As with many papers in the sciences, there are multiple authors who aren't physically close to each other. I was curious about the most efficient and simplest way to technically share the writing. On the more complicated side would be LaTeX and subsequently using subversion to merge all of the changes. Then there is google docs. Finally, there is the traditional write out edits on word and email the document with comments back and forth.

What works?

  • 10
    You forgot one traditional approach: "I am releasing the token for Section 2; updated latex source is attached to this email. I now claim the token for Sections 3 and 4."
    – JeffE
    Apr 24, 2012 at 8:30
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    I should add, my advisor is not technically proficient. Hence the emphasis on simplest
    – bobthejoe
    Apr 24, 2012 at 9:55
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    If you literally mean the simplest way (even slightly more so than JeffE's excellent comment), then you can't get any simpler than the naive approach: pass a single file back and forth by e-mail, with the recipient having total control until they e-mail it back. This is the only approach I know of that requires no technical proficiency or special software at all (beyond what is needed to write a single-authored paper), and that avoids any complications regarding multiple files, copying and pasting, or who exactly has permission to do what. This may be overkill, but sometimes it helps. Apr 24, 2012 at 13:43
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    @AnonymousMathematician - Having the technically incompetent one edit and the competent one do the merging can work just fine.
    – eykanal
    Apr 24, 2012 at 19:27

4 Answers 4


If your collaborator is not technically inclined, then there are a few possibilities:

  • Google Docs
    It is very simple, robust and real-time (no need of thinking 'which version is the most recent'). I created a lot of documents with it (though only 1 scientific article). A good idea is to use different colours so that it is clear who wrote what. One drawback is that it may be not as simple for equations and than you will need to copy things from there to LateX manually.
  • Annotating PDF files with Adobe Reader or sth equivalent
    Also simple and robust. However, as it is not real-time you need to keep track of which version is current and it is not possible to make changes in the same time. Here you are the only person responsible for changes in LaTeX file.
  • Annotating or changing with OpenOffice, MS Word or another office package...
    Another variant which allows you collaborator to make direct changes, at cost of some robustness.

As a practical remark for the two last: always keep track of the version, e.g. draft_20120424_prof.pdf, where you add both date of the last edit (not final5!) and name of the last editor. When exchanging things by e-mail it is easy to loose track which version is the most recent and in fact lost changes (often not knowing about that.)

Other possibilities, requiring some technical knowledge:

  • writeLaTeX or sth similar (ShareLaTeX, ScribTeX, LaTeX Lab - the one using GoogleDocs, ...)
    Tools for editing documents collaboratively (in real-time) and compile it within one's browser (so no need to install anything). Though some knowledge of LaTeX is required (at least to know how not to spoil a file).
    ScribTeX(the only one I used) gives version control and you can see which lines were changed (as in version control system), so not need of guessing what might have been changed.
    EDIT: ScribTeX is being replaced by ShareLaTeX.
    writeLaTeX has live preview and may be the most suitable for beginners.
  • Git or another version-control system, e.g. at GitHub
    However, it may require technical skills beyond edition of LaTeX. While it is not hard to use it, I never did I am using it for writing papers and I would never try to use it with someone with low computer literacy.

When it comes to Dropbox - it is a good stuff for sharing files for a project but NOT for making changes in files. First, you never know when the changes happen. Second, you don't know where the changes happen.

There is also an article on it: Research tips - Online collaborative writing.

See also a few questions:

  • 3
    +1 nice array of possibilities, and warning about Dropbox! LaTeX + Git is still my favourite.
    – Zenon
    Apr 24, 2012 at 21:14
  • As the third suggested question points out, the LaTeX Lab is a good solution. However, it lacks some functionality. But it would get you started. I prefer that option.
    – adn
    Apr 25, 2012 at 7:17
  • @adn: Added LaTeX Lab, thanks. Actually, I have tried it before, but the "revision history" was not working (and still it does not work). Apr 25, 2012 at 10:24

If you're working with Word documents, Word 2007 included a very nifty merge changes feature. This online help document from microsoft.com details how it works, but doesn't really do the feature justice. See the following screenshot for an idea:

Document compare in Word 2007

Briefly, you can click on "compare" (in ribbon, third from right), and it lets you choose two source documents. From there, it opens the very nice interface shown above, with the two source docs on the right, the merged doc in the middle, and the changes on the left (or bottom, you can hide it if you don't wan t it). You use it like any other "track changes"; just go through, change by change, using the "previous", "next", "accept", and "reject" buttons om the Changes section of the ribbon. When you're done just save the combined document, and you've got your merged doc.

