Google Docs vs. Microsoft Word: The Death Match for Research Writing

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A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, Microsoft Word ruled the roost when it came to word processing. If you wanted to type your love letters or book manuscript, then you used Word. Then along came OpenOffice and LibreOffice to knock Microsoft off their perch a little.

But now we are entering the era of the Cloud, and online solutions are gradually becoming the norm. The main player in this area is Google Docs which resides in Google Drive, and it’s good for basic stuff like letters and reports. But how good is it when you are a student or a researcher, and you need to write an academic research paper?

I decided to see how Microsoft Word stacks up against Google Docs. Which one will do the better research paper?

Google Docs vs. Microsoft Word

First off, Google Docs has got a few things going for it — it’s online, it’s free and it syncs across devices. That alone is probably enough for most people to abandon even the notion of going for Office, which has to be installed, probably on only one computer, and you have to continually copy your files over to a USB stick or email them to yourself. So 10 points to Google Docs already, for productivity and convenience.

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But where there is convenience, there is also a big downside. In the case of Google Docs, it is in the Cloud, on Google’s servers, which means they control your files. Google servers gone down? Tough luck. Google wants to read your files to send you advertising? Deal with it. FBI wants to look at your files to build a case against you? Call your lawyer.

Assuming the downsides don’t bother you, let’s look at how easy it is to format a paper.

The Templates

Google Docs has a wide range of templates for all occasions, and the fearless researcher hasn’t been left out. However, this is a section where any man and his dog with a Google account can submit their own template. So there is….shall we politely say….a load of flaming dreck in there. But there is one good template worth using in the Research section.

The MLA Style Research Paper template gives you the different sections of the paper, and shows you what goes where. It’s pretty much a case of removing the default text and replacing it with your own.

Microsoft Word also has a template section. It is better designed and more stylish than Google Docs. Just enter the one you want. Ironically, the one we found in Google Docs is also in the Microsoft Office templates gallery!

The Word document isn’t totally identical though. There are some differences which may entice some people over to Word. For a start, everything in the document is clickable. Click on any area of the document, delete the text, and add your own. The formatting will always stay in place, and never get messed up. This removes a huge potential headache.

There are also some interactive elements such as a table. You can change it to suit your own data. Again, this is clickable, so all formatting stays in place when you change the text.

Or a bar graph, which looks good on all research papers. You’ve got to have a bar graph in there somewhere!

Word has nicely formatted footnotes, where you can cite your sources.

You can decide what type of footnotes you want. Just click on the one you want, and the footnotes will automatically update.

But one thing which swerves back in Google Docs’ favor is the Research tool. Matt Smith covered this back in May 2012 when Google added the Research Sidebar. Saikat further elaborated on the power of the Research tool in Google Drive.

So I am not going to go over it all over again. Instead, I will just give you a very quick summary, and if you want to know more, read our two older articles, which are excellent (he says, in a non-biased way).

The Research Tool

To access the Research tool, simply go to the menu at the top, and go to Tools >Research. This will then open a narrow bar on the right hand side, shoving your document out of the way.

Then, as you write your paper, you can search for whatever you are looking for. It will also display information based on what you are working on. Drag and drop text from the Research toolbar into your paper. A click on the link adds it to your document, and a Cite button will helpfully add the selected page as a source in the footnotes for you.

The usefulness of Google Scholar cannot be overstated in this regard. As you choose articles from the search results, Google takes care of all the citations for you.

Citations can be added with MLA, APA, or Chicago Style formatting. The ASA format is missing, so you have to add it manually (Hint: you can tweak the APA format). The invaluable Google Scholar integration goes one step further by telling you in the search results how many times that source has been cited by other people.

As well as our two articles on the subject, Google has a help page on the Research tool that describes the different features in detail.

Tables

You just saw the bar graph in the Word template, but what about tables? Google Docs and Word have the same process for creating tables.

In Google Docs, just go to Table>Insert Table.

Then use your mouse to drag up and down until you have the required size. Then press “Enter” on your keyboard to insert it into the document.

Then it is just a case of typing in the information.

Word does the same. Here it is in Word 2010.

Then :

It couldn’t be easier.

Collaboration

There is another point in Google Docs’ favor — the real-time collaborative editing features in Google Drive supported by chat on Hangouts. Multiple people can work on the same document all at the same time, which is good for group projects. All edits are saved in the revision history and you can revert to previous versions easily.

The best you can do with Word is to leave the document in Dropbox, Google Drive or OneDrive, and notify the other group members that they can make their contributions. Office Online supports live typing and co-authoring. But if you are working on the desktop suite, it is not as seamless as Google Docs.

