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Using GoogleDocs to Write Collaborative Research Papers

Posted in: Taming the Literature

When it comes to writing up a research paper, there are many ways to go about it.

If it’s just you doing most of the writing, with your supervisor, it is quite straightforward – you can just maintain a single copy of the document and exchange it by email. Software like Microsoft Word can track changes for you as the document progresses.

But if you have three or more authors especially if they are from multiple remote locations, contributing to the paper, things can become complicated with only a single copy of the document. You can use a “round-robin” approach, where you send a copy to one author at a time, wait for their contribution, then send it onto the next. This is sure, but can be very slow.

Alternatively, if the authors’ contributions are well-delimited and separate, they can each contribute their own sections in parallel, which you then assemble. But this approach is unlikely to work well with Introduction or Discussion sections, which need a global view of the whole paper. The worst case scenario is that you have to integrate conflicting changes from multiple authors and multiple copies of the document!

In more numerate disciplines, the use of the Latex document preparation system combined with a version control system (VCS) is a popular solution. In this approach, a centralized copy of the document is maintained on a server, authors write on a local copy, and the VCS integrates the individual changes. But most biologists don’t use this approach because they’re not familiar with VCS technologies and don’t need Latex’s superlative rendering of maths expressions.

Google Docs

For the remainder of this article, I’ll describe our experiences with using GoogleDocs for writing a research paper co-authored by 5 scientists distributed around the world. GoogleDocs is a free, online word-processor that is available to anyone with a gmail account. It provides standard editing functionality and really excels in real-time collaborative authoring.

Here are our favorite GoogleDocs features, which were all greatly appreciated by the authors of our paper:

  • Multiple authors can edit a document simultaneously, each author’s changes appearing immediately beside an individually coloured cursor.
  • Even quite complex edits, such as cut and pastes are “magically” resolved.
  • You can annotate selected areas of text with comments, perhaps explaining the decisions behind an edit, or querying another author’s work. These comments can be threaded, and removed once marked as “resolved”. All of the comments are retained for posterity in a separate “Discussions” document, which you can always refer back to.
  • A chat window is also available which is handy for resolving issues in real-time.
  • A full revision history is maintained and you can revert to previous versions very easily.

One understandable concern is with security – how do you control access to your document, and how do you share with people that don’t have gmail accounts? Well, you can share with named users, or via a unique link, and in both cases you can control who can edit or merely view the document.

The major drawback that probably prevents GoogleDocs being the perfect collaborative editor is its lack of support for bibliographies and references. These have to be added manually, or, the document exported to another application that does this better. From GoogleDocs one can export to Word, PDF, ODT or HTML formats.

So, to conclude, our experience with GoogleDocs for writing a multi-authored research paper was largely positive. It shines during the early and intermediate stages of authoring, with its collaborative features. But, at the end of the day you’ll probably want to export to another editor to format your references.

It would be really interesting to hear about your preferred ways to write a collaborative paper – which software and approach works for you?

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