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How to Use Dropbox for Academic Research Collaboration
Now that the semester is over, there are two major things I like to spend my break doing: research projects and optimizing my classes with mods and improvements (or creating new classes, if needed). So, let’s talk about research!
When it comes to research, there is one piece of software I could not live without: the FREE app Dropbox.
Nothing has more fundamentally changed how I do research than Dropbox. That’s because much of my research is collaborative with great scholars such as Dr. Francis Dalisay and Dr. Masahiro Yamamoto. (Yes, not even Mendeley – Not so long ago I talked about how Mendeley reference manager changed my life when it comes to productivity in research).
The Rundown: Dropbox is free and works with Mac or PC, or mobile devices. You get 2 gig for free (at least, that’s how much you got when I signed up), and can get more free space by completing certain actions like getting a friend to sign up (I now have 4.5 free gigs). There are paid versions.
I was under the impression that just about everyone was using a tool like dropbox when collaborating with others on research, until I heard otherwise from numerous colleagues. Many are still relying on the old fashion approach of: Edit and Email. So I thought I’d take a minute to highlight the crucial benefits of synching software for collaboration on any document.
Edit and Email
Before I started using dropbox, my research collaboration life went something like this: One person would work on a manuscript document. When he/she was done, that person emailed the document to me with some comments on changes made. I’d then take my turn when I could and reply back with an attachment of the document updates. Meanwhile, the other person was waiting on me and if it was a busy time of the semester, that may have been several days or a week. If he had downtown and could work on the document, or had a sudden inspiration, he was unable to for fear that I was making edits to the file he had previously sent me and to try and merge the changes between conflicting documents, his new edits and my edits to the original he’d sent me, would be a big pain. This made for a slow, slow, painful process. And that’s only with two authors. Things get exponentially more complicated with 3 or more authors.
As soon as I discovered Dropbox, a file synching service, I quickly convinced my co-authors to adopt it. Here’s why:
Dropbox or other software like SugarSync enables you to share folders with others (through invite) that automatically sync whenever any file in the folder is changed, added, or removed.
The folders are stored on your computer like a regular folder. You treat them exactly like any other folder, including the ability to have subfolders.
For example, if I’m working on a manuscript titled Manuscript.doc, every time I save the file, everyone else who shares the folder with me is automatically updated to the latest version of the file (if their computer is off, it will sync when it is turned back on). When I’m done working on the file and close it, everyone immediately has the latest version of the file. A coauthor can immediately open the file and begin working on it. When she’s done, I can pick right back up, or a third coauthor can begin working (Note: You cannot work on a file simultaneously or there will be a conflicted copy saved to your folder). This eliminates the “hurry up and wait” nature of Edit and Email and the major headache of different coauthors having different versions of the manuscript, such as trying to merge one person’s edits into the latest version.
To avoid the possibility of multiple people trying to work on the file at the same time (which causes a conflicting file to be created in your folder that you then have to manually go through and be sure any conflicts are resolved), we always send a quick email letting the other co-authors know we are about to start working on a document or that we plan to work on a document at from, say, 1-3pm this afternoon.
If I could – I’d give Dropbox a high-five for helping me greatly increase my productivity as a scholar when it comes to collaborative work!
Additional Benefits of Dropbox:
- Add / remove files to your group folder – Because the folder syncs, you can quickly add other documents to the folder such as data, data analysis results, etc. and everyone will have access.
- Previous Versions: Previous versions of files are automatically saved to Dropbox. You can access previous versions of a file by logging in at dropbox.com.
- Multiple devices: The software also synchs your files between your own computers, smart phone, or tablets. So you always have access to these files whether on your work computer or home computer or mobile. I use this all the time not only for research but for teaching materials. This way, I don’t have to lug my work computer home with me if I want to access or work on any files from my home computer.
- Backing up: Because my files are synched to the web on dropbox.com, as well as my other devices, if I were to lose my computer or if it were damaged, I wouldn’t lose my files. I use this as a way to back up important documents (like when i was working on my Dissertation!)
- Web Access: Don’t have access to your own computer? You can access all your files on dropbox.com. However, any changes you make to files will need to be manually re-uploaded to dropbox.com when you are done.
That’s all for now! Best of luck to everyone who recently submitted to ICA. Hopefully my papers are accepted and I get to see everyone in Seattle!
Do you use Dropbox or a similar synching service for research? What do you like about it? What tips and advice do you have to share with readers? Which synching service is best?