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Google Docs: Explore replaced Research, but you still have citation alternatives

Google replaced Explore with Research in Google Docs.

Thanks to add-ons, you have alternatives — but digital citations remain a challenge.

[Update December 5, 2016: Google added citation formats to the Explore tool. So that’s no longer a concern.]

In September 2016, Google built search into Google Docs and named the feature “Explore.” Choose “Explore” to search for related topics, images, and links. Browse through the items, choose one, then create a link or insert an image.

Explore is so important that Google added an Explore action button to Google Docs on the web: Look for a four-point star in the lower right. On Android and iOS, the feature is a menu item that you access as you edit a Google Doc. (Explore works much like Google search in the Google Keyboard app on Android and iOS.)

Google’s new Explore feature in Google Docs replaced the Research tool.


The problem is that Explore replaced a more complicated search option called “Research.” Most people will find Explore helpful, since you no longer need to leave a Doc to search for a link. However, educators and students may miss the ability to limit searches to Google Scholar and insert traditional citations and footnotes from the search results.

Citation add-ons

Fortunately, educators can get Google Docs add-ons to help manage citations.

The EasyBib add-on lets you search for a book, journal article, or website. You select your resource from the results, and EasyBib adds the item to a bibliography list for your document. As you add additional resources, each item appears in the EasyBib sidebar. When you’re done, select the “Add Bibliography to Doc” button, and all the citations from EasyBib will be added to the end of your Google Doc. EasyBib offers a paid pro version, a free service for schools, and an Android add-on for Docs.

The Paperpile add-on offers a single-stream search—no need to differentiate between sources. Enter your terms, then scroll through the results. When you see the reference you want, choose “Cite.” Paperpile inserts a reference with a link to your resource stored online at, and adds a citation to the item in your document. You can follow the link to edit the details of the citation. Paperpile offers versions for both academic and business users.

Of course, you can always manage citations manually—with your own footnotes, links, and bibliography entries.

Two Google Docs add-ons help with academic citations: Paperpile (left) and EasyBib (right). Both support citations in a variety of styles.

Future of citations

You may wonder why a link isn’t enough.

Tim Parks suggested that a link and search might be sufficient. In a piece for The New York Review of Books, he challenged the need for many academic citations. He asked: “In the age of the Internet, do we really need footnotes to reference quotations we have made in the text?” Later in the piece he suggested that “it’s time to admit that the Internet has changed the way we do scholarship and will go on changing it.”

Kathleen Fitzpatrick advocated for citations in “The Future of Academic Style: Why Citations Still Matter in the Age of Google.” She suggested: “Citations in academic writing, not unlike those in legal writing, are intended to refer the questioning reader back to the sources or precedents for the argument at hand.”

A web link isn’t exactly the same thing as a citation. An academic citation must be more robust than a link. When a researcher wants to verify a cited detail, a broken link shouldn’t block discovery of the referenced material. To increase the ability to find the source material, academic citations include additional information, such as author(s) name(s), full titles, publisher information, publication date, and more. The details make it possible to find and review another person’s work. Equally important, a citation also acknowledges another person’s work.

The digital citation system we have today relies on one-way links—each citation or link points elsewhere. Digital links didn’t have to be this way. I used “Belinda Barnet hypertext” as my search term for citations above, intentionally. Barnet’s book, “Memory Machines: The Evolution of Hypertext” explores the history of modern, linked digital text, including Ted Nelson’s ideas. Nelson envisioned a connected word world—where texts visibly connect, both ways. A world of two-way links.

The world we live in today offers one-way, all-too-often broken links. But without additional innovation—and possibly an academic citation revolution—we will have to rely on links and citations. Until then, most academics will want to supplement Google’s Explore tool with additional context.

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