Paperpile vs Zotero for bibliographic citations in scientific coauthorship

Having recently felt some limitations of my $96/year Overleaf Pro account (both in collaborative writing and bibliographic citation) while preparing my recent PeerJ publication, I found myself last week pushing a new group of collaborators to try co-authoring within Google Docs (rather than their preferred, old-school exchange of .docx files). It quickly became apparent that using Zotero and/or exported bibtex files to insert citations and build a bibliography in Docs wasn’t going to be simple (for me or the Word users). One method of inserting from bibtex in Google Docs looked clunky to say the least and hadn’t been updated for about a year. Instead of trying to hack Zotero and Google Docs together, I found glowing recent reviews of Paperpile — a bibliographic manager that is tightly integrated with Google Docs and Drive through a cloud-based app and the Paperpile Chrome extension. I decided to give the free trial of Paperpile a go. It felt natural because a few months ago I (somewhat reluctantly) took the plunge and migrated from the opensource world of Thunderbird and Firefox to the proprietary world of Gmail and Chrome. Part of that was driven by some slight frustration I felt with having to have the Zotero stand-alone program running when collecting references via the Zotero extension for Chrome. I was also motivated by the realization that I am paying$60/year for 6 Gb of Zotero storage when Paperpile personal costs \$36/yr and uses the 15Gb of free Google Drive storage.

I signed up using my Google account and immediately found myself invited to pile on some papers.  How pleasantly surprising to find that importing references (and attached PDFs) was an option in the “Add Papers” button’s dropdown menu!  In the time it took me to make a cup of coffee (15 minutes), the app had imported my entire shared ~1/3 of my 4,000-reference Zotero library (with PDFs).  To get it to import my private shared group library I had to follow the instructions for changing the default permissions in the Paperpile-Zotero API key.

I’ll report on how it goes editing in Docs with Paperpile next week, but I’m immediately struck by two benefits of the GUI.  First, when you search in Google Scholar you get an indication of whether or not a search result is already in your Paperpile.  That’s a feature I’ve requested of the Zotero devs, but it’s not yet manifested.  I was surprised to see that quite a few references were missing — even from searches of keywords and topics about which I think of myself as an expert!  Secondly, in the Paperpile app it is a breeze to select multiple references (e.g. a suite you’ve just collected) and organize them — first by dragging and dropping into a folder, and then by dragging tags onto the group.  In comparison, I could open the shared library in the Zotero stand-alone and know that any references I collected with the Zotero Chrome extension would be added there, but sometimes I forgot to check and the references ended up in some random folder of my general Zotero library.  I could fix that by dragging and dropping, but sometimes it was confusing and files got accidentally deleted in multiple folders inadvertently…  Tagging in Zotero is clunky at best.  I haven’t discerned how to tag multiple files at once, so I just go through them one at a time — which is a big time sink when I collect a bunch from behind paywalls via a trip to the local University library.

I have to mention that Overleaf is trying to build better collaborative tools, but most of their work is still in beta and there hasn’t been a ton of evolution in the last year that I’ve used it.  Here’s a screengrab of where they are heading with their comment insertion (ok in Rich Text, but messy in LaTex), as well as their History and Revisions tab (recent activity; timeline; and the old Labeled versions).

We’ll see whether they can hold a candle to Google Docs simultaneous editing, conversational views of comments, and change notifications…