September 10, 2015

Paperpile + Google Docs: Better Than "Traditional" Citation Managers

The holy grail of academic writing is having multiple authors work on the same file at the same time.

Traditionally, academics have used Microsoft Word with track changes to collaborate on writing. When there are more than two authors, this creates a mess: if I send out a file to three other authors, I get three separate files back with their comments. I then have to find some way to merge all their edits and comments, some of which may be duplicated among authors.

Google Docs offers a solution: everyone works on the same copy of the document, and changes and comments are shown to everyone as they are made in real time. Recently, Google Docs has upped their “track changes” game (they call it “suggesting mode”), making it comparable with Word in terms of functionality.

The problem is that none of the popular reference management applications (e.g., Endnote) worked with Google Docs. But there is a new online reference manager called Paperpile that integrates with Google Docs for inserting citations and generating a references list.

Here’s what I wrote about Paperpile in an update to my fairly comprehensive review of reference managers:

I have used Paperpile now, and it works pretty well. They have a beta Google Docs plugin that I use (rather than their Chrome extension; the Google Docs plugin is compatible with Safari, and I don’t like the security implications of browser extensions).

I’ve completely given up on organizing and searching my references in the same software I use to do citations. I now use DEVONthink for organizing and searching. DEVONthink has very advanced search capabilities, which solves my biggest reference management problem: finding papers that I remember reading, but do not remember the title or authors.

So I can’t speak to the reference organization and searching features of Paperpile, but inserting citations and building a list of references in a Google Docs file works just fine.

I think Google Docs with Paperpile is vastly preferable to Microsoft Word and any “traditional” reference manager. It is more efficient for everyone involved; doubly so for the person managing the contributions of other authors.

Lingering issues

There are two problems that I’ve run into using Google Docs rather than Word:

1. Google accounts

As I mentioned in my reference manager review, Google accounts can be challenging for people who don’t regularly use them. I think part of this confusion is with whether the account has to be associated with a @gmail.com email address (it doesn’t). In any case, you can circumvent this by following these directions, which allow collaborates to skip signing into Google if they don’t want to.

2. Backups

Microsoft Word files saved on my computer go into my backup system, but with Google Docs you are trusting Google to keep your writing safe. I use software called CloudPull to download .doc version of my Google Docs periodically. Another option is Backupify, a fully automatic, cloud-based backup system for Google Docs that I have used in the past. Both work well in my experience.


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