Manuscript writing with Google Docs

I hope I’m going to submit my PhD student’s first comparative genomics paper very soon. Three of us have written the manuscript collaboratively using Google Docs. GDocs is an online word processor and although I’ve used it quite a bit before, this is the first time I’ve used it to write a manuscript with colleagues. Its been (almost) excellent, here’s the review.

I’ve had a number of manuscript experiences where I’ve spent long hours trying to collate different authors’ contributions into the same Word document. The idea of using GDocs is that multiple authors can have the same document open at the same time making changes without any conflicts or the whole thing crashing. You never have to ask “which is the live copy?” since there is only one copy.

Good parts

  • Nobody has had to collate mutually incompatible versions into one document and circulate (again) for people to check.
  • It is a clean GUI and a pleasure to use.
  • There is a good comment system and these are supplemented with a realtime discussion panel, just like Skype or other IM client.

Less good parts

  • It doesn’t work well in some older browsers. Tell collaborators to use Chrome, otherwise they may complain that its a bit rubbish and doesn’t work properly. Using Chrome there are few to no problems (ie better than Word).
  • You cannot use any sensible reference software. Mendeley, Zotero or any of the other reference managers you know will not allow you to insert references and format a bibliography the way you would in Word.
  • Track changes is not as good as in Word.
Google Docs revision history

Overall its been great I think. There are a few things I really wish were different. Track changes could be easily improved to identify who has done what. Yes versions of the document can be compared, and rolled back to previous versions, both of which are useful but none of it is quite as obvious and easy to use as in Word. More than anything I really wish that reference management was better. We have been typing in place holders (Smith 2000) and then exporting the document as a Word file and introducing the citations using a reference manager before submission. This sounds bad. Why not just do everything in Word? Well, even today, two of us were making some last minute changes on the Word version, each copy with someone’s initials appended and somebody tomorrow has to reconcile it all.

I think Google Docs if adopted widely would have a great impact on writing multi-authored manuscripts. I don’t think it will be very widely used in science though unless reference managers can integrate with it properly. Despite this I have really enjoyed writing a manuscript with it, and, even though it has to be passed through MS Word at the end, on the whole I’ve much preferred it.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Phil Wheeler says:

    Dave, no idea how I ended up here…
    Am considering using google docs to put together a final project report and develop a new proposal. In principle all good, but is it possible to view formatting (as it is in Word)? If not, that’s quite irritating. I can’t figure it out myself.


    1. Dave Lunt says:

      Hi Phil, its pretty much exactly like Word when you’re doing stuff. Well, Word before it bloated out to have all that stuff you never use. I would definitely give it a go. Its been really great for me. Worst case situation, if its really just not working for you, Save As Word.doc, and nothing is lost you can carry on in Word as before. For me having 1 document in a collaboration is worth more than the very very detailed track changes Word gives you. If there is some change a collaborator wants to draw particular attention to they can always use the yellow highlighter, or suggest a change in a comment.


  2. alex says:

    how did you manage your refereces??


    1. Dave Lunt says:

      Hi Alex, I have a way, but its not ideal. I just put place holders (Lunt, 2008) and then when its all finished export to MS Word and use Mendeley to replace and format the refs and bibliography. I’m really hoping that now Google have released an API someone will step up and create a reference manager for Docs.


  3. Joe says:

    I was looking around for who else has used Google docs for paper writing. While your post is a bit old now, you should check out Paperpile for the references (and general PDF management). Here is a video that shows how they integrated the references into Google Docs.
    I have used it for PDF management for a few months and I find it fantastic.


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