The start of new joint research with my new collaborate living outside Israel has created sudden urgent need to find appropriate online collaborative tools, preferablly free ones, for our preparing proposals, handouts, slide presentations and papers, and keeping multiple to-do lists for the first time for me (but not for the first time for my collaborator).
Though my collaborator has been using Google Docs for this purpose for a number of years, using it was out of the question for me because of my deep scepticism about a word processor, be it an online or desktop one, as an efficient productivity tool not only for purely academic purposes but also for any computing need!
The minimal requirements I imposed upon myself (or to be more precise, us) in our search for such free online collabrative research production tools were the following three in the descending order of importance for me:
- Use of plain text as the format (cf. Plaintext Productivity)
- Support for Markdown, if not MultiMarkdown
- Reflection of changes in real time
To my surprise I could easily find a number of free online collaborative tools that met all these three minimal requirements. In the meanwhile we've decided to settle on the following four:
- Typewrite - text editor
- Swipe - slide editor
- Checkvist - to-do list editor
- Draft - text (as well as to-do list and slide) editor
The one we've already started using, and that quite heavily, is the third one. Two serious limitations of Checkvist if one is to use it as a tool for brainstorming are 1) lack of support to highlight what's being typed now and 2) lack of a sidebar window for possible text chat. In spite of these two limitations I strongly recommend this free tool to any pair or group of people who have to plan their joint research together. I and my collaborator have already classified our common and separate tasks into as many as nice categories, each of which has a separate to-do-list. I've never realized that "collaboration is power" to quote my collaborator.
We haven't tried the second tool seriously yet as our nearest possible joint presentation is planned for the next summer. We did, however, tried the first tool a little bit. I would say that of the first three tools this one is the least collaborative. It's more for authoring the same thing together than for real collaboration in writing, including version control, comments, etc. The fourth tool is the one we've found for this more demandinc purpose of real collaborative writing. Draft also supports many other functions that may be fully appreciated only when we start writing something together. Since we don't have any need to do so now or in the near future, we haven't dug deep yet into it and its mulple functions. But at least I already have a gut feeling that this is going to be one of my (and probably our, too) most heavily used plain text editors. It can be used as a slide editor and to-do list editor, too. If you are wise enough to have started looking for a plain text alternative to Google Docs, I strongly recommend Draft to you. Even my otherwise stubborn collaborator will agree with me at least about this. ;-)