Tools to write collaboratively

by Jane on May 7, 2012

In a previous post, we discussed the benefits of collaboratively writing papers and proposals.

Now, let’s talk tools to help you write collaboratively. This proposal season, I experimented with several different tools, and dragged my collaborators into the experiment. I tested out Google Docs (Kelle’s review),ScribTeX (Jane’s review), and Dropbox (Kelle’s review). There’s also ShareLaTeX, which I haven’t tried yet (Has anybody?  Please report!) So now I’d like to compare the strengths and weaknesses of these tools, and seek your feedback about what tools are working for you to get those proposals and papers written.

ScribTeX (Jane’s review):

Strengths:

  • Easy to upload individual files or zipfiles containing whole projects.
  • Good LaTeX compiler that fixes many problems.
  • Supports two different LaTeX engines:  LaTeX and PdfLaTeX.
  • Trivial to grab the whole project (for archiving, or to compile on your computer), using the Download button or a one-line Git command.
  • Good at handling simultaneous editing.  Almost always successfully merges simultaneous edits, and if it can’t, shows you both versions and asks you to decide.

Weaknesses:

  • not free (nor is my time).  $6/mo.

Google Docs (Kelle’s review)

Strengths:

  • Beautiful support for collaborative editing.
  • You can see what your colleagues are typing and pointing.
  • Most people already use googledocs or google, so hopefully they won’t complain about having to register.
  • Free.

Weaknesses:

  • Telescopes don’t release proposal templates in this format. But they do release templates for Word and LaTeX. Should the community ask for GoogleDoc templates?
  • Default template makes it hard to count pages against the page limits (ahem.)

Dropbox (Kelle’s review):

Strengths:

  • Works for any filetype.
  • Free for smallish size.
  • Public folder makes it trivial to share files you want to share.
  • Can share a folder with anyone willing to get an account.

Weaknesses:

  • Dropbox is intolerant of simultaneous edits (because files are its atomic particle, not words.)  So it’s dangerous to simultaneously edit a Word file, for example. As such, better for back-and-forth collaboration, rather than collaborators working in parallel.

Version control: (Tom’s posts one, two, and three):

Strengths:

  • Same toolkit can be used for sharing lots of other science products — codes, catalogs, data products.
  • Free.
  • Well-documented.

Weaknesses:

  • Intolerant of simultaneous edits. As such, better for back-and-forth collaboration, rather than collaborators working in parallel.
  • Different tools vary in how hard they are to learn. I’ve found Git quite easy.

So, AstroBetter readers, what are your comments? When have you found collaborative editing helpful? Are there hidden dangers? What strengths & weaknesses have we left out?

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Warrick May 7, 2012 at 9:19 am

Version control isn’t tolerant of simultaneous edits?

Reply

2 John May 7, 2012 at 10:51 am

I’d say that is one of the purposes of those systems.

3 John May 7, 2012 at 5:32 pm

Depends what you’re version controlling, right?

Sure, simultaneous edits of your TeX source will be fine (…so long as you like merging), but a Word document? Hmm.

4 Erik T May 7, 2012 at 7:07 pm

I’m holding out for a google docs + LaTeX combo. Something like http://docs.latexlab.org/ but with google docs’ sharing. That would be amazing.

As a side note, There’s probably nothing to stop you from using a google doc to write latex code collaboratively. As long as you’re willing to do the extra step of copy-and-pasting to an on-disk file to run latex, you could do it now. And with the new Google Drive, there may be even cleverer ways to do that that I don’t know about…

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5 LG May 8, 2012 at 3:10 am

I tried using ScribTex in a collaboration after reading the review here. The major weakness in my view is that it does not provide the capability to click through from the compiled .pdf to the .tex, as in TexShop for example. Also, you cannot see the .pdf at the same time as the .tex. I find that the ability to click between .pdf and .tex files and/or to see them both simultaneously is highly desirable, and I found that when using ScribTex, I resorted to TexShop to modify the .tex file then uploaded the new version. In that case, any old file sharing system would work.

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6 symbian48 May 10, 2012 at 3:00 am

Another online latex editor available at https://www.verbosus.com fixes some of the problems mentioned:
* @LG: The LaTeX code is shown on the left side whereas the PDF is shown on the right side of the screen. Additionally you can hide the PDF view to have the full screen available for LaTeX code editing.
* One major disadvantage of Scribtex is that you must decide which version to take if two documents are in a conflicted state. Now assume that you have a large document with some changes you want to preserve and some you do not want. You’ll have to re-write some parts of your document if you do not want to loose something. Verbosus offers a merge editor that lets you choose the lines to want to have in the resulting document.
* None of the mentioned solutions support code completion
* None of the mentioned solutions support use the content in a native mobile application

Reply

7 Carolina July 11, 2012 at 10:17 am

Interesting!
Has anyone tested http://www.scigit.com/? If so, what do you think of it?
Cheers,
Carolina

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8 Nick M November 28, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Currently, ScribTeX is in the process of merging with ShareLaTeX, and so if you want a new account you should sign up for ShareLaTeX instead:

https://www.sharelatex.com/

They just announced that they will be adding version control (using git) and capabilities for google docs as part of their paid plans soon, but they do have a free plan without those features. I like it so far though I have not used it extensively, and I’m hoping to try out one of the paid plans when they include the new features since my LaTeXing could really use version control.

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9 Lance Carnes January 26, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Jane, Kelle, Tom,

Would any of you be interested in writing an article on LaTeX collaborative writing systems for The PracTeX Journal? It’s the online journal of the TeX Users Group tug.org/pracjourn and our May issue is the Collaborative Writing issue. We can accept a LaTeX document PDF or you can compose an html article as in this blog. For article guidelines see http://tug.org/pracjourn/submit.html

Feel free to get in touch with any questions,
Lance Carnes
Editor
mailto: pracjourn@tug.org

Reply

10 TMB February 3, 2013 at 12:24 pm

I know this is an old post, but…

Does anyone have a way of seamlessly (or at least very easily) integrating sharelatex with bibdesk? Or of any way of integrating a good collaborative latex editor with a good bibtex organizer? Dropbox seems to be the only one that can obviously do this, since the files appear local so you can run bibdesk on them trivially, but it is also the one that is least useful for actively collaborating on the latex source file.

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11 JuanPablo June 2, 2013 at 2:05 pm

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