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Software for collaborative writing (with partners expecting MS Word)

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Posted by Prion
Jun 28, 2019 at 08:26 AM


As a researcher using a Mac I have always asked myself why we keep sending around Word documents. For a while I have used Mellel in combination with Bookends which is hands down leagues ahead of Word and Endnote. But most of what I am writing is in collaboration with others so, as wonderful as Mellel is, it is an island, and for the most part I am back to using Word. On Windows it is just something that I liked to dislike but on the Mac it literally sucks.
One the one hand, there is almost always someone using Word involved and on the other, citations are an important and technically tricky problem, so these two conditions are inevitably important to keep in mind when looking for alternatives

1) Word & Endnote (Bookends)
On a Mac borderline unbearable. Unstable, crash-prone, laggy.
In combination with Bookends a little more likeable but still unpleasant.

2) Another desktop word processor
Is Nisus, which uses RTF natively, an option in a collaborative writing environment with some partners using Word? How are citations handled, do Endnote fields survive a round trip in practice?
Mellel is technically superior when it comes to handling citations coming from Bookends but collaborating with partners using Word is impossible. In theory maybe but in practice I am rather using Word.
Scrivener may be using RTF internally but is wrapping everything inside its own format so that one is out, too.

For the sake of completeness I will admit having dabbled with even more esoteric combinations (org mode for writing and org-ref for citations) or R markdown (https://rmarkdown.rstudio.com). The former is mindblowingly powerful and free but only an option if your coauthors were members of your own lab in which case you should be prepared to do the technical troubleshooting, too. The latter did not try extensively.

3) Online wordprocessors
Only viable if I am the lead author and set up the whole project including the writing environment. In this case I will handle the citations, too.
Google docs may have the highest acceptance factor because everyone and their cats already have a Google account. Citations could be handled using the excellent Paperpile citation manager. Still difficult because in projects that involved me as a coauthor I would be forced to use my desktop solution anyway.

What else, Authorea or Overleaf? Probably interesting in field that used to use LaTeX to some degree (not my case).

Two reasons making online writing solutions unattractive are that (1) not everyone likes writing in their browsers and (2) sometimes writing takes place without internet access.

Personally, I suspect that a third reason that no one speaks about is the real death blow for online collaborative writing in academia: They make it bloody obvious who contributed how much and when. There is no hiding behind “Oh, I did write a whole paragraph but forgot t send it around” followed by a hectic writing session in the afternoon. People feel uncomfortable when their writing activity is visible to others in real time, if only in theory.

As you may guess, Word and Bookends (yay, I I did not give in completely) it is for me still. If anyone has found a solution that I have overlooked please let me know.