Collaboration tool aims to streamline paper writing and editing

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John Hammersley describes a new tool designed to help authors write papers

Science today is a global industry – over two million papers are published every year by over two million researchers, and over $200 billion is spent on academic research and development.

The internet has brought many advances to scientific communication – more papers are accessible to more people than ever before in the history of civilisation – but there still remains a challenge in how to collaborate effectively when writing a scientific paper. Spending hours fiddling with formatting and having to email papers back and forth is a very cumbersome and inefficient system.

This was a problem my colleagues and I faced when working on papers together with researchers in institutions located around the world. So, in late 2011, my co-founder John Lees-Miller built the prototype of what became writeLaTeX - an online service that allows you to create, edit and share your documents in the cloud. Because it’s in the cloud, everyone always has the latest version - and you can access your work from anywhere, using any device.

It turned out that the inefficient system of collaborating on papers was also a problem many other researchers were facing. By 2013 over 50,000 authors created over half-a-million documents using WriteLaTeX from over 170 countries worldwide.

With interdisciplinary collaborations we also faced a second problem; the use of different tools for writing papers. When I was completing my PhD, all my academic collaborations had been with people in the same department. We were all mathematicians and physicists familiar with the same tools for writing scientific papers. In particular, we all used a program called LaTeX for writing up our work.

LaTeX, created in the early 1980s by Leslie Lamport, allows the writer to focus on the content without worrying about the formatting – this is all handled automatically when the document is compiled. The TeX typesetting system created in 1978 by Donald Knuth, upon which this is based, set a new standard for the production of scientific papers, and is particularly known for the elegant way it typesets mathematical formulae.

However, LaTeX has a steep learning curve because you have to learn commands and install packages, and its use has traditionally been limited to the mathematics, physics and computer science disciplines. We developed the real-time preview for WriteLaTeX to flatten the learning curve, which is one reason why so many people started using it.

Now we have launched a rich text editor with commenting and review features to make it easier for users. By doing so, people do not have to completely abandon the tools they already know. Overleaf is a new collaborative-science publication system developed by the team at WriteLaTeX. Our aim is to make the whole process of writing and editing scientific papers much quicker for both authors and publishers by bringing the whole scientific process into the cloud, from idea to writing to review to publication.

The system aims to combine the convenience of an easy-to-use WYSIWYG manuscript editor (which people are used to with MS Word), with real-time collaboration, and structured, fully typeset output produced automatically in the background as you type.

There are also integrated and streamlined publishing options: authors can publish immediately and directly to the journal of their choice with our integrated submission systems. We've added four publishing partners already and hope to have many more in 2014. 

Once an article has been submitted, the tool includes change tracking, commenting and document lifecycle management features to help in the editorial process. By providing a document-centric service, Overleaf hopes to remove the need for endless chains of emails with attachments; the latest version of the paper is always available.

We’re also working with data storage services such as Figshare to tie in with reproducibility and open-data initiatives. With a cloud-based system, papers no longer need to be static; figures can be backed by the data used to generate them. This should help other researchers to replicate and validate scientific findings, as well as increase openness and transparency and encourage follow-up research.

By combining an easy-to-use editor with publication-ready output, our aim with Overleaf is to make scientific publishing accessible to more people and help to make it quicker and easier to write and publish work online. We're also excited to be working with open-access publishers across various disciplines to create a complete cloud-based approach to scientific publishing.

John Hammersley is co-founder and CEO at WriteLaTeX