Sunday, 17 June 2012

Using Google Docs for a sizeable Mathematics project

This past year I ran a final year project on the subject of the board game Risk (I'll blog about the actual results from the work another time). The main output of an undergraduate project at the school of mathematics at Cardiff university is a report. In my experience these reports can be anything from 70 to 130 pages long.

I've alway been a huge fan of Google docs/drive. If I need to write a letter, write an abstract or anything else gdocs is pretty much my first port of call. If I ever need to write something with someone else then gdocs is again my first port of call (the capacity to have multiple people edit at the same time makes it amazing). Having said all that, my favorite way to write documents (in particular long ones and especially mathematical ones) is to use LaTeX. (I'm not mentioning MS-word which is pretty much ranked last in my list of preferred document editing software - just after 'crayons and pad of paper' and just before 'a rock')

This year I decided to see how Google docs would handle a 'big' mathematical document. I've used google docs for some teaching notes but never anything with a large amount of mathematics.

The student worked very hard and being able to see his project report as he was writing it was very helpful (it was a great way to give him feedback without worrying about which version I'd read).

However there are two major downsides:

1. Limited mathematical notation:

Here's a quick screen shot of the mathematical editor available in google docs:

You can use a basic point and click approach to insert mathematics but it supposedly also renders LaTeX.

As you can see it renders some math (like $x^2+1$) but it won't render relatively simple stuff (like $\mathbb{R}$). It is not capable of writing matrices! My student ended up using this website to LaTeX his equations and input them in to his document as png:

2. Poor rendering of mathematics when printing:

The biggest downside however is that the mathematics written using the in built editor is just not good enough. Here's a picture of the pdf that is rendered from the google doc (the other versions that can be downloaded look just as bad):

As you can see, this just looks terrible...

My summary.

I'm afraid that unless google drastically improves their math editing capabilities I simply would not recommend gdocs for mathematical documents (and I'll continue to use gdocs whenever I know that I don't need any math...). It's a shame because it should be perfectly doable to use mathjax for example and/or replecate something similar to other websites that make use of html5 such as writelatex.

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