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Google Docs for collaborative writing

We’ve recently started using Google Docs for collaborative work in the physiotherapy department and it’s been great so far.  There are other online word processing environments with different feature sets (Zoho, Thinkfree, Microsoft Office Live, Buzzword), but after playing around with all of them, I found that Docs offered the best mix of features, usability and stability.  Buzzword is probably the most innovative, I’m going to follow them and see what happens in that space.

While Docs lacks many of the features you’ll find in a desktop work processor like, it’s still got a pretty useful set.  These include; exporting your work into multiple formats, commenting, bookmarking, auto-generation of tables of contents, different user roles, version history and basic text formatting options.

In the physiotherapy department, we’re using Docs to peer review articles for publication in the faculty journal, rather than emailing articles and comment forms back and forth between reviewers, editors and authors.  We’re also using it to collaborate on joint projects (like new course development) with our sister university in Missouri.  And lastly, over the past month or so I’ve been using it to provide feedback on project proposals with two undergraduate research groups.  This has been working really well for the students because they’re currently on their clinical placements and find it difficult to meet in person.  With regards the undergrad research, I’ve also been using Twitter to push out articles for the literature review and methodology sections.

By using Firefox addons and scripts with Greasemonkey, Docs can be improved still further.  One of the biggest problems in the past was that it was only available in the “cloud“.  However, now that the Gears addon is stable, Docs is available in offline mode too.  This is possibly it’s most powerful feature, allowing offline access to your work and synchronisation with the online version later.  It also handles conflicts between edits very well.

There are some issues with Docs however, highlighting the fact that as with all technology, there are going to be problems.  I came across these articles while doing the background research for the department: Why Docs is not safe, Google adapts and modifies content (discusses the copyright issues of hosting content with Google), and Painful lessons from using Google Docs.

I’m really excited at the prospect of increasing our use of online, collaborative environments.  Today it’s Google Docs, but who knows what it’ll be tomorrow?