I have a long-time collaborator who lives in Georgia (I’m in Pennsylvania). I’ve had good luck collaborating with him via email, but it is a pain. As soon as one of us edits a file he sends it to the other person as an email attachment. We haven’t had any “forked” files, but we do always have to take turns editing and we have to be good about remembering to send files immediately after they are modified.
Now we’re applying for a grant with a third person who lives in Virginia. Collaborating with three people in three different states is sure to be even more of a challenge. (It was a challenge even passing the grant proposal around.)
If we weren’t mathematicians, then Google Docs or the forthcoming Office Web might be good options for collaborative writing. But we write everything in LaTeX, so these options don’t make sense. I tried MonkeyTex, a site like Google Docs but which compiles LaTeX documents and produces pdf documents. It is a really cool idea, but I didn’t want to give up my trusty desktop apps: TexShop and BibDesk. (Plus, MonkeyTex seemed like a small operation and I didn’t know if I should trust them with my files—even big shots like Google and Facebook have had downtime issues recently.)
This week I think I found the perfect solution: DropBox. DropBox is touted as an online backup system or an online storage space, but it is so much more. Basically it works like this. You sign up for an account with 2 GB of FREE online storage and it creates a folder on your computer (an actual folder, not a link to a folder in the clouds somewhere). Then any time you add, delete, or change a file in this folder, it automatically syncs it with the cloud.
That’s cool, right? We’re just getting started. If you have several computers, you can put a DropBox folder on those too, and all the folders on all of your computers remain in sync—even if you have one Mac, one PC, and one Linux computer. Files can also be accessed via the DropBox website or with your iPhone/iPod Touch.
Again, this is what I like: when you are working on your computer—adding, deleting, modifying, and LaTeX-ing these files—you won’t be able to tell that anything is happening. They are ordinary local files behaving as usual. But DropBox is syncing them behind the scenes.
Now how does this help collaboration? You can share folders within your DropBox folder. What that means is that each person who is sharing a folder will have the identical folder in their DropBox folder. So any changes made by one person will appear in the folder of every other person! Brilliant! Just what I wanted.
As an added bonus, DropBox stores past versions of files. If one of your collaborators messes up a file, you can go online and look at the history of the file and revert back an earlier version.
One downside is that there are no safeguards to prevent two users from editing a file at the same time. But if two different copies of the same file are saved, then two versions will appear in the shared folder. The users would have to work on merging the documents by hand.
I’m planning to use DropBox in my teaching too. Next semester I’ll be teaching topology. I teach it using the “Moore method.” The students are given a skeleton of a textbook (in LaTeX) and they must prove all of the theorems, work out all of the examples, and type them into the class textbook. There is a rotating “secretary” position and a rotating group of “editors.” Sharing the files has always been a hassle. The first time we passed around a disk with the files, the next time each person emailed the file to the next person on the list, and the last time I set up a class Gmail account. The logistical issues were a pain to deal with. This time I will have each student get a DropBox account, and we will have one shared folder with the textbook in it—that’s going to be so much easier!
If you are interested in trying DropBox, follow this link. Doing so would give me credit for “referring” you. Both you and I will get 250 MB of additional storage (up to 3 GB). If you would rather not do that, go directly to the DropBox website.