Collaborative research on OSX & Windows

  • June 3rd, 2006

Not surprisingly, the following is inspired by an actual end-of-the-quarter research project including multiple group members, multiple operating systems – including Windows & OSX – on both public (school) and private (personal) machines, varying degrees of computer knowledge & experience, and one shared topic.

Being that I am in a bit of a anti-productive state of mind, I see a great opportunity to share tips on collaborative note taking, research, and content organization without the age old restrictions of varying operating systems levels of computer literacy.

Based off of personal experience, there are two methods of research that most individuals find themselves using.

  • One is to go the old paper & pen method of passing notes back and forth during scheduled meets at the library. On occasion, these notes are supplemented with emails containing links online resources or academic journals.
  • The second method involves tapping into a plethora of online and desktop based applications which allows group members to access one anothers information while providing an archival method for future referencing.

Granted, the convenience of the following web / desktop applications will only be as beneficial as your group members willingness to accept and integrate web applications into their research process. Below I’ve outlined a number of applications that have benefited myself and my group as a whole during collaborative research. Most, if not all of the applications listed below are free unless noted with ($$).

  • PROS: Collaborative editing. Accessible shared references and documents. Archived resources online.
  • CONS: The initial registration process for services which require authentication can be a pain in the arse. Giving group members unfamiliar with services a crash course can also be mind numbing. Continually remind yourself that the more you explain early on will reduce the number of late night meetings outside of the comfort of your own room.

Attempting to roll each of the service below into your groups work flow may actually have a negative impact on productivity and the final results. Choose your services wisely and save the amount of time researching with time compiling results.

Edit documents as a group


Fortunately, the Web 2.0 movement resulted in a number of web based text editors allowing users from around the globe to access and edit documents in real time with one another. What does this mean? It means that Susie Q – whether across the room or across the city – can edit the same document you have open in front of you in real time. Writely is one such services that I’ve utilized on a near daily basis for uploading and sharing .DOC based documents. Getting group members to jump on board is as easy as sending invitations from within the document itself. Individuals who have not yet registered will be prompted to do so in order to access the document.

  • PROS: Shared text editing. HTML, RTF, DOC, and OpenOffice compatible downloads. Spell checking.
  • CONS: Having been recently acquired by Google, open registration has [as of 06/02] been placed on hold. However, I do have the ability to send out invitations from within documents allowing users to sign up. If absolutely interested, drop your credentials in the comments.


Although I am still limited to the 30 day fully featured demo of SubEthaEdit, I have had great success collaborating on a number of projects involving research notes as well as web coding. Syntax highlighting and the ability to recognize changes made by other users are a few of the features offered by this OSX (only) application. Collaborate via Bonjour on your local network or invite a SubEthaEdit user from across the country. I have yet to hear of a similar application for the Windows platform.

Collecting references and online documents

Online references have a way of piling up within your browsers bookmark folder. Similarly, PDFs, TXTs, and DOCs also have a habit of cluttering your research folders. The upside is that these sites and documents are easily accessible if you’re sitting in front of your computer. But what about scenarios where yourself or others wish to view sources?


CiteULike is to online reference documents as is to bookmarks. Do you know the source URL to a specific document? Why not feed it through CiteULike and tag appropriately for future reference?

  • PROS: The ability to bookmark, tag, and share specific documents online. Organizing and tagging your documents online allows your entire group to grab or view a copy of the document online from any terminal.
  • CONS: The idea of “tags” may confuse your less Web 2.0 minded group members. The issue is easily remedied by creating a supertag like “xxxgrouprojectname” and pointing each member to the specific tag URL and saying “refresh this page”.

google notebooks

Those with Google Accounts may consider rolling Google Notebook into their research duties. While I have yet to “convert” any new users, I do rely on the service to push content that I’ve noted and saved to others. Google provides convenient browser extensions which adds a small status bar option which aids in saving notes from specific pages. By default, Notebooks are set to private. Thankfully, sharing Notebooks is a simple one-click process. See my example for Endangered Sea Turtles.

  • PROS: Simple, clean, and intuitive interface. One-click sharing and a handy browser extension for saving sources (with notes). Create multiple Notebooks with multiple sub headings. Keep individual “notes” organized using subheadings for easier browsing. Again, check my sample Notebook that I’ve made public here.
  • CONS: N/A. Maybe someone can point this one out? Google Notebook allows anyone will a Google Account to “note” search results and individual pages. This is just one service that does what it’s supposed to do.

Academic file sharing file sharing

When it comes to file sharing, Box is hard to beat. With free account holders having 1GB of online storage at their fingertips, what’s not to like? OSX users may find WebDav support a godsend for uploading, backing up, and sharing files.

  • PROS: Upload and share files. Organize documents using folders, tags, or a combination of both. Livesearch option allows users to find exactly what they’re looking for. Use Box to share individual files or entire folders. No registration required if group members wish to download files. Upgraded accounts allow for additional user to access specific files from within a account.
  • CONS: When sending [private] files via email rather than creating a direct download link, users are required to register and login for access.

Get to work users may find themselves questioning my decision not to include the Yahoo backed tagging service. While I personally rely for my own bookmarking needs, I prefer to keep my academic and personal marks separate. Keeping my online interests separate allows me to stay on topic and focused on the task at hand.

Have you participated in any collaborative research? What tips do you recommend?