Google Docs Research Tool: A Review

[This is a guest post by Amanda French (@amandafrench), THATCamp Coordinator at George Mason University's Center for History and New Media. You can read more about her (and by her) at]

Yesterday I was unusually intrigued by a little yellow notification in a Google Doc I was working on. It informed me of a new Google Doc feature called “Research Tool.” Who could resist playing with a feature so named? Not any regular reader of ProfHacker. And so I tested it. Here are my thoughts:

The new feature puts a new option in the Tools menu within a Google Doc called “Research.” To use it, you first highlight a word or phrase (or, as in the image below, a large chunk of text like a poem) in the document you’re writing, then click Tools –> Research (or use the keyboard shortcut: Command+Option+R on Mac; Control+Alt+R on Windows). This performs a Google Search on the highlighted words, the results of which pop up in a right-hand sidebar.

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Clicking on one of the results in that search will give you three options: Preview, Link, and Citation. Clicking Preview brings up a preview of the site; clicking Link turns the text you’ve highlighted a into a link to the site; and, most importantly for our nefarious academic purposes, clicking Citation adds a footnote citing that site.

It’s almost an old-fashioned looking footnote, too, with the traditional superscript numeral after the text you highlighted and the footnote at the bottom of the page. The numeral isn’t obviously a link, but clicking on it does take you to the footnote (you’ll need to be in “Paginated” Document View).

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Anything that encourages people to cite their sources properly is inarguably a Good Thing, in my professorial opinion, so I’m a fan of this feature and plan to make sure that all my students know about it. Users of Zotero or other bibliographic software (and every single student or faculty member who writes research papers should be a user of some kind of bibliographic software) will know the insane glee that comes from being able to insert a properly formatted citation with just a click or two instead of having to type the whole thing in, so I do think that having this feature in Google Docs will increase students’ willingness to cite.

However, there are a few equally inarguable limitations on this Good Thing. By far the most worrying such limitation is that what Google calls “Research” is what we professors call “a Google search.” Not the same thing, from our point of view. The search will bring up maps and images, but, if you’ll pardon my French, big freaking deal: many of the results are not good sources for “research” at all. I wish very much that Google had seen fit to allow users to choose to confine their search to Google Scholar and/or Google Books results — so much do I wish it that I asked for this feature on the Google Docs forums. The only ways to “narrow your search” currently available are to “Everything,” “Images,” and “Quotes,” none of which are very useful for academic purposes.

The search settings do allow you to specify whether you’d like to search only images licensed for use, which is nice, and the “Quotes” search does allow you to look up sources for quotations, though these “sources” are all just websites, many of them decidedly iffy.


Also, there’s only one citation style available for the footnote, and no, it’s not MLA, nor APA, nor any other style belonging to academia. It is evidently Google’s own citation style, the sole elements of which seem to be Title, Creation Date, Access Date, and URL.

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In the example above, you can see that this style makes no distinction between item types: they’re all web pages, even results from Google Books. The year that follows the title, which I called above “Creation Date,” since that would be logical, is not precisely a Creation Date, or at any rate not an accurate one — it may well be a “Crawl Date,” the date Google first noticed that the web page existed. There were versions of the Wikipedia page for “Alexandria” as early as 2001, but Google Research Tool gives its year as 2003; and the book What Would Google Do by Jeff Jarvis was actually published in 2009, though perhaps it didn’t have its own page in Google Books until 2011.

In short, I think the Google Docs Research Tool is a Good Thing that can be made much better. Here’s hoping.

How about you? Have you given Google Docs Research Tool a test drive? What are your impressions? Please share in the comments

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