Google Docs for Scientists

Science is inherently a collaborative effort, and at least once a month I encounter someone who mentions in passing some trial or tribulation they had when sharing documents.  The story usually goes like this…

We were working on a presentation/paper for a meeting.  Everyone had last minute changes, new data to share, and somehow, someone accidentally picked up the wrong version of the document and started editing.  Everyone was frustrated because, they had to get their updates in, and they were all waiting for Joe to finish his changes.  Joe went to lunch and left the file open and no one could get any work done, etc.

It’s usually at this point that I show them how to do the same thing in Google Docs.  We take a document they’re working on, open it in Google Docs, and both begin editing the document at the same time.  They see the changes in real time as we edit it.  They see the changes color coded, so you can distinguish Joe’s changes from Heidi’s changes.  They can chat from different locations about their changes, add comments, and references.

When you add Google Hangouts to the mix, you get the ability to deliver presentations to multiple sites via a video conference.  You can also share screens, do remote demos of software, or train colleagues at remote sites.

Need to collect experiment data? Try using Google Forms.  It lets you design the form, and saves the data in a spreadsheet.  You can graph data in Google Spreadsheet, and present it in Google Slides.  If you’ve got an elevator pitch for an idea you want to try out in the lab, access your slides from your cell phone while you’ve got your PI cornered in the elevator.

In addition to the default Google Apps, there are a number of 3rd party apps that you can use including tools for editing audio, annotating PDFs, managing projects, and converting presentations into movies (useful for putting your crowd funding pitch on YouTube).

So why aren’t there more scientists using Google Docs?  In addition to the “I didn’t know it could do that factor”, there’s also the challenge of working in an industry where IT or informatics tools tend to be prescribed and you work with what you’re given.  Lastly, there’s a misperception that, because it’s in the cloud, that the data is more vulnerable.  And therefore, there’s a reticence to be the “cloud pioneer”.

In the technological bell curve that describes the pharmaceutical industry, we’re beginning to see a some changes in the acceptance of cloud technologies.  At the leading edge, we see early adopters like Genentech deploy Google Docs throughout the company. Although Genentech restricts the use of Google Docs to non-regulatory work activities, it was able to migrate over 90,000 users.  Along with BBVA (a Spanish financial services company with over 110,000 users), these migrations represent an acknowledgement that cloud-based application suites make both financial and operational sense for both large pharmas and small biotechs, and provide the security that these industries require.

Academic institutions have also been quick to adopt Google Docs, including UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, USC, UNC-Greensboro, Monash, University of Sheffield, University of St. Andrews, and the list goes on.  Google Docs has definitely made it easier for researchers to collaborate across multiple institutions, share data, co-author papers, and present findings.

So tell me, what do you need to do?

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About Mark Fortner

I write software for scientists doing drug discovery and cancer research. I'm interested in Design Thinking, Agile Software Development, Web Components, Java, Javascript, Groovy, Grails, MongoDB, Firebase, microservices, the Semantic Web Drug Discovery and Cancer Biology.
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