Lack of citation capabilities in word processing apps on Android

We often use the “cite while you write” function from Endnote to cite an article in Microsoft Word through Endnote plugin in Word. But we cannot do the same in any of the word processing apps on Android. Yes, there exists reference management apps on Google Play store, but their primary function remains the retrieval of reference information from the internet or a database (such as colwiz). Are they able to help transfer the reference information into a citation on a document you are working on in an Android word processing app such as Microsoft Word, WPS Office or Google Docs? The answer is an unfortunate no. Why?


My personal guess is that the Android operating system place security at a higher priority over seamless functionality, which is defined as the ability to easily move information from one app to another through a few simple clicks such as the Share button on news app. But, what is the inherent problem of moving information from one app to another, or more generally, is there a problem with app level communications? The answer: in Android, app level communication is restricted, or at a more technical level, exchanges of information between apps is sandboxed in a way similar to how a partition separates two boxes of sand. Similar to restriction on app level communications, there are heavy restrictions on the ability of individual apps to extract information from a common file such as the clipboard. Thus, it is difficult to move information from the reference management app to the word processing app through the Android clipboard. In fact, cut and paste feature is somewhat limited in the Android ecosystem except for the copying of information from a word processing app and pasting it on a dialog box in a web form opened in Firefox browser.


What would happen if we allow unrestricted app level communications and why isn’t this a problem in Windows? The answer to the second question is that Windows is a completely different operating system compared to Android, which is evolved from Linux. Thus, it is possible to have citation plugin from reference management software incorporated into the word processing software without significant security risk. However, in Android, exchanges of information is restricted to prevent malware and viruses from one app taking control of the entire operating system as the kernel of Android interfaces with the application layer (i.e., app) directly. For example, a word processing app may have permission to access the microphone or camera of a tablet for voice dictation (speech to text) and incorporating videos or images into a document. However, if a compromised reference management app (i.e., a malware infected genuine app downloaded from a third party app store) is allowed to directly communicate with the word processing app, it may hijack the permissions given to the word processing app and seize control of the tablet’s cameras and microphones, which is not desirable from the privacy standpoint.

Is it a dichotomy of Android to have to choose between security of app and operating system and ease of function in applications? With the current kernel architecture, the answer is yes. But, can we do better? With collective imagination and deep analysis of how to maintain security while providing more seamless functionality in apps such as the “cite while your write” feature common in desktop word processing programs, the sky is the limit for the next version of the world’s most popular mobile operating system.


A abstract preprint of mine expressing similar thoughts on the issue is available at figshare


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