A Quick Guide to Google Docs

This is the second post in the series A Quick Guide to Collaborative Media Tools (first post is here). The purpose is to give an introduction to tools that are helpful when doing collaborative work. This post is about collaborative document editing.

Writing academic papers, or texts generally, is often a collaborative process where you work with colleagues on different parts of the text. The normal procedure has been to e-mail the text document as an attachment to your colleague, but this rarely works if you want several people to read and comment on it: it’s simply too hard to keep track on all versions of the document. Using online collaborative word editors might be a solution.

More and more people are starting to use software that facilitates asynchronous and collaborative writing, editing and reviewing of texts. The cloud-based software suite Google Docs have, to many professionals, become a standard solution for these tasks.

In this post, I will try to explain the pros and cons of Google Docs and in what situation to use the service. Google Docs includes web-based software substitutes for several Microsoft Office applications such as Excel, PowerPoint and Word, but I will only talk about the Word substitute.

What’s good about using Google Docs?
• collaborative writing and editing of text documents becomes less of a hassle when you know that you are always working on the same version of the text as everybody else.

• making documents publicly available online with a permanent URL, either as read-only or read-and-write, let’s you publish a text online without having to copy it to your blog.

• by making an editable document public, anyone can edit it without signing in. This is great for ad-hoc note taking with people whose Google Accounts you do not know.

• if you’re using iPhone or Android smart-phones, you have instant access to all documents stored on Google Docs. You can even edit them from your mobile phone.

• a sidebar chat that lets you chat with people working on the same document.

• using labels (now called collections) to organize your documents. You can assign multiple labels to the same document, thus making the document easier to find.

• keeping track of document revisions with the file->see revision history option

• searching for documents in Google Docs is normally faster than on your PC.

What’s bad about using Google Docs?
• importing heavily formatted Word documents rarely works. If you have the option, start with a blank document.

• not as good as Word in disclosing who has changed what in the text (the so called Track Changes option)

• footnotes are supported but doesn’t work very well

• doing layout isn’t very easy in Google Docs. However, your text document can be downloaded in a word compatible format that keeps all formatting from the original document. Even comments are preserved.

• requires internet access: Google Docs used to have offline access of documents but removed it. However, the feature seems to be on its way back.

• advanced web technology like HTML5, which Google Docs uses extensively, only works on modern browsers like Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera.

• you must have a Google account.

Is my data safe?
If you work at NASA, you might think twice before using cloud services like Google Docs to store your data. If you work at a university, you probably have nothing to worry about. The likelihood that you lose your data is higher if you store text documents locally on your computer (hard-drive crashes, laptop theft etc) than if you store them on Google Docs.

Other services to use
PiratePad lets you work asynchronously on publicly stored documents.

Image credit: manu contreras CC:BY-NC-SA