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.