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Manuscript writing with Google Docs

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.



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