Collaborative writing with Papers

Preparing manuscripts with Papers in collaboration with other co-authors can go very well if you observe a couple of simple rules.  When I am the only contributor and use my standard writing workflow (OmniOutlinerBywordScrivenerWord) everything goes so smoothly that there is really nothing to blog about. However, recently I collaborated with two colleagues, one of whom also used Papers on Mac and the other used a PC. Our file (in Word format) went back and forth many times with citations added by more than one person. At one time in this process many citations got garbled and needed to be re-inserted and some other did not work as expected. In this post I want to draw lessons learned from such collaboration: both related to Papers and to how it interacts with Microsoft Word.

Let’s start with the issue that only concern Papers. When one cites a reference, Papers insert something called a citekey, for example {LiddellHart:1967vj} in the text. When you format your manuscript Papers replaces citekeys with citations (e.g. Liddell Hart (1967)) and generates a bibliography with relevant entries (e.g. Liddell Hart, B. H. (1967). Strategy (2nd ed.). London: Faber & Faber.) The main rule is that you can easily collaborate with someone using Papers if you use exactly same citekeys for the same references. How to make sure it happens?

Citekeys are automatically generated by Papers based on the name of the (main) author and either the DOI (digital object identifier, a unique number assigned to every publication since about 2000) or the title of the reference. The good news is that for most recent books and scientific articles Papers downloads their DOIs from relevant repositories during the “matching” process and thus they are likely to have the same citekeys in both your and your co-author’s Papers libraries. So it does not matter whether the same person adds the citation and formats the manuscript – Papers will generate the same bibliographies (of course if you add the same references to your libraries). The bad news is that for a lot of content (e.g. Website articles, older books, etc.) there are no DOIs and thus Papers generates citekeys based on the title. If you enter a title slightly different from your colleague your citekeys will be different and thus you may have problems collaboratively adding citations. Fortunately, it does not happen very often.

I must observe here that collaborative writing in Sente could be organized a bit more smoothly because Sente allows to synchronize reference libraries between different computers/c0-authors. In principle, you can do the same with Papers using Dropbox. Whatever you use – Papers or Sente – you need to make sure that you and your co-author indeed want to have the same libraries.

The next problem concerns the interaction between Microsoft Word and Papers. Apparently there are some problems in the way Papers interacts with Microsoft Word. Apparently these problems are magnified with respect to already formatted citations (which are represented as “fields” in Word) and especially if these are subject to “tracked” (or even any manual) changes. Since you can rarely avoid using Microsoft Word at final stages of your collaborative writing, these problems could complicate and slow down your writing process.

In order to avoid encountering such problems I suggest to observe the following two rules when collaborating with someone using Papers and Word:

  • Make sure that your citekeys for references without DOIs are the same by manually editing them or better by exchanging exact reference entries. For example, if you want to have the same entry which does not have a DOI, ask your co-author to export it in BibTex format and then import it in your Papers library;
  • Do not format your bibliography until the very last stage of manuscript preparation in Microsoft Word, especially not before all modifications in Tracked Changes mode are completed.

About Aleh Cherp

Aleh Cherp is a professor at Central European University and Lund University. He researchers energy and environment and coordinates MESPOM, a Masters course operated by six Universities.
This entry was posted in Bibliographies, Collaboration, Writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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