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Write your next article with your head in a cloud

Posted by , on 12 June 2010

There are many ways to write a collaborative research article, review, grant or conference proposal. One of the most comfortable frameworks when there are more than two of you actually doing the writing, and especially if you’re scattered on different continents, is Google Docs.

Documents in progress such as your article text, abstract, cover letter to the editor and your figure legends, are uploaded in a confidential manner. One single, centralized version can then be modified in real time by anyone you invite, confidentially, to edit it. The online editor greatly resembles Microsoft Word or OpenOffice, and like the latter, is completely free of charge. Unlike OpenOffice, it doesn’t reside in your own computer, though. The major advantage is not having to merge versions, when your slowest collaborator gets back to you with revisions to version 6 and you are already on versions 10 and 11 with your more responsive team members.

The instigator of the article or grant application would do best to set up a Google account, if they do not already have one because they use Gmail, or Google Reader for their RSS feeds. (If you don’t know what an RSS feed is, never fear, watch this space in the future. RSS feeds are not immediately necessary for writing an article, except when you want to be sure that you are including the absolutely latest relevant primary source articles. We’ll show you how.)

A similar mechanism exists for multiple people working on spreadsheets (for your phenotype tables or five-year budgets), and it is now also possible to make drawings in this centralized, updated-in-real-time way. I have yet to try this possibility. However, Google Docs also accepts as an upload any sort of document – presentations, PDFs, images – that can subsequently be downloaded and examined by all your collaborators from this one centralized source. It’s already an advantage, and I’m certain it will get better and better.

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3 thoughts on “Write your next article with your head in a cloud”

  1. I personally love google documents, but you might want to check out the IT policy of your university if you are planning to use it.

    Apparently we aren’t allowed to even use external email accounts for work purposes at all. Which includes gmail.

    Google documents aren’t specifically mentioned, probably because it is not in widespread use yet, but it probably has similar restrictions since the university has their own wiki-like site that could be used for these purposes.

    That said, I am not really bothered by the restrictions and use google documents extensively myself. It’s is rather typical for IT departments to be conservative and forbid anything of potential use to scientists.

    1. Hm, interesting. I guess it depends *why* external e-mail isn’t allowed. You can share a Google Doc with an institutional e-mail address (I’ve had some sent to mine in the past) so if it’s just about sending mail to certain addresses it might be okay… But if it’s about work content being on a non-work site, especially if they have their own wiki, then it could be an issue.

      So yes, I agree: checking the policy might be a good idea!

  2. External mail isn’t allowed because:

    “The terms of service of third party email providers may state, for example,
    that the user agrees to give the provider permanent and irrevocable
    royalty-free rights to use any and all content entered into the provider’s
    systems and to make the same available to other third parties. See for
    example Section 11 of Google’s Terms of Service:”

    The actually specifically mention google. And I think section 11 includes google documents and sites.

    The only problem here is that the alternatives that the university is giving are not user friendly at all. Software isn’t going to be used if there is a large threshold. I looked at the alternatives and couldn’t figure out how they worked exactly without a working day. And I am quite computer-minded. That’s really not the way to go forward.

    The IT department of many universities, and especially the one I am associated with, have different goals and aims than the scientists working at the same institutions. Their primary goal is to make the network safe and standardized, not to facilitate the work of scientists.

    The main problem is that scientists come and go, but administration, IT and other personnel stay. They live in different worlds and aren’t always attuned to each other needs. Every time a new MS office version comes out, all machines are automatically upgraded. Never mind that many computers are too slow to handle the new bloated software. It’s easier though for an IT department to have a standard computer than create individual solutions. You are not allowed to create your own solutions because they do not allow end-users to control the content of their own computers.

    I think the main goal of a university should be to provide a good teaching and research environment. Not a safe and stable environment for the permanent staff. However, this is just a personal gripe.

    I personally continue to use google documents and sites though. For manuscripts I tend to use it mainly in the beginning when the paper is still in a preliminary collecting stage. Once it is getting there, I switch to a regular word processor because it isn’t easy to see who changed what with google documents. It’s a great tool though.

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