While writing a thesis is, of course, an individual endeavour, a PhD also offers many opportunities to collaborate. You might join an editorial board, sit on a committee, or start a networking group. Thanks to a wealth of digital tools, you can pursue all of these activities without leaving your favourite chair. In this week’s Thing, we’ll explore tools for online collaboration, including Google Docs, Google Hangouts, and Slack.
Collaborative writing with Google Docs
There’s a good chance you’ve already encountered Google Docs. Although it lacks the functionality of Microsoft Office, this cloud-based suite is praised for its simplicity and reliability. It’s great for collaboration, too. Files can be opened simultaneously by multiple users and everyone is able to see edits as they occur. There’s also a chat box for discussing changes. Google Docs saves the revision history, so it’s possible to rewind to an earlier version – very useful if everyone gets overexcited and there’s a flurry of changes.
This is ideal for giving feedback on writing, planning conference programmes, or drafting ideas. If your needs are more sophisticated, you can install add-ons for extra tools.
Online chat with Google Hangouts
Sometimes you’ll want to actually speak, rather than just type. Google Hangouts facilitates online messaging, video chat, and VOIP (internet-based voice calls). With a standard free account, you can create groups of up to 10 users for video chat. Anyone without a webcam will just be a disembodied voice. You can also share your screen over Hangouts, so it’s handy for sharing a presentation.
There’s no need to be visible or audible. Just use Google Hangouts as an instant messaging tool if you want to remain enigmatic. Liven up discussions with some of the Easter Eggs (hidden features), such as romping ponies (type /ponies at the chat prompt) or tiny people with torches and pitchforks (/pitchforks) — useful if the debate is getting too heated. There’s even a built-in dice feature (/roll) that could help with decision-making.
Some researchers are now using Google Hangouts to run virtual writing groups. The date and time are advertised in advance, then everyone joins the chat at the same time. They typically start with a 15-minute discussion about what they’re hoping to achieve, then the writing blocks begin. A pattern might include 45-minute writing sessions, followed by a 5-minute chat. Even though participants aren’t in the same room, just knowing that everyone else is writing (and not outside having fun) can be wonderfully motivating.
Team communication with Slack
If you’re working more formally in a team, especially on a longer-term project, you might benefit from a tool such as Slack. Slack stands for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge. As the name suggests, everything is searchable within your project, including files, chats, and people. Originally this tool was designed for organisations, but increasingly it’s used by communities (especially now Facebook has fallen out of favour).
The free version of Slack allows you to search up to 10,000 messages and some of the functionality is limited. However, it’s a powerful platform for establishing a simple online community. One problem for some users is that all your data is stored in Slack’s cloud, so they effectively control it. If you’re worried about privacy, it might be worth hosting your own community using a free open-source product such as Let’s Chat.
There are lots of opportunities to share work and ideas online, and most of them are free. Here are some suggested activities for this week:
- Try collaborating on a document in Google Docs, or at least inviting some feedback on your writing.
- Set up a Google Hangout, either for a writing group or to discuss a creative project. For inspiration, take a look at this post about the Basement Queens, who planned a song over Google Hangouts, then wrote it in Google Docs.
- Build an online community for your cohort, journal, or research interest. If you don’t like Slack (admittedly, the name isn’t very edifying), you might want to investigate Flock instead or host your own through Let’s Chat.