An Open Letter to Larry Page and Eric Schmidt

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You don’t know me, but I’m a physician and loyal gmail user writing for your help improving Google Scholar. As Google’s mission is to “organize the world’s information” and you are Google’s CEO and Executive Chairman, respectively, I’ll bet you can make this happen.

As you probably know, academic medicine is focused on writing grants and publishing papers. Physician-researchers try to discover new knowledge but to do so we must apply for grants from the NIH or industry. In order to get a grant, we need to publish papers that will make the funders trust us with their money. But how do physicians learn how to write convincing grants after so many years in the hospital taking care of patients? The short answer is practice. Grants and papers are built upon the scaffolding of previously published research studies, i.e. the vast medical literature. We jump in and read articles, design and conduct studies, analyze the data, write it up and hopefully publish it.

I’m interested in how computers can help us organize medical information. When I worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) I used Endnote software on my Mac but that didn’t work out well because the software crashed frequently. When I moved to Boston, I started downloading PDFs of articles from the Harvard Medical School library, annotating them, and storing them in Google Drive. I also tried Google Scholar but it didn’t let me easily cite articles in the body of a Microsoft Word document like Endnote did. And I found Endnote to be clunky and unreliable and I didn’t particularly like it.

Like many of my peers, I actually have several computers (work PC, home mac, and mac laptop) and an iPhone. I travel sometimes, so it would be great to be able to seamlessly share PDFs, citations, notes, and articles I am writing between these machines. I also work with collaborators in Peru, South Africa, and Mozambique and emailing documents back and forth seems so “2005.” But maybe I am just an outlier and my peers are more organized. So I asked several colleagues for advice on how to advance my writing/citing.

Dr. Sanjat Kanjilal is a tech-savvy ID fellow at MGH/Brigham who has worked in South Sudan and Kenya. Sanjat wrote back, “I use Papers for Mac to organize my article library. I only use Endnote when I need to create bibliographies though I believe it has other capabilities as well.  Google Scholar is an alternate to PubMed more useful for books but not as good at finding relevant articles. All major reference managers use a standard file structure (.ris) that makes libraries exportable between one another.  No matter what program comes and goes, the files will be usable. Whether your actual library structure gets exported is another matter. I tried using google drive but it was not handy for the library tree that I wanted to create (ie sometimes I have the same article under many different branches). In Papers and (now) Mendeley, it is very easy to highlight and leave notes in your pdfs that are exportable.  Cite-as-you-write is a key advantage of Mendeley and Endnote. The newer versions don’t crash.”

Dr. Brian Zanoni, also an ID fellow who works in South Africa, wrote back as well: “Endnote can be used on multiple computers and platforms. Your library should be the same on all devices. I typically use endnote, upload PDF (very easy with endnote) you can annotate and save the pdf. Then easy to reference in word. They have a sync option that will sync libraries. A one click can upload all available PDFs into your library.”

The issue is cost. Papers software costs $49-79 and Endnote software costs $114-250 depending on if you are student or not. This is in addition to the cost of Microsoft Word, your computer, internet, etc. I have many colleagues in Mozambique and elsewhere who are interested in improving their research and writing skills but Papers and Endnote software are way too expensive. We should be able to keep a database of articles (including the PDFs) in Google Scholar and import them into Google Docs as we write our papers in the cloud, instantly collaborating with coauthors wherever they live and whatever computer we are working on. No more emailing documents back and forth and trying to keep track of document versions. What a utopia!

But Google Scholar doesn’t seem to be a priority at Google. I spoke with an in-the-know colleague who tells me that Google Scholar is “truly understaffed.” Is that true? Why is that the case, if you are trying to organize the world’s information? Why are physicians using products like Papers, Mendely, and Endnote to organize information, when we should be using Google?

Thank you for reading my message, Larry and Eric, and fixing up Google Scholar.

Philip Lederer is an Infectious Disease Fellow at Mass General and former CDC researcher.

PS- Just thought I’d add on a couple comments from Twitter. Dr. David Rosenthal wrote, “Google should just buy zotero and integrate.” And Dr Judy Stone also endorsed zotero.


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2 replies »

  1. Philip, why don’t you use Paperpile.com? It’s cheaper and superior. We’ve done all our papers and grants with it since its inception. The killer features is that authors share the same bibliography automatically so there is no messing with reference IDs.

    Paperpile works seamlessly with GDocs, has Papers’ functionality with Scholar and Pubmed search, automatic PDF retrieval and also drag and drop. The journal formating output is on par with Endnote, something I’ve always very much disliked wit Mendeley, Zotero and Papers. No need for any offline, multi-reference database worries in live, online, multi-author documents.

  2. Please, lord, let Google NOT buy Zotero. That free add-on works close to perfectly now and is browser-agnostic. Google will only screw it up.

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