That's the nature of research - you don't know what in the hell you're doing.
	--Harold "Doc" Edgerton

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Using Google Tools for Research Project Management

Jessie Cherry, ARSC/IARC post-doc

A few months ago a friend of mine mentioned that he was using a blog to keep track of some of his permafrost research and share it with a collaborator. Pshaw! I thought. I was already an active blogger, but using a blog for each individual project seemed unnecessary. Surely these file folders on my desk were doing the trick? I had become accustomed to emailing around MS or Open Office documents after using “Track Changes” and adding comments. Or there was my graduate advisor who insisted on faxing his chicken scratches from distant hotels.

Well, I’m not sure what pulled me in—maybe the day the file folders all tipped over and spilled my coffee--but there’s no looking back. I’ve been collaborating on a book chapter of late, and a combination of Blogger, Googlegroups, Googledocs, YouTube, and Googlereader have been really handy for this sort of project. Here I will outline how to set up a blog on Blogger and use Googlegroups and Googledocs for management of a research project.

In the event that others might have useful tips to share, I’ve actually created a blog about blogging for this purpose. This is called “The Research Project Management Metablog” and can be found here:
To be even more Escher-esque, I will post this article on the RPM Metablog and will use the blog as an example in this article.

Step 1: Determine who are the likely users of your blog. Are you co-authoring a project with a group of people who are disorganized and forgetful? Perfect! Are you working on a manuscript with someone who can’t figure out how to use email? Not so good! You want to make sure that your collaborators are willing and able to use the forum you are going to establish. They may resist at first, but oral statements like “say it to the blog ‘cuz this ear ain’t listenin” may help. Finally, the primary users are going to have to accept a certain level of Googleuniverse in their life. That is, to use these particular tools collaborators have to be willing to use a Gmail account. As Google mail and blogs are data-mined, the blog or doc may not be a good place for highly secure information. If people have experience with other blog applications in conjunction with online document editing, etc. by all means share (on the Metablog, of course).

Step 2: You’ll need a Gmail account. If you don’t already have one, go to Luckily, you no longer have to ask one of the cool kids to “invite” you to Gmail, which is good for those of us who were always picked last for the school dodgeball team and hate that sort of thing. When you open up your Gmail account, you’ll see a listing of services in the upper left corner, including Groups, Documents, and Reader. This will all be helpful, as might other services like Photos. I suggest you set up a Googlegroup with all of the people who are going to use the blog. Blogger is able to notify a single address of changes to the blog. You could make this address

Step 3: If you don’t have one already, set up a Blogger account with your Gmail account information at Now add a blog for the project you want to manage. In the settings for this blog, decide whether you want to make it public or private, directory-listed or not, published as a RSS feed, etc. Set read/write permissions for contributors, if you want to restrict it to specific people. Finally, put in the Googlegroup address you created if you want to notify these folks of blog postings via email. Alternatively, one can use an RSS reader (Googlereader or another) to track the feed.

Step 4: Go crazy with your blog. Use the Customize link or the Template tab to edit your page elements. For example, you might want a variety of links on one side of the page organized under different headings. Blogger has simple point and click editing or you can write html if you prefer. I’ve posted a number of sample page elements on the RPM Metablog.

Step 5: Create a Googledoc from your Gmail account. This is similar to MS Office and Open Office word processors, except the document is modified and resides online. The application automatically tracks changes, though the method of version control is somewhat different than in other word processors. The user can upload images and do some formatting, though options are somewhat limited. There is also spellcheck and other standard features. Collaborators need to be invited and read/write permissions can be set. You can publish to the web, so that non-collaborators can see the document. I’ve done this with a sample document on the Metablog. Finally, the Googledoc can also be set up as a feed and read via your favorite RSS reader. You can also work on a spreadsheet in Googledocs and export/import word processed documents or spreadsheets from a variety of formats.

Here I’ve outlined some basic steps to getting you started using some Google tools to help manage a research project. I’ve also mentioned the example blog I created at None of these tools are perfect…for example I haven’t found a great way to deal with .PDFs other than post them on a server and link to them on the blog. The same goes for files of code or data. But there are also a variety of tools and features that I haven’t mentioned that may be useful. I would love to hear about other tools and tips; feel free to post them to the blog!