Google Docs for scientific papers?

Google Drive is a powerful webApp by Google, with built-in text-editor capability, but what are its limits? Can it be used for scientific papers and reports? Here I will tell you my thoughs and my experience with it. While a short answer to the question would, indubitably, be no, I will point out some strong motivations to it.

In order to lay down some context for your better understanding, here is the story behind this post of mine: a collegue and I were asked to submit a 20 pages report on a course project in Computational Mechanics. We both agreed that we’d have to choose an online word-processor, something that let us work in cooperation, lay down some comments, perhaps, and be reliable enough for us to complete the task quickly. In the end, we agreed on Google Docs, because we both had experience with it. So far so good, right?

It was a terrible mistake I did immediately regret.

Let’s have a look to what a scientific paper needs to include:

  • Diverse typography styles for good readability;
  • Numbered Sections and subSections for cross-reference purpose;
  • Images, figures and relative (numbered) captions;
  • Tables and relative (numbered) captions;
  • An organized Bibliography and a Table of Contents.

These are bare necessities for a readable, informative scientific paper. Note that I am not the only one claming this! Let me introduce you to PhD. Gabriel Wurzer from Wien university, who wrote, back in 2007 I believe, a 5 pages article on the topic: Scientific Writing with Google Docs. In his work, prof. Wurzer claimed that in the era of web 2.0 Google Docs was a great tool for collaborative writing. But is it still so?

On one hand, I have to agree with everything prof. Wurzer says: Google Docs is capable of handling each of the outlined tasks, provided that you spent some time creating automations or handle a great portion of the job manually. Here is how I disagree with prof. Wurzer: willing is not enough, we must do, and to do we need quite a certain amount of automation. The reason is trivial: it saves up time, and time is one of the most valuable resources in life.

Please be certain not to misunderstand me: back in 2007 lots of good things weren’t just there yet. I mean Dropbox pristine services1 and its competitors, or Overleaf, the service I use the most these days, launched in 2012, but I will come back to it in a moment. The approach proposed by prof. Wurzer is highly user based, and I can tell you, that implies time consumption is tremendously high. It’s not just that: once you have accounted for the placeholder replacement, for the third-party software for Bibliography auto-fill, for figure numbering, you will suddenly find out that your equations cannot be numbered in a non-hack way and, worst of all, no matrixes nor bold text in the equation fields are available. Not to mention the complete absence of specific symbols, say for chemical equations, vectors and so on.

In the end, you will need to download the file and edit it with another software (losing connection with your colleagues) just to fit in all the information that Google Docs can’t handle (for a better list, have a look to table 1).

Google Docs potential competitors comparison

 Google DocsMicrosoft Office WordLaTeX
OnlineYes (native)Yes (native in Cloud)No
Typography pre-formatted stylesLimited optionsUnlimited optionsUnlimited options
Section auto-numberingNoYesYes
Figures and Tables auto-numberingNoYesYes
Figures and Tables CaptionsNoYesYes
Cross references to Sections, Figures and TablesNoYesYes
SummaryYes (no page numbers)YesYes
Equations formattingNoYesYes
A comparison between Google Docs, Microsoft Office Word and LaTeX capability to handle collaborative scientific writing.

In conclusion, Google Docs is not a viable option for scientific papers in my opinion, due to lack of many essential tools for todays scientific publishing needs. Fortunately, alternatives are available: my suggestion is to stick with Latex (or any other WYSIWYM oriented software). There are online options for those, one being Overleaf, that allows simultaneous editing on Latex projects and real-time rendering. It is also free, and if you liked this post and would let me know, consider to try Overleaf using this link!

What is your experience with online collaborative paper writing? Share it in the comments below!

  1. To be fair, Dropbox was founded in 2007.