I've used this a number of times, and it's a very useful feature. By far the best aspect of this is that it can be used with the technically incompetent. Just tell them, "take the document, make changes, I'll deal with it"; I've used this with my technologically challenged boss a number of times, and it's been a lifesaver. Given your situation, this may be your best bet.

  • 16
    Horrible. Writing a paper in Word. Apr 24, 2012 at 13:22
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    @DaveClarke - When life gives you lemons...
    – eykanal
    Apr 24, 2012 at 13:29
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    shrug If you need to use it, here it is. I've never written an academic paper in Word, and I never will, but for those who do, here you go. I'm not recommending it; I'm just informing of a feature.
    – eykanal
    Apr 24, 2012 at 13:51
  • unfortunately, many ecology journals will only accept Word files. I have taken to writing my manuscripts in html just so that word will open them - it is embarrassing for my field.
    – DQdlM
    Apr 24, 2012 at 16:48

It also depends on what should be the final format of your document. For instance, I write all my articles in Latex, and when collaborating with other researchers, I use BitBucket: I create a Latex repository, and give access rights to the other authors. One good aspect of BitBucket is that they have a special plan for academics, where you can get an unlimited number of collaborators for free. In order to avoid conflicts as much as possible, we usually decompose the main document in one file for each section, and we try to avoid working on the same section at the same time, but even if it happens, then it's usually possible to easily merge the different edits. One nice feature is the possibility to automatically receive notifications when one author commit her changes. Also, since anybody can create a BitBucket account, there isn't the problem of creating an account to an external collaborator on an internal server.

Of course, BitBucket is not the only possibility, and one could also use Git, or even Dropbox, although for the latter, I don't really like the lack of native versioning system.

On the other hand, if I don't work directly on a paper, but for instance on a draft for a project proposal, then I use Google Docs, because it's quite simple to do some collaborative editing.

  • I also use Bitbucket (and note that your repository can be either Git or Mercurial; Bitbucket hosts both). However, I didn't vote for this answer because it isn't the simplest way. Perhaps a different question should be asked. Apr 25, 2012 at 23:28
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    Well, I guess "simplest" is a relative notion :) IMHO, in order to write Latex papers, this is the simplest solution to do collaborative work: no need to manage a server, no need to pass manual token, also serves as a backup, possibility to commit locally, everything with only three commands: "hg pull --update", "hg commit" and "hg push". Now, if Latex is not required, then I don't know what's the simplest :)
    – user102
    Apr 26, 2012 at 7:27
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    Authorea.com is close to this flow—behind the scenes there is one file per section, and Git access is possible (though a bit tricky to set up)—but hides it behind a web UI so collaborators can use it without any software or version control experience. Plus it supports Markdown. Jan 30, 2014 at 22:14

We do token passing and some kind of method to exchange the files. I think this method was covered in the comments but let me elaborate it here. I'll use Word as an example, since chances are if you're doing manual token passing, it's because you haven't been able to convince anyone in your team to switch to LaTeX, and people who don't want to switch to LaTeX are probably the type who don't want to deal with version control.

The "shared folder" is the mechanism you use for sharing files. It could be a Dropbox folder, email, WebDAV, a remote directory on an SSH-accessible server, etc.

  1. Locking: Person who starts with the file renames it so that their name is on the end. They send an email to the group saying, "I am locking Section 1." List the locks in the email.

  2. Unlocking: This is a multi-step process.

a. If no one else unlocked a section before you unlocked, then you can rename the file to the current date and time, then put it in the shared folder.

b. If another collaborator unlocked a section before you unlocked, then you must take the latest version off of the shared folder, copy the section you were working on, and paste it into the latest version you just downloaded. Rename the just-edited file to the current date and time, then put it in the shared folder.

The reason you do it this way and not the other way (copying and pasting everyone else's sections into your document) is because doing so means you have to keep track of what everyone else did, whereas this way you only need to keep track of what you did.

That's basically it. The biggest problem is when someone's not paying attention and doesn't merge properly, or when two people try to lock something at the same time (since Email has a delay) but usually you'll have to have someone who knows the process keep an eye out for it.

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