Collaborative Writing Tools for Academics and Students
Sharing documents with colleagues is a fairly seamless process these days. Much more challenging is moving beyond sharing and on to real (even real-time) collaboration. If you have ever collaborated on a document or presentation you will know the problems associated with keeping track of the latest version, particularly if two (or more) people work on it at the same time. Changes get missed, overwritten and it is all just a lot of bother. I have personally used several tools for collaborative writing efforts and there is no perfect option. If you want to delve more deeply have a look at the work of Christof Schöch who’s presentation at Digital Humanities in Australia is linked here. Here is a quick start on 6 tools that I think are worth considering.
1. The most basic of the bunch is Google Drive
Basic it might be, but it is an very robust way to collaborate on documents, and the interfaces are friendly to the non techies. The learning curve is low and you can be up and running in 5 minutes. The files generated can be exported in popular file formats such as .docx and PDF. The text editor is well developed and now handles some of the added value items like footnotes and tables. There is also a handy comments feature which is great where you want to bring attention to an issue without taking the responsibility for actually changing somebody else’s text. We all have some colleagues who find that a step too far in collaborative writing. I have found it is best to keep the documents relatively small and save them in sections. If the document gets too long the response times of the editor can slow and the same sluggishness issues have appeared where there are too many collaborators working simultaneously. What’s too many – I’m not sure, perhaps 4+. One downside is that the version history has limits, and while this is often not an issue, when it becomes an issues it is often a huge issue. I have a few friends who don’t like proprietary tools from the Google like giants and so push me to use open source. Of course I have other friends who don’t know what open source is, but either way there are options discussed below.
2. The most academic of them all is FidusWriter
FidusWriter is a tool focussed solely at academic writers. It has a nice simple interface that covers more complex tools like Latex support, the ability to import BibTex from a reference manager, reference formatting and bibliography publication, citation styles, graphs and more.
If you like the idea of having total ownership of your content and running the software on your own server this may be the tool for you. If you don’t then it is definitely not. FidusWriter must be installed on your own server. Is it worth it? Probably not if you work with different collaborators on an occasional basis. However, if you have a team with some technical ability then the feature rich product may be well worth the time investment. You can set up a test account to give it a try here.
3. The big project option is Mediawiki
Mediawiki is the software originally developed to run Wikipedia. So we know it has scaleability. It doesn’t like concurrent editing of documents, so real time collaboration in writing is not its forte. It also uses wiki syntax which is quirky if you don’t know it, but there is now a basic and developing wyswig editor available. Where Mediawiki scores is in its ability to manage extensive revision histories with easy comparison and roll back. You can set up a hierarchical structure to the documents in the project and use that hierarchy to map onto your project phases, teams, objectives etc. The software is open source and can be installed on your own server, but there are also hosted instances of it that are free (read the terms carefully) and paid. So if managing a farm of documents and keeping track of changes is your issue, this may be the solution.
4. The definitely not obvious (but very useful) option is Penflip
It is not obvious because its origins are in GitHub, a truly famous repository for code writers the world over. Penflip is essentially a front end to the GitHub repository focussed on writing. Why is this different – largely because it follows a line of logic that works well for open source coders where the objective is not always a single agreed end point. Coders take copies of a master (fork it) and when done can maintain that fork or suggest it for merging back into the master. So if splitting, developing, and merging back seems like a process that would suit your workflow (and mindset) then this could be a great solution and requires no self hosting. Create an account and off you go. Formatting is somewhat limited (Markdown syntax is used). What it does boast though is a powerful version history that allows you to compare documents in great detail. No concurrent editing though. Penflip is free for public projects, but that won’t be of much use to academics. It is currently $8 per month for up to 50 private projects. As an indication as to the target market, it now has output options in ePub, so you can write and publish your ebook in one place.
5. If LaTex is your thing then Authorea my be your new best friend
In the science community LaTex is fairly ubiquitous in science authorship, largely because of its handling of formula, graphics and its publishing options (see a few more reasons here). But if you want to collaborate then you need to go beyond the single installation of something like Texmaker. Authorea has most of the benefits of LaTex (and for those who know why it is important, it also complies with Markdown). It is simple to get up and running on (but there is a limit to private documents on the free version). One of the really neat features is what they call the “news feed” which tells you what’s happening to your document as collaborators make changes. It also allows you to publish to HTML and have people comment on your work. If you are even remotely interested in Markdown/LaTex collaboration options, then you really need to try this one out.
6. My favourite of them all is EtherPad
Etherpad is concurrent collaboration on steroids. Get 5 collaborators working concurrently changing the same sentence and watch this tool handle it brilliantly as the colour coded changes happen in front of your eyes. It is not a big system version management tool like Wikimedia, it is not a rich featured editor like FidusWriter or a LaTex capable Authorea. It is however a most brilliant (light and free) brainstorming tool for use where real time content origination is really important. If you think watching it change as people type is fun, then you will really enjoy the feature that allows you to replay the writing process and see how it emerged. I don’t see that as a really useful function, but it is fun to watch. It is an open source tool that you can put on your own server, or you can jump into one of the free installations. I have found that MoPad works well.
There are plenty of other option out there as well. DBook is a nice premium product for large items like books, and then there are more structured systems like PBWorks for creating your own collaborative intranet. If you just want the list of links to the tools you can get them on Diigo here.
I am not a science writer and so although I know Markdown and Latex to some extent, those tools never really feature as go to options for me. My collaborative workflow seems to have drifted to the two simplest tools. EtherPad to get origination done quickly and with a real time collaborative zen to the work. Then cut it out of there (most free sites will delete your work after 30 days) and drop it into Google Docs where some niceties can be added and more collaborative editing done. The final stage almost always involves an output to Word and the drawing of straws to see who will insert the Endnote citations.
About the author – Robert holds the Chair in Strategic Management at the School of Business and is Co-Academic Director of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute in Conflict Intervention at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. He was the founding Head of the School of Business and served as Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Robert was head of Executive Education at the Irish Management Institute and prior to this spent 18 years in industry.
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