Collaborative LaTeX writing: a review of ScribTeX

by Jane on March 26, 2012

I’ve recently been experimenting with different methods to collaboratively write papers and proposals. In this post, I’ll review the strengths and weaknesses of ScribTeX. The upshot is I love this powerful, easy-to-use tool, despite a few flaws, and encourage you to check it out.

ScribTeX is like Google Docs, but for LaTeX documents. It’s an online, collaborative, LaTeX editor/compiler that’s seductively simple and powerful. Simply upload a template or start from scratch, and start editing.

ScribTex has two simple modes: Edit and Compile (to create a PDF). So let’s talk about those two modes.

Editing: ScribTeX’s editor is simple and perfectly serviceable, featuring nice readable fonts, contextual color-coding, and a pleasant user interface. It looks like this:

Your documents are in ScribTeX’s cloud, so you need an internet connection the whole time you’re using it. You can, however, trivially clone the project to your hard drive, work on it offline, and then update ScribTeX’s version. It’s one short command to clone, and one short command to update.

ScribTeX does a commendable job handling simultaneous edits by multiple authors; it almost always manages to merge the changes made by multiple authors with overlapping saves. If you have overlapping saves that ScribTeX can’t figure out, it will show you the different versions of the changes, and ask you to pick. We tested this feature pretty hard: I edited the Introduction, while a collaborator edited the Results, and another collaborator added figures—the “Merge Saves” feature worked great. It doesn’t, however, show you what your collaborators are writing as they write it, like GoogleDocs; you have to refresh the page to see the changes.

Compile: Hitting the compile button runs the latex compiler (your choice of latex or pdflatex), reports the logfile, and outputs a PDF. When it works, this is seamless. LateX to PDF by pressing one button. Ah. However, the logfile feature of the Compiler needs work—it often doesn’t give as much information as I’d like. For example, the logfile lists line numbers for the errors, but the editor doesn’t list line numbers, so tracking down an errant “$” or “%” symbol is a pain.

Uploading and downloading: ScribTeX makes it easy to upload a single file or a zipfile containing a whole project. Thus, you can easily import an existing proposal (last year’s failed proposal, maybe?) or a template. It’s also easy to grab the whole project and dump it back to your disk, in one of two easy ways. The first way is to hit the “Download” button and grab the project as a zipfile.

The second option is to run a one-line Git command on the command line. This is simply gorgeous—you can back up your work along the way as you inch closer to submission; and after the proposal/paper is submitted, you can archive the whole project to your computer.

Adding collaborators: It’s trivial to add new editors to a given project, and edit who can read or edit.

History: ScribTeX keeps track of all changes made by all authors, on a file-by-file basis. So you can see what your collaborators have been up to, who made a given edit, and who was the last person to touch a given file.

There’s a catch—ScribTex is not free. Or rather, the free plan is extremely basic:  only 3 projects, 1 collaborator per project, 50MB storage. I chose the middle plan, which gives 10 projects, 5 collaborators/project, and 600 MB for $6/month. There’s also an unlimited plan for $10/mo. Only one member of a collaboration need pay for a plan. Personally, I think $72/yr was a fine price to pay for the increased efficiency we enjoyed at writing our paper and the follow-up Hubble proposal. After all, my time isn’t free, so despite being a cheapskate, I will gladly pay to recover some time.

I do wish that ScribTeX had a pay-as-you-go plan, since I really only want to use it a few times a year: proposal season and if the paper I’m working on requires a lot of collaboration.

Has anybody else tried out ScribTex and have other pros/cons to share?

In the next post, I’ll compare several different tools to write collaboratively: Google Docs (Kelle’s review), ScribTeXShareLaTeX, and Dropbox (Kelle’s review), and seek your feedback about what tools work for you.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael Aye March 26, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Nice thing. But can’t wait for your comparison, because I was already thinking if Dropbox is not adequate. I realize it creates named copies of files when savings of the files clash, time-wise, so that’s a drag. But maybe people can come up with a work-around?

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2 Dan Foreman-Mackey March 26, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Nice review… it seems like a sweet tool!

Personally, I’ve been using github to collaborate on papers. It’s also not free unless you’re happy to work on your writing in the open (which I am) but since I already collaborate on code with a lot of my colleagues on github, it seemed like the natural progression. The issue tracker is also a great way to discuss comments from collaborators.

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3 Jack April 26, 2012 at 1:14 am

Scribtex is the best there is for collaborative academic writing. Takes the hassle out of installing your own latex environment, and allows you to collaborate fairly easily.

Once it adds real-time collaboration (Google Docs style), and being able to rewind/playback changes (Google Wave style), then it’s perfect.

I’m already happy to pay the monthly fee though. It saves me having to email and merge 50 different versions of corrupt Word files.

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4 cribbling May 16, 2012 at 4:22 am

For all those who like ScibTeX may find Verbosus available at https://www.verbosus.com interesting. It supports manual document merging when collaborating and https is free 🙂

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5 Adam Ginsburg December 26, 2012 at 4:53 pm

In my first attempt to use scribtex, bibtexing failed. I’m a little annoyed that scribtex allows you to use git, but not github: I’d rather have a github commit hook compile a pdf than have to click the “View as pdf” any time I want to see the compiled version. Scribtex doesn’t seem to preserve the compiled version either, so it takes a while any time you want to see the pdf. So, I think I’ll stick with github / dropbox for now.

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