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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.

Prion

 

 


Posted by Daly de Gagne
Jun 28, 2019 at 03:17 PM

 

Prion, just a thought here. With my Chromebook I use Google docs offline all the time. It is not necessarily dependent on being connected to the net. One good thing about getting my Chromebook in January is that I took a serious look at Google Docs, and so much prefer it to Word. A key advantage for me is being able to have more than one window open at a time.

Daly

 


Posted by Alexander Deliyannis
Jun 28, 2019 at 09:35 PM

 

Prion wrote:
>As a researcher using a Mac I have always asked myself why we keep
>sending around Word documents.

Thanks for this excellent wrap-up of options. I am on Windows and Linux and the options I see are just about the same.

While Word may be built for Windows, it is definitely _not_ built for collaborative editing. In theory one can avoid multiple conflicting versions (usually a result of sending the ‘latest’ version around via email!) by integrating Word with Dropbox, but this only means getting a warning when someone else is working on the same file as you are, not integrating both (or more) concurrent users’ changes.

At our office we have since several years relied on the Google suite for collaborative editing. I have also managed to convince external collaborators to work on single Google documents (or spreadsheets) when acting as the coordinator—thankfully, responsibility usually implies choice of method and tools. When someone else is leading, it is usually a shared Dropbox folder at best (at worst, SharePoint!)

We have used Atlassian Confluence extensively for specific projects (where the structuring of many documents is required). While not ideal for concurrent editing of the same document (‘page’ in Confluence speak) either, it can work well by assigning separate parts of the overall structure to the relevant users. It is also very extendable and can produce a large variety of outputs starting from the same content. I’ve mentioned this as a relevant reference in the past: https://contentmarketinginstitute.com/2015/02/technology-behind-language-of-content-strategy/
While some programming may be required for extensive customisation, actual users only see a quite friendly WYSIWYG interface.

Some years ago, there was an interesting offering specifically for collaborative writing, Quip: https://quip.com/about/product  This has now been acquired by Salesforce and taken a more specific direction (not sure if the direction was the result of the acquisition, or the reason for it).


>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.

Oh, this happens in academia as well? I thought it was mostly an issue in proposal and report writing ;)

 


Posted by Amontillado
Jun 29, 2019 at 02:56 AM

 

I have the same feeling and reservations about Mellel. It’s a gimmick to export a work in progress to epub, but I like the idea of being able to do that. There isn’t a hands-free direct path from Mellel to a Kindle.

If you experiment with Nisus, you might want to make sure you have the latest version. I think the bug-fix release from a couple of days ago includes new docx conversion.

Mellel with a reflowable draft view and docx support for a conduit to Vellum would be very cool, and if you could throw in screen splitting while you’re at it, that would be great.

 


Posted by J J Weimer
Jun 29, 2019 at 12:49 PM

 

Prion wrote:

>As a researcher using a Mac I have always asked myself why we keep
>sending around Word documents.

Any writing app can be used as long as everyone on the team has it, is conversant enough with it to write the required document in a base format for final submission, and follows a common approach to using it for the collaborative writing. Word checks the first two boxes most often. You and the team just have to assure that the third guideline is met. In this regard, I have found the best approach is to ask everyone up front to respect a few guidelines:

1) During the writing, use cite keys in the document (carry over from LaTeX) rather than a numbering approach. For example, \cite{Barns2019, Jones2017, Smith2006a} references documents that are tagged by the representative keys.

2) Assign one person on the team to manage the citations. He or she handles them during the writing and compiles them into the final document at the end. Everyone sends their citations to the one person in a library format such as BibTeX or RIS and cross-referenced using the cite key standards.

3) Assign one person as the final arbitrator of any conflicts in proposals for editing.

4) Use a common cloud storage for the document; avoid email. This keeps documents from getting misplaced among other things.

5) Be religious about versioning the files at every step and about the notations used for to denote different file versions. For example, a file titled document v03 jjw,cn denotes (release) version 3 of the document that has recently been annotated by jjw followed by cn.

6) Establish up front that you will set defined points in time (e.g. on a weekly basis every Friday) to compile the document to a “release version”. This avoids that annotations accumulate beyond reasonable control.

>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.

Hence the reason for agreeing on guideline 6. OK, so you wrote that paragraph this morning but did not post it before our review session. What you wrote will have to be added to the next release.

Otherwise, the debates on who added what and when happened even in the days of the old fashion method of sending hard copies around. So, no this is not a death blow to online collaborative writing, it is a death blow to doing good team work during the writing process itself.

>People
>feel uncomfortable when their writing activity is visible to others in
>real time, if only in theory.

This is perhaps closer to the truth as far as why on-line, interactive collaborative writing is not gonna happen for bigger documents. In such a case, I don’t want or indeed need someone looking over my shoulder while I write. I prefer to hack about in the document during my own time away from the internet, post my edits for review, and then have a video conference or phone call to discuss the proposed inputs and reach a consensus on the release version.

The opposite is perhaps true of memo style documents, where immediate and dynamic feedback is demanded during the editing in order to create a document that has a true consensus of all involved.

>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.

I prefer LaTeX for my own work but accept that others prefer Word. I won’t ever do the work to compile citations or to generate in-line figures in Word documents. I have at times taken an entire Word document over to LaTeX format to create a final submission.

I am transitioning to Bookends for my own personal citation management. I would have continued to used Papers but ... it is just taking too long in its transition to Papers/ReadCube (among other reasons) to remain a viable team player. When I can control the choice, I demand the use of a cloud storage option for citation management with teams. By example, I require each of my students to create their own private group in Mendeley and share it with me. For each report or publication that they write, I require them to create a Mendeley folder in their shared drive and stores all of the associated citations to that report or publication.

 

 


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