Document collaboration

Knowledge level systems rely on many desktop applications. A single document or publication may evolve its form via different applications as it develops to a distributable product. Copy or narrative may be written in a word processor application; for layout and design the copy may then be imported into a desktop publishing program and the final shared version may be in the form of a PDF.

Most typically, collaborative narrative is compiled in word processing applications. These kinds of documents may have multiple authors or go through layers of proof reading and editing. Tracking of changes in the document is essential to view contributions from different authors and can be used to accept or reject their input. Often flawed systems are used when a single document, being worked on by more than one author, is exchanged via email. Tracked changes cannot compensate for two authors working on the same version at the same time, each circulating a different document after their hard work. Version control has to be tighter than that.

There are many solutions, including off the shelf platforms, that are used within organisations to address this issue. Simple systems would include shared folders on a network. A second user opening a document will be notified that it is already open and will be granted ‘read only’ access. Custom build information systems may manage file storage and retrieval from and into shared folders, but rely on the same mechanism for controlling access; the user is notified that a file is open on another machine and read-only rights are applied. These systems may be at the heart of an organisation’s intranet, the interface for which could be a web application written in Java or .Net or a desktop front end application written in Delphi, .Net or MS Access.

Back ends for this kind of system, for example SQL Server or Oracle, store the data and can be programmed to automate tasks as well as to control access rights and perform maintenance tasks, such as backup or merge replication, to synchronise sites. Through table design, some systems store documents within an object field in the database and others may store formatted text as HTML in long text fields. Record locking inherent in these systems restricts two users from making changes at the same time.

Microsoft’s Share Point Server provides content management capabilities for intranet and extranet collaboration and can be easily built around a Windows domain and its authentication. “Love’m or hate’m” compatibility with Microsoft Office seems to be a prerequisite for document sharing. I would like to look at two free online document collaboration systems which are largely compatible with MS Word, MS Excel and MS PowerPoint. These are not designed to replace institutional document management systems, but can be used as tools for collaborative document production.