Online Multi-Author Collaboration?

If you’ve ever coauthored a paper, you know what a hassle it is to send versions back and forth, keep track of changes, avoid conflicts when you’re simultaneously changing things, and so on. Now software engineers have the same problems when working on large development projects and have developed very sophisticated Revision Control Systems. I’ve used the most well-known of these, CVS, for collaborating on a couple of papers. But CVS is not exactly easy to use, and for a larger project with more people who all use different systems (Linux, Mac, Windows) and who aren’t as geeky as I, CVS is not a good choice. So: I’m looking for an easy way to collaborate on editing text documents. It should work cross-platform, it should have version control (keeping track of changes, ways of telling what parts of a document were edited by whom and when, reverting to previous versions), it should be easy to use (graphical user interface), it should be easy to install (preferably it should be completely distributed with the client programs doing all the work). It doesn’t have to have fancy security, support for branching and merging projects, include a build environment, and all the other stuff that’s important to programmers. I also don’t want to have to set up a server or persuade my university’s IT people to give accounts to my collaborators. Anyone have any ideas?

9 thoughts on “Online Multi-Author Collaboration?

  1. I don’t think a wiki would do it. I want offline editing of text documents (well, of LaTeX documents), and version control for other media formats (PDFs, mostly). Plus, I don’t want to have to set up and administer a wiki server, plus I want access control. Posted by Richard Zach

  2. Richard,I’m not sure if this will help you. Matt Mullins at ektopos had a post a few weeks ago on web based tools for scholars . Some of the programs can be used for collaborative projects. I’m afraid that none of them are compatible with LaTeX. Given the growing number of my collaborative projects, I’d be very interested in such a program too. Happy hunting and keep us updated! Posted by Joe

  3. I love LaTex, but it blows when it comes to portability. Writely’s platform independence is something that I value most right now. I can share and collaborate on documents, rollback to a previous version, access documents anywhere, and I get enterprise backup. I also like that I can save in numerous formats or simply publish straight to my blog. The biggest downside so far is that you have to use endnotes rather than footnotes. I’d like to see them address this at some point in the future, but for me it isn’t a hard strike against the program. I’d be happy to send you an invite if you send me an email address. Posted by Matthew

  4. Yeah, writely is cool. I considered using it for my class last fall, where students had to work in groups and collaborate on a project. (We ended up using a wiki instead.) But I really need industrial-grade typesetting as well as the ability to work off-line. (On writely, you can download a document in various formats, edit it, but when you upload it, it’s a new file. So no offline editing with versioning.) Posted by Richard Zach

  5. You’re right Writely isn’t an industrial-grade typesetting tool. You’ve got steep demands. 🙂 The closest I’ve come is GNU RCS with LaTex. Just to clarify, with Writely if you work on a file offline you wouldn’t want to upload it again because it creates a new file. Instead you’d want to paste it back over the orginal document to get versioning. Posted by Matthew

  6. Ok, I’ve done a little bit of research, and I’ll keep updating a wiki entry .There are two options I think I currently favor:a. Use a WebDAV server with versioning (DeltaV). Then I have a central repository for all files, can use whatever clients are available for the various platforms (although, I think, many don’t support versioning and checkout/locking, so that’ll be a little bit more research). Could combine this with unison to make sure you always have the most up-to-date version of all files. Problem: I don’t have access to a WebDAV server with DeltaV.b. Actually go with CVS. gives you 300MB and has a web interface.To recap the requirements:- Solution must be cross-platform and support having local copies of everything around (so web interface, downloading changed files by hand not a good solution).- Must support multiple formats (in my case, LaTeX files, PDFs, maybe Word files).- Must be easily deployable (i.e., no special server software, or, available free services that provide the special server functionality).- Should support version control.- Should have modicum of security (files lying around on a server for everyone to read and/or write is bad). Posted by Richard Zach

  7. Thanks to Sylvie Noel , who pointed me to BSCW. It’s a web-based service to support cooperative work. They run a free server (10 MB quota, however) and sell the server, but free licenses can be had for educational/research use. It supports versioning, file locks, and nifty things like discussions, tasks for workflow control, etc. Also, you can access the server directly via WebDAV. Posted by Richard Zach

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