Science is changing. The widespread reach of the internet means we can access more papers and connect with more researchers than ever before. With the growing adoption of open access policies around the world this trend is only set to increase. As a result, scientists’ ability to collaborate effectively over long distances is now a key challenge for scientists at all stages of their career.
Nearly six years ago, I left academia to start working on an amazing driverless taxi project with Ultra PRT, now fully in operation at London’s Heathrow airport and soon to be in cities around the world.
We were conducting cutting-edge research into control systems for the large-scale deployment of driverless vehicles. Due to the background in science and academia of Martin Lowson, the then company president, we were encouraged to publish and present of our findings widely.
This policy posed a challenge. Previously, all my academic collaborations had been with people in the same department. We were all mathematicians and physicists familiar with the same tools, such as LaTeX, for writing scientific papers.
I now found myself involved in long-distance collaboration. As a team, we found a great tool called Etherpad which made it easy to quickly compose text together. However, it had no support for anything that required typesetting or referencing, such as the ability to introduce formulae, images, etc.
So, one weekend, my then colleague and now co-founder built a solution, which became writeLaTeX. This is an online collaborative writing platform, which enabled us to work on a typeset version of the document together in the cloud. Because it was cloud-based, we always knew we were working on the latest version, and we could access our work from any computer. We used it to collaborate with co-authors on most—if not all—of our papers.
Fast-forward to today and writeLaTeX has over 50,000 authors who have created over 500,000 documents. It is being used by academics, students and professionals in universities and businesses worldwide.
But what is really exciting is that it has the potential to go far beyond this.
We have built a tool which enables authors to easily collaborate on a paper, all in the cloud, and always on the right version.
What if we don’t stop at authors? What if the editors can access a version to provide comments, or to make tracked changes? What if they could invite reviewers to do the same? Through our work with open access publishers, this is what we’re aiming for in 2014 with the launch of Overleaf: to create a document-centric hub for collaboration, between authors, editors, reviewers and readers.
In this model, a scientific paper is not simply the final PDF. It includes all the comments and feedback that have shaped that document. In other words, the whole collaborative scientific process has been brought into the cloud, from idea to writing to review to publication.
This approach also ties in with reproductibility initiatives in open science. By having a live version of the document in the cloud, figures and tables no longer need to be static. They can be backed by the data used to generate them; any attempts to replicate these data can thus be documented. This encourages engagement with the science and scientists behind the paper, increasing openness and transparency, and strengthening follow-up research.
The benefits also go far beyond science.
We are in a world where society increasingly looks to science for solutions to today’s most pressing social challenges. Science is also expected to address real life problems such as complex health issues, an ageing population, and the digital transformation of the world. To meet these expectations, we need science that is faster, more open, more trustworthy, and more meaningful to people.
Dr John Hammersley
CEO and co-founder of writeLaTeX
Featured image credit: John Hammersley
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