The good news is that Microsoft will be bringing real-time co-authoring to Microsoft Office 2016 later this year.

Word (and Google Docs too) have something called Version Control, which shows you all the different versions that the document went through. You have the option to reverse the document back to a previous state, but for the purpose of collaboration, it can also easily be used to see what changes have been made, since the last time the document was seen.

Also, the Track Changes feature can be used to keep track of proposed changes.

Inserting Photos

If there is one thing guaranteed to have me cursing like a sailor on shore leave, it’s inserting and positioning images in a Word document, around text. It never goes where I want it to, and when I finally manage it, it jumps out of place like someone with ants in their pants.

But with Google Docs, inserting images is a breeze. In the drop-down menu, go to Insert >Image, and a big box pops up.

You can choose from a wide variety of sources, and you can even search Google, LIFE Magazine, and something called “Stock Images”. You can also create a Google Photos folder in your “My Drive” to organise your photos. Choose your picture, click Select, and the image is nicely placed in the document for you. Images must be less than 2 MB in size.

Spell Check

When writing a paper, getting your spelling right is essential. Nothing is going to get your paper thrown in the bin more than multiple spelling errors. And it is here that Google Docs holds the edge over Word. Google Docs employs their search engine “Did You Mean?” technology. And if the word is correctly spelt, but Google Docs doesn’t recognize it, you can add it to a Personal Dictionary which in effect whitelists it for future use.

Word has Spell Check too but it doesn’t seem to be as effective as Google Docs. For example it cannot tell the difference between “affected’ and “effected”. Or Coke and Pepsi. Can you tell the difference?

Microsoft Word & OneDrive

If you are a die hard Microsoft fan, you’re probably gnashing with the teeth right now at your beloved Word being criticized. And I’m sure you will be eager to point out that the desktop Word software has Cloud integration in the form of OneDrive (formerly known as SkyDrive). Very true.

OneDrive is also well-integrated with Windows 8.1 and Windows 10. Microsoft is often quite generous with giving away free OneDrive space. If you are totally on the Windows ecosystem, this is a positive as the file will be synced across your Windows devices. Even if you don’t have OneDrive installed, you can use OneDrive on the Web to make changes and sync your files.

You may also want to point out that there is Office 365. But the downside to that? Yep, you have to pay for it. Not good for those with an allergy to spending money.

Add-Ons

It’s add-ons which gives Google Docs a serious advantage. Just like a browser, if you don’t like the way it’s currently set up, find add-ons to make it do what you want it to do.

Here are some of the best ones for when you are writing your research paper.

EasyBib

EasyBib describes itself as the “easiest automatic bibliography citation generator”. You can format in MLA, APA, Harvard, and over 7,000 more styles by simply entering the titles or URLs.

By clicking Generate Bibliography, the add-on will alphabetize your citations and add them to the end of your paper.

g(Math)

g(Math) is for those who need to create complex math graphs in their documents. You can even use Speech to Math in Chrome to talk directly to g(Math) to create the expressions or use Handwriting recognition for expression entry.

Use LaTeX commands or the prebuilt codes to create complex math. Create a graph with the Graph Creator, and plot points in that graph. You can also import a Google Docs table directly into g(Math) to create a plot.

Texthelp

Use Texthelp’s Highlighting Tools to highlight parts of your document to collect, group, and learn from later. Simply select and highlight the desired text and click “Collect Highlights” to extract it and place it in a new document (by color or location).

This could be compared to the feature in Kindle and iBooks, where you can highlight parts of the book you are reading, and collect them all up at the end in a new document.

Gliffy

Gliffy is a diagram editor which lets you create complex diagrams, mind-maps, flowcharts, wireframes, and much more. You can take advantage of an extensive shape library with hundreds of industry-standard shapes and connectors.

Watch your diagrams come together with Snap-to-grid, drawing guides, shape alignment and distribution tools.

So Which One Has Emerged Victorious?

Victory

I think you can guess. Microsoft Word has its good points — a nice design interface, a nice easy-to-use template, interactive graphs, and other features that would make your paper look damn good. Plus it clearly has the better templates gallery.

But Word is trumped by Google Docs, which provides indispensable features that Word doesn’t – the portability, the cross-platform support, the research tool, image insertion….plus many more that makes Google Docs the winner in this showdown between champions.

And look at it this way. If you really want your work in a Word file, Google Docs lets you export your document into one. The best of both worlds!

So which do you prefer when doing your work? Are you a diehard Microsoft Word fan, or are you a closeted Google Docs supporter? Which features do you like the most, and what missing features would you like to see added?

Image Credit: Award of Victory (Shutterstock)

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