Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To celebrate our first birthday, we are handing the mic over to the audience so that anyone who would like to participate will get five minutes to show off their favourite online tool, application or website that makes science online fun. To complement the celebrations, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on Soapbox Science where a range of scientists share details about what’s in their online science toolkits. Why not let us know how they compare to the tools that you use in the comment threads?
Zen Faulkes is Associate Professor of Biology at The University of Texas-Pan American. He studies neuroethology, mainly using crustaceans. He blogs at NeuroDojo, Better Posters, Marmorkrebs, and Sunday Matinee. Because you can never have enough blogs.
The city I live in doesn’t always get shown on the weather maps on TV. The southern end of the state is often cut off the screen. The nearest major city is four hour drive north of here.
Once, that geographic isolation would have made collaborations with people at other institutions almost impossible. Now, tools in the cloud are making collaborations almost painless.
While it’s been possible to send files through email for a long time, genuine collaboration using that method was always kind of a pain. At the very least, you had to track revisions. It was always tricky to make sure you were working with the most recent corrected copy. As more collaborators got involved, the possibility of someone accidentally making unwanted changes escalated from “possible” to “likely” to “inevitable.”
Cloud tools, like Google Docs and Dropbox (just two examples; other services are available), have transformed my ability to collaborate. And it’s not just collaboration with people that I know online that have changed because of these tools, but work I do with people I see in person, too.
Dropbox screen shot with a bonus game, “Guess Zen’s wallpaper?”*
Now, instead of shipping files back and forth from person to person, there is one file that all my collaborators can see on the web, or in a synced file on their computer. By definition, everyone always has the latest version. Everyone can get to the document as long as they have an internet connection. It streamlines the process so much.
I’ve used Google Docs to work with colleagues on straightforward writing tasks, like symposium proposals and draft manuscripts. There are several nice features in Google Docs that support collaboration. When you open up a document, you can see who else is viewing it up in the upper right corner. By clicking it, you can open a chat box to discuss with a collaborator if they happen to be online at the time. You can see collaborator’s cursors (each with a different colour and tagged with names), so you can see what they are looking at.
Google Docs screen shot
Recently, I was working on a draft with two colleagues. We were all on Skype, discussing a draft manuscript in Google Docs. One was putting notes at the bottom, while I was massaging text at the top. We agreed that one section was too long, and all three of us started attacking it, leading one of my colleagues to comment,
“I’ve never seen a document being reshaped before my eyes!”
Obviously, there is a limit to how many people can be editing a document simultaneously – not a technological one, but a practical one. Having ten people all trying to change the same sentence at the same time is not productive. Simultaneous editing with a few people, though, is fine.
More complicated projects often require many types of file, some of which are not easily handled in Google Docs. In those cases, I create a folder in Dropbox, and share it with my collaborators. One feature I like of Dropbox is that it shows a notification when a file has been updated to a new version. With Google Docs, you don’t know if someone has made a change unless you log on and look.
Both services have the advantage that it’s easy to make things public, so anyone can benefits from the fruits of your labour. I’ve used this to create my own “supplemental data” for my papers.
One problem for cloud systems is data security. Some early users of Google Docs had files deleted at random. Dropbox had a security hole that lasted several hours that allowed anyone to view files without a password. And then there’s good old fashioned hacking. My institution has sent out ominous emails warning that faculty should not keep any private data (like student grades or human subjects data) stored on those services.
Similarly, we’re still waiting to see if cloud services will have long term stability. Although free, these services are all owned by private companies, which may go out of business, be sold, or change how they work at any time. Archiving key materials to your own desktop may be prudent!
Nevertheless, I’ve benefitted so much from how easily I can work with collaborators that those worries are not going to stop me from using those tools.
* Wall paper: Cyberman from Doctor Who
You can follow the online conversation on Twitter with the #ToolTales hashtag and you can read Mary Mangan’s Tool Tale here, Dr Peter Etchells’s Tool Tale here, Alan Cann’s here, Jerry Sheehan’s here, Boris Adryan’s here, Anthony Salvagno’s here, Daniel Burgarth and Matt Leifer’s here, Jenn Cable’s here , Mike Biocchi’s here, Susanna Speier’s here, Derek Hennen’s here, Musa Akbari’s here, Benedict Noel’s here, Chris Surridge’s here and Gerd Moe-Behrens’s here.