Collaborative Scholarly Projects: What Tools to Use?

A colleague of mine asked me yesterday what tools I’d recommend for a group of a dozen or so scholars spread around the world to collaborate on a scholarly project.  The good news is that there are lots of good tools available for people to use.  The bad news is that there are lots of good tools to choose from. Depending on your group’s particular requirements and preferences, you may choose a different tool set than your colleagues down the hall.

That said, here are my primary and secondary recommendations for collaborative tools, along with some rational for my selections:

  1. For Audio, Video Conferencing, along with Computer Desktop Sharing, my first recommendation would be Skype.  In my experience, Skype works well in low bandwidth situations, and it’s desktop sharing feature can be very handy if you need to see what is happening on a colleague’s desktop (talking through last minute document edits for example). My second choice would be Google Talk. It supports built in Video and Audio conferencing, and integrates into Google Docs which can be handy if you’ve setup a custom Google Apps instance for your research project.
  2. For collaborative document editing my first choice would be Google Docs (see this post about Google Docs for collaborative book writing). Google Docs has built in tools for version control (which is invaluable when collaboratively editing documents), and has footnoting capabilities that Office Live is currently lacking.  My second choice would be Office Live (, because of it’s lack of footnoting.  SharePoint is another tool that is used for collaboration in larger organizations, but at least where I work (the University of Victoria), it is difficult to add people outside of our organization to a SharePoint group, and documents cannot be edited by to people at the same time.
  3. If Google Doc’s or Office Live are too big a technological stretch for those involved in the project, I then suggest using Drop Box for synchronizing files between all the participants.  This will sync the word documents automatically between participants, but you aren’t able to have two people editing the same document at the same time like you can with Google Docs, or Office Live.
  4. If threaded discussions are part of the project, Google Apps for Domains has a built in tool for doing this.  SharePoint also allows for threaded discussion to be easily setup.
  5. As for Email, I think most like to use their current account rather than check multiple inboxes, and the same can be said for calendaring.  If a participant needs an email address & calendaring solution, I typically recommend Gmail, or Google Apps for Domains.

The products in this space are rapidly evolving, so what is top of the class today, could be different six months from now.  Let me know what the “ideal” tool set for your group would look like.

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