Collaborative writing for journal articles

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My experiences to date with reports, proposals, and conference paper writing leave much to be desired. Generally I’ll work on a draft in Word with track changes on, email that to the next person who will accept/reject changes then add more with track changes on, etc. There are at least two problems with this:

  1. We are all working serially, instead of in parallel, which takes more time
  2. Version control is a mess – files are saved as some mix of date, latest author’s initials, vX.X at the end, etc.

I have enough nerd-tacular friends to know a little about Github and software development, especially open source software. Collaborative coding is built in to the process. When will this become the norm for collaborative writing of research papers? What could this look like?

I just submitted my first full length journal article, on which my advisor has graciously listed me as first author! There was about four of us working on it, and we went through the same inefficiencies described here. If you have any experience or suggestions on collaborative writing and editing, please leave a comment or get in touch! Thanks.


  1. A long time ago I was convinced that SubEthaEdit was the answer to this, and it would be if:

    1) Everyone mostly wrote in the lab or at home, and
    2) Everyone used LaTeX

    The first bit is because SEE uses a Bonjour protocol (oh, right 3. Everyone has to be on Mac). You can kind of get it to work from an offsite connection, but you need access to specific ports, so you need to own the modem or wireless hub you’re using to collaborate offsite.

    The second is because it only handles plain text (it is syntax-aware, though, so it does nice things with all your TeX markups and will even talk to BibDesk so you can insert citations).

    I dunno. This is apparently a harder problem than it seems. Google Docs also sort of works for this, if you can stay focused on writing in a web browser…

    1. Yes – your conditions 1, 2, and 3 are clearly limiting! But Google Docs I think will be the way to go IF Zotero can ever integrate with it. I’ve been collaborating on Google Docs a lot recently and between the comments and the automatic revision history I think it does everything else just about as well as Word does.

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