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Working Together, Apart, on a Paper August 4, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in ATLAS, computers, physics life.

A bunch of us are trying to finish up a paper and get it past internal referees in ATLAS. Time scales are extremely short. In order to make sure we beat a deadline we have had to respond to comments from the referees on extremely short timescales (like a day or two). I am located in Marseille, and my student is located at CERN, in Geneva. It really isn’t possible for either one of us to answer the questions and update the paper on our own.

We’ve hardly used email for this process. Two tools we’ve used rather intensely: IM and cvs and LaTeX. IM is exactly what it sounds like – instant messaging. I’m using Pidgin and I think my student, who is on a Mac, is using AOL’s IM client. cvs is a source control system. We have all of the papers’ files hosted by the central cvs system, along with a local copy on each of our machines. When we want to update a file, we edit it, and once we are satisfied, we up load it to the central cvs system, and then the other person downloads the updated file. TeX is a typesetting tool designed for the sciences. It is quite old and while many people swear by it, I don’t think so much of it in today’s modern world of WYSIWYG editors. The central system keeps track of all the changes we make. Finally, we posted the questions from the referees on a twiki. A twiki is basically the same software that is used by Wikipedia – it allows you to edit a web page on the web. As we moved along the document we would update the response to the referees. Occasionally the issue was too complex for IM and we’d resort to Skype.

This worked very well. There were a few places it could have been better. For example, when working on the wording there would often be fights… errr, discussions… between me and my student over wording. So we’d end up putting the paragraph in IM and sending it back and forth. It would have been very cool if I could have just typed something in my editor and he could have seen the update in context where he was working. The other thing that would have been nice was if we didn’t have to worry about which file we were modifying. Because of the way cvs works, if two people modify the same file at the same time, there is a chance that it won’t be able to resolve the conflicting edits. The result is it is often simpler to just communicate which file is being edited and the other person stays out. I have to say that I don’t care much for the editing experience on the twiki. There is a WSIWIG web editor, but it just feels very awkward. It would be cool if I could suck the page into Word, modify it, and then spit it back out again.

The other thing that would have been nice is if Pidgin didn’t keep crashing. And also it would have been nice if we could have sent files or pictures back and forth. For whatever reason this did not work with my students AOL client.

Other novel ways to solve this set of problems?



1. Michael Schneider - August 5, 2008

Check out docs.google.com to replace your twiki. This has exactly the feature you said you want to collaborate on editing a Word file. You can also IM in a sidebar to the document if you’re both editing at once. If you’re both on Macs then SubEthaEdit is a great way to collaboratively edit a TeX file.

2. asoooo - August 5, 2008

try bzr or git for cvs and gobby for collaborative editing.

3. ATLAS Guy - August 7, 2008

We found the good old telephone was very useful for discussing reviewers comments (better than endless emails where details get lost when people dont follow every thread). I guess IM would work too, but not everyone has that, but do have a phone (and this very cheap for international calls nowadays – 0.5pence/min)

4. gordonwatts - August 10, 2008

Yeah — I don’t like editing a big document on a wiki – the wiki editing stuff can get a little long. I do need to try out google docs. Gobby looks interesting. It would be cool to have a flash or silverlight app that was group edit of tex files, and backed to CVS from some server. 🙂 Ok, sorry, I’m dreaming too much there!

ATLAS Guy – the endless emails are definately right. For working with the refs we did that – called them up. That often really helped – a lot. Couldn’t have done that bit without them. Almost eveyrone these days has IM, actually. Gaim seems to have really given the Linux folks (finally) access to decent IM. And it is nicer than the phone, I thought, when working with someone on the paper — you can be quiet or say something to someone else in the room, without having to worry about bothering the other person. So phone has its place in my current workflow, but it isn’t the only thing there.

These suggestions are good… I’ll have to look into some of them a bit more!

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