Collaborative paper writing in LaTeX

Collaborative paper writing is a logistical nightmare. Perhaps one of the most common methods is for people to email versions of the document back and forth between collaborators. I know people who do this, and I have done it in the past. But this is a bad idea because:

  • if your collaborator is taking their time to look at your latest version, your hands are tied. Any changes you want to make after emailing won’t be seen by the collaborator.
  • it forces direct contribution to the paper to be a serial process. A slightly more parallel process could perhaps be a bit more efficient.
  • it involves using MS Word. Enough said.

A slightly more enlightened approach might then be to use DropBox, so that the paper and figures are all contained in a shared folder. Whenever a collaborator looks at the paper, they are getting the latest version, and you avoid the inevitable email version number mixup scenario. You really don’t want to be editing the wrong version. However, this downside of this is that there can be version conflicts if people edit the manuscript at the same time. I just don’t want the hassle of this happening.

This leads us to the first half-sensible solution.

Local editing, but using a version control system

Another way to go about it would be to simply keep all your files in a version control system, such as git or svn. Then each collaborator could edit documents locally and commit and push changes to the repository in the cloud.  This may well world, but this strikes me as potentially annoying. If you’ve had contributions from multiple authors to the same document, then do you really want to spend your time going through, line by line manually merging the documents? It also violates the maxim:

Life is too short, just pay the money and get it done.

This leads us on to a newer, but even more enlightened method…

Texpad.app [link]

TexPad is primarily a desktop app. However, they offer a cloud-based service (called texpad connect, see video below) which presumably is build on some version control system which makes collaborative writing easier and hides all the version control nonsense.

This really does look like a nice app. The only annoyance with this for collaborative writing is that it presumably requires your collaborators to buy the Texpad app as well. So TexPad only really seems like a good choice if you are writing lots of solo papers. They have a pricing structure for more collaborators and private projects.

texpadconnect_pricing

This solution seems suboptimal unless we only want to collaborate with people with Macs, and who will buy TexPad. So the final class of solutions are very very similar to TexPad, but the desktop app is replaced by a cloud-based web-app.

LaTeX-specific, cloudy web-app fun.

In this approach, all your files are stored online in public or private repositories. The files are then edited using an online web app. Many of these approaches outlined below are built on top of version control systems but because they are customised to working with LaTeX (as opposed to ascii files in general) they can impliment clever (non-annoying) methods to avoid conflicts.

ShareLaTeX [link]

sharelatex

  • They have a free option which allows 1 collaborator. I’m unclear if this allows for private projects or not.

sharelatex_pricing

Authorea [link]

  • It’s free for writing open access articles.
  • Uses GIT for version control.
  • It says it’s compatible with iPython notebooks, which sounds fun, but see here for details.
  • I think their version conflict system is perhaps best. In the video above they show how each section of the text is locked when it’s in edit mode.

authorea_pricing

WriteLaTeX [link]

  • It’s free for writing open access articles.

writelatex_pricing

Things to be wary of

This is all nice, but I’m not quite sure whether I’d want in-progress work to be publicly viewable. So whenever I make my mind up, I will go for one of the paid options. You also have to be quite weary of the exact policies of your target journal, some will frown upon putting the document on the web and count this as the work already being published. However, most journals allow authors to post pdf’s of the content without the journal’s post production formatting etc. But do  your own due diligence.

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