Google Docs has long been a popular tool for students to write essays and do other writing work in. Not only is it a free tool with any Google account, but many schools give students G Suite accounts, giving them access to Google Docs (and all of Google Drive) through the school.
Though Google Docs is a fairly competent word processor for basic tasks, there is one area where it has been severely lacking: Citations.
This has long been an area where Microsoft Word, Google Doc’s biggest competitor, has excelled. Because of this, many students and researchers pay to use Microsoft Word even though they have access to Google Docs for free and it does most of what they need.
However, Google is now filling that gap. In a recent G Suite update, Google announced that they are adding a tool add and manage citations in Google Docs. The rollout is ongoing and will take until October 18 to reach all domains. However, rapid release domains should already have access to it.
So is this new tool going to be a game-changer? Probably not. However, it will still likely be a big help for students and researchers alike when it comes to managing citations in Google Docs.
How it Works
The way it works is actually very simple. To get started you simply go to Tools -> Citations.
From there, you’ll be given a list of options on how to enter your citation.
Your first choice is what citation standard you want to use. Currently, you are limited to MLA, APA and Chicago styles. From there, you’ll select the type of source that you want to cite and can choose from book, book section, website, journal article or newspaper article.
Then you have to choose how you accessed the content. Though the options change depending on the type of content you’re citing, they include print, website and online database options.
Once you’ve chosen your citation style, next comes the more arduous part. You have to enter all of the information about the source yourself. For example, if you’re doing a print book, you have to do the author’s name, title, publisher, publication year and so forth. There is no ability to import information, either via ISBN, URL or other sources.
Once you are done, you click the “Add citation source” button at the bottom of the pane and you are then taken to a version of the pane where you can either add another source or cite the source you just added.
To do that, simply hover over the source and click the “Cite” button that appears. That adds an in-text citation at the location you want. If you add a book you will be prompted to add the page number to your citation.
When you are done and wish to add your bibliography, simply go down to where you want to put it and click the “Insert Bibliography” button and it will be pasted in. However, it’s important to wait until the very end of your paper because the bibliography will not automatically update if you add more sources later.
In short, if you generate a bibliography and then make changes, you’ll need to delete and recreate it later.
All in all, it is a functional tool and does greatly aid in citing within Google Docs. However, there’s a lot of reason to curb any enthusiasm about it.
This new citation tool is very bare-bones. If we’re being honest, all that it does is take information that the user types into it and puts it in the correct format for both in-text citation and a bibliography. It’s a formatting tool and not much more.
Easybib, for example, allows users to quickly important information about a book via it’s ISBN number. It can also access and import basic information about a website just by the URL (though it often requires a cleanup in my testing).
To be clear, these features are not new and have been around for many years. They also seem like they would have been easy for a company like Google to implement as they likely already have all of the information in their databases.
It’s also a bit confusing that the bibliography isn’t updated as changes are made. This is something that Microsoft Word has done for some time (albeit requiring an additional click).
The lack of progress is all the more confusing because this isn’t Google’s first attempt at making a citation tool for Google Docs. They actually launched one back in 2012.
Dubbed “Research”, it was a feature that allowed students to more easily place citations in their work. However, the feature never really worked all that well and was not targeted at placing citations. It was meant to actually help with research by finding images and content to reference. It also couldn’t easily cite content not found through the tool itself.
To make matters worse, it was dropped from Google Docs and re-added later. As such, it never really caught on with students or other researchers.
This lack of an effective and consistent solution is a big part of why services like EasyBib and Paperpile have become popular on Google docs, even though they are paid services for the complete product. Where Google has failed to provide a compelling solution, an external sub-market was created.
To that end, it seems unlikely this new citation tool will do much to harm that market. Though it’s certainly better than what they had and usable for basic essays and research, it’s far behind its competitors in features and usability.
In other words, if your citation needs are relatively simple, this will likely do fine. If you need something more serious, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Back in January, I published a piece on Google taking “Originality Reports” out of beta for its G Suite for Education service. However, as I noted then, the tool was far behind competing services in terms of functionality and usability.
It was a service that was almost two decades behind what others are doing in this space and completely ignores any of the growing challenges of today such as contract cheating and AI writing.
This new citation tool for Google Docs feels much the same. It’s well behind what others have been doing for years, even decades. Google’s tool does a decent job helping researchers organize their data but it provides no help in finding it or inputting it.
It’s ultimately a partial answer to the citation issue. Is it an important step? Yes. Will the step be enough for many? Yes.
However, if the goal was to provide a feature-complete citation feature that will compete with commercial solutions it doesn’t even come close. This is something that Google could easily do, but, as we’ve seen elsewhere with their approach to education, it’s just not a priority.
It’s sad to say this is just the latest in a long line of Google-provided tools that are simply too little, too late.