional sources" cited (e.g. textbooks, articles in journals). In case of doubt, simply ask what exactly may be cited.

1.3 Other scientific search engines

Besides Google Scholar, other scientific search engines exist such as:

2. Library catalogs

A library catalog is a directory of sources that shows the publications in one or more libraries. In Switzerland, swisscovery (www.swisscovery.slsp.ch) is of central importance. According to its own information, this is "[t]he national platform that brings together scientific information from around 475 libraries in Switzerland." Thanks to swisscovery, it is no longer necessary to search in the catalogs of several libraries; instead, a single search on swisscovery is sufficient. However, the results can also be optimized so that, for example, only RWI sources are displayed.

Note: If a source is accessible online, this is shown in green ("Available Online"). If you click on the search result, you can use the link under "View Online" to go directly to the source. However, you may still have to register (for a fee). In fact, “Available Online" does not necessarily mean "Open Access".

Tip: Check (on swisscovery) how a source is cited

Are you writing a paper and are not sure how to cite a source? A look at the citation method on swisscovery can be helpful: Search for the source, click on the search result, scroll down to "Send to" and click on the icon "Citation". There you will find different citation methods, which you can also copy&paste. Alternatively, you can enter the source on Google Books. Often you will find several books that have already cited the source, revealing a "consensus" on how to cite the source. Note, however, that ultimately all sources used must be cited consistently. This means that the "consensus" may still need to be adapted to your own citation style.

3. Databases

Databases are to be distinguished from (scientific) search engines. These contain a large number of publications, which, however, are often behind a paywall. Therefore, especially here the university VPN is of great importance.

The following, non-exhaustive explanations then distinguish between countries and their legal systems. Note, however, that "foreign publications", i.e. publications on a different legal system, can also be found in a particular database. For example, beck-online (see 3.2 below) also contains (little) literature on Swiss law.

3.1 Switzerland

In Switzerland, Swisslex (www.swisslex.ch) is of great importance. According to its own information, "Swisslex [...] is the most comprehensive legal research platform in Switzerland". Once you have connected to the university VPN and logged in, you have access to a large number of judgments, journals, commentaries, books, series and EU law (e.g. treaties and case law).

Another important legal database is legalis (www.legalis.ch). Here you can find anthologies, commentaries, handbooks, encyclopedias, database (on specific legal fields), university theses, journals, decrees and decisions. This database stands out especially due to the many commentaries (esp. Basler Kommentar).

Similarly important is Weblaw (www.weblaw.ch). The database offers a "comprehensive selection of services such as online journals, databases, e-publications, master's theses as well as campus licenses."

3.2 Germany/EU

If one deals with German or EU law, the extensive database of beck-online (www.beck-online.beck.de) is very helpful, as well as the R&W-Online database (www.online.ruw.de).

Further German databases containing publications from other disciplines in addition to jurisprudence are, for example:

3.3 Other databases

Further important databases, which contain publications from other disciplines in addition to law publications, are for example:

Moreover, universities also offer lists of useful databases. Some of these include very specific subject databases (e.g., specialized in arbitration):

4. Other useful tools

Besides search engines and databases, these tools can also make it easier to find literature:

  • Open Access Helper (www.oahelper.org): Are you facing a paywall and not even the university VPN can't help? If the publication you are looking for has already been published open-access on another website, this browser extension will find it based on the DOI. This case is not very unlikely: "There are more than 30 million open access versions of otherwise 'paywalled' scientific articles."

  • Literature management programs: Programs such as Citavi or Mendeley can help manage publications after they have been successfully searched and downloaded. Alternatively, the documents can also be stored "normally" in clearly arranged folders (e.g. in the cloud).

5. Conclusion

In summary, online searches for publications can be done in a variety of ways. In my opinion, the most useful search engines and databases (for Swiss law) are the following:

  • Google Scholar,

  • swisscovery (esp. publications available online),

  • Swisslex,

  • legalis,

  • beck-online.

Good luck finding the literature in the vastness of the web (and behind paywalls)!

Last but not least, something motivating:


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