Research and web based services

When I started my PhD about 3 years ago, I think that the process had already started, but it’s ever increasing : what I want to talk about is the use of web-based services offered by private for-profit companies by researchers.

Well, I must say that if you have a collaboration, sending hundreds of emails back and forth to write a paper is tiresome and pretty inefficient. Which is why many of us tend to use collaborative editors such as Google Docs. But there is a price for it… you may not have read the terms of use, but here is what it says :

When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services

Well, it seems awkward, to say the least, to grant such a license on unpublished, state funded, research… But the phenomenon doesn’t stop with collaborative writing : we all exchange some raw data, graphs, images, pdf, etc… and all that is often too heavy for emails. This is why many decide to use Dropbox. And once again, blindingly accept the terms of use which state :

These and other features may require our systems to access, store and scan Your Stuff. You give us permission to do those things, and this permission extends to our affiliates and trusted third parties we work with.

And… that’s not the end of it ! Some of us also use an extremely convenient way to control remotely our computers : Teamviewer. I’ve used it to enable foreign companies to do maintenance operations on their software, but I know several colleagues who use it to run their experiment from home… or even from their office located 20 meters away ! In my opinion this is questionable as well : all the data transit by Teamviewer’s servers, half a world away, and we put our complete trust in them for the security. Unfortunately hacking (mainly due to phishing) happens from time to time and ends up with ransoming.

All that being said, I still enjoy collaborative tools, web-based services, etc… My point of view is that we should always be conscious that every “free” service is in fact a trade-off. And if the price (on security of confidentiality) is not adapted to research, then we should either abstain or find an alternative service.

I’d like to end this post by listing some services that you may use directly or that your department may install on local servers :

  • Collaborative edition : etherpad is perfect for text edition. You can use it online, or install your own server. Sharelatex is The tool for latex users. Collaborative edition on their server is not free but as it is open-source you can install your own server.
  • File sharing : many universities have now implemented their own sharing service. If not, you can install owncloud, a collaborative cloud service which can also handle agenda and contacts.
  • Remote control : native on Linux (SSH), otherwise VNC is a good option
  • Video-conferencing : you may use linphone
  • For those who speak French, Framasoft has created tens of open-source services that may replace Doodle, Slack,, etc…
Adrien Jeantet
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