Could you write your next paper with Google Docs?

Google Docs and Zoho Writer are web-based writing tools that have gained many of the features of traditional word processors such as Microsoft Word. Looking at Google Docs as an example (Zoho Writer shares many of the strenghts and weaknesses), I wanted to find out if they are mature enough to write a scientific paper.

The Good
The major strength is collaboration. All documents are stored online, which makes it very easy for several people to work on a document simultaneously. Because all changes to the text are kept (with author and date), it is easy to go back to an older version. You can import and export documents in various formats, including .doc, .rtf and .pdf.

The Bad
The obvious missing feature is lack of reference manager integration. Google Docs currently doesn't support footnotes or endnotes, so you can't roll your own references. Google Docs supports font formatting, but unfortunately that doesn't include the Symbol font – needed in almost all scientific documents. And Google Docs online works with an online internet connection, although offline support may come in the form of Google Gears, Zoho Writer already supports Google Gears.

The Summary
Google Docs is almost ready to be an attractive tool for scientific writing. Some of the small problems are easily fixed in future updates. The big problem is integration of scientific references. But Google already has Google Scholar, maybe the two can be integrated?

For now, Google Docs can help with papers that have many active authors (e.g. a review article), but the final steps still have to be done with a word processor.

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6 Responses to Could you write your next paper with Google Docs?

  1. Andrew Sun says:

    I think the most obvious missing feature is rather the lack of document outline management. You cannot set titles and subtitles of sections in a managed way so that, for instance, you can generate an Table of Content with auto-updating page numbers.

  2. Davide Mana says:

    Lack of reference manager might be solved by adopting “Zotero”:, which resides in your web browser and therefore is somewhat integrated in your working environment.
    It seems to work fine with OpenOffice.
    I have still to test it on Google Docs, but it does look promising.

  3. Marylka Yoe Uusisaari says:

    What Zotero lacks at the moment (but probably is in the works) is the possibility to easily share the collections – other than by using a shared network drive. But when this will be fixed, and interoperability between Google Docs and Zotero in place, I’m guessing Google Docs will be ready for serious use.

  4. Matt Brown says:

    There are also formatting problems. I often find my fonts are not as expected, or am unable to alter the font of pasted-in text.
    Otherwise, it’s a great free package for casual writing.

  5. Kiran K says:

    I think I found exactly what we are looking for. WizFolio came out with a citation-tool that can insert and manage citations in GOOGLE DOCS and ZOHO WRITER!
    Check out this video

  6. Nicolas Fanget says:

    I understand there is a robot in Google Wave (Igor?) that allows the insertion of references. No experience of it though.
    The issue then becomes that of formatting to the requirements of the journal you are submitting to, which can be a real pain if you have to switch from (author, date) to number in order of citation, or in alphabetical order…
    Stand-alone ref managers such as EndNote, Mendeley and Zotero (OK it’s a plug-in, but the stand alone version is coming out) have become so good that an online collaboration tool would have to be just as good, otherwise people will probably just rely on something like email, DropBox equivalents or that new Microsoft thing (can’t remember what it’s called, aimed at business anyway).
    And what happens if say I use the online Mendeley system, but my collaborator uses EndNote/Wave whatever? Even when sharing docs with someone that has similar setup (Win XP, Office, Zotero on my end, Win XP and Office on hers) I occasionally get corruption of the references!
    Personally, I have made the choice to use open-source software and/or open standard formats wherever possible, after issues I had with EndNote.