Lunch & Learn: Collaboration tools for scholars with Angel Brady


Photo credit: Johann Larrson, via Flickr. CC license, 2010.

Today’s Lunch ‘n Learn, presented by Angel Brady of Princeton’s Humanities Resource Center considered the topic of “Collaboration Tools for Scholars.”

Brady demonstrated several free tools that facilitate scholarly collaboration. Most were on sites external to the Princeton computing environment, one, WebSpace, is a Princeton-only resource.

Brady explained that these new tools are popular because they are stored on external servers that keep shared resources up to date, and ensure that collaborators are always working on the latest versions.Most of the tools also include social media features that allow further communication and sharing.

Formerly, trying to share, write, or gather research materials while working collaboratively relied upon repeated email exchanges, possible mis-matches between software versions, cross-platform issues, email boxes going over quota, and various versions of a file being in circulation at the same time. A major advantage to these new cloud-based services is that they are browser-based, are cross-platform, and that they allow multiple editors to work simultaneously.

Many of the functions performed by these tools can be replicated by other applications at PrincetonРoften more securely. However the ease of use, the fact that these tools are in common use among scholars, that students have equal access to them, and the advantage of synchronous editing make them very attractive for the types of collaborative documents and resources  that require medium security, and that need to be shared with people from all over the word. For university business that requires the transmission of sensitive information, web-based external services should NOT be used.

The tools discussed today were Mendeley and Zotero, tools for amassing an online research collection,, a mind-mapping service, Posterous Groups, a sub-function of a popular micro-blogging site, Google Documents an online office suite of applications, Dropbox and WebSpace, two file-sharing services, and Diigo, a social bookmarking tool.

Mendeley and Zotero

Medeley and Zotero perform very similar functions in that they organize reference and research materials found online, and also have social-media functions. These tools can be used to gather links to resources such as journal articles and web pages, bookmark, and annotate them. Downloading similar documents and links to one’s desktop can result in file names that don’t reveal the actual content of the downloaded file, and these “mystery PDFs” can be difficult to share. Mendeley and Zotero allow you to make online folders of documents, and automatically download the metadata associated with files, including titles, abstracts, and tags, listing them in a clear library-like format. You can also alter and add to the metadata. Notes, highlighting, and organization within groups and folders can be accomplished in either application. Reference collections can be make public or private, and both tools have the ability to find other public libraries organized by people who share your research interests,

Mendeley is a desktop client originally designed as a PDF annotation tool (it also supports .txt files). It also has app versions for the iPhone, iPad and iPodTouch. Mendelay works with bibliographic citation formats such as BibTeX, Research Info Systems (RIS), Zotero Library and Endnote XML. A free account in Mendeley allows for 500MB of personal storage space, as well as 500MB of shared space. Both private and public groups are supported, but the free account limits private groups to 5; with each group having a maximum of 10 members. Group folder track all group activity, and it is possible for the original group owner to reassign ownership to another user if necessary, so that existing group work does not have to be recreated in a new account. There is a bookmarklet tool to make it easy to import sources found on the web.

Mendeley platforms:

Cloud-based, with desktop apps for MacOS, Windows and Linux.

Zotero Groups is part of Zotero, a Firefox add-in that works with Mac, Windows and Linux (a stand-alone version of Zotero for Chrome and Safari users is available in alpha). Group Libraries, both public and private can be created. The Firefox plugin can capture journal and book information with one click. Highlights and notes can be added to content. Library ownership can be transferred to another user. Zotero can also be used as a bibliographic tool, with a drag and drop feature to MS Word (Zotero export bibliographic information in the RIS format, which EndNote can import.). Your Zotero library has an RSS feed that can be followed by group members, to notify them of updates. Zotero was designed for academics, and was originally created at George Mason University. Storage space for a free account is 100MB.

Zotero platforms:

Cloud-based, and a Firefox add-in compatible with MacOS, Windows and Linux versions of Firefox; a client for Chrome and Safari is in the works.

For the visually minded, is a tool that allows collaborative mind-mapping via a series of connected bubbles that diagram related concepts. The free version of the cloud service allows 3 “sheets” of mind-maps to be created; more are available with a paid upgrade. Groups can be made for editing (read/write/delete) or read-only access to mind maps, but group members must join to participate.

Finished mind-maps can be exported as .jpg or .png image files, but the application itself uses Adobe Flash to create the interactive maps. Maps can also be embedded in an external web page as a way to share them with others. Although the tool is very simple, as mind-mapping tools go, it also has a very minimal learning curve. Most similar tools are fee-based. platforms:


Posterus Groups

Posterus, a popular micro-blogging site (think “Twitter,” but with the ability to make groups) also has the ability to make simple collaborative websites for blogging among group members or multiple groups. Posterous posts can include both text, images (with automatic slide shows for posts with multiple images), links and PDFs with a 100MB upload limit per post. Posterous sites can be private (password-protected) or public, and posting is possible using a number of devices, including mobile phones, emails or bookmarklets. Responding to or adding to posts is also possible via email. For a researcher in the field or on the go, it can be an invaluable tool to share information with group members almost instantly. Groups are private by default, and have no limits on the number of members. Posterous can be linked to existing sites on social networks such as Facebook or Twitter.

Posterous platforms:

Cloud-based, works on mobile browsers as well as desktop ones.

Google Docs

Google Docs is a great tool to use for real-time or asynchronous collaboration with colleagues; several users can be working on a document at any given time (with visual hints to other editors as to what parts of the document other users are editing, and almost instant updating of new content.) The Google Docs include familiar office-type applications including a word processor, a spreadsheet tool, a slide show creator, and a tool for building forms. Documents created in Google Docs are compatible with other similar desktop based applications, such as Open Office, Microsoft Office, and iWorks, and files can be imported and exported from one to the other.

Collaborators all need a Google account to use Google Docs, but it does not need to be a Gmail account — any email address can be registered with a Google account. Various saved states of a documents are stored and can be reviewed and reverted to when needed. Ownership of various shared documents can be reassigned to another group member, and colleagues can be invited to edit as a private group, or be completely public.

Google Docs is very popular with Princeton students, but should not be used to share secure course information that would be better put into Blackboard or another Princeton-managed storage space, however for casual collaboration, particularly outside Princeton, it’s a great tool.

Google Docs platforms:


WebSpace and Dropbox

WebSpace is a file-sharing platform that Princeton has licensed from a company called Xythos, a subsidiary of the Blackboard Learning Management System. Xythos is an enterprise-level document management system that allows for users to set up workflows, retention strategies, and enter metadata for stored documents. Everyone at Princeton with a valid netid has 5GB of storage on WebSpace.

WebSpace has built-in integration with Blackboard course websites, allowing shared storage for course participants. A popular feature of the Blackboard component is the drop box, which allows students to share work with each other, and another feature that allows instructors to post links to files stored in WebSpace directly to one, or more, Blackboard sites.

WebSpace can also do simple file sharing on a file-by-file or folder level. WebSpace integrates with the University LDAP, so it is easy to make groups within the Princeton community. A “ticket” to a file or folder can also be shared with anyone in the world with an email address. Tickets contain a specific URL to the shared material that sets editing permissions, the duration of these permissions, and shares the file directly via WebSpace rather than sending it as an email attachment. In all cases, users can “subscribe” to a folder or file that is shared with them to receive notification of changes. Files in WebSpace can also be made public, and each has a unique URL so that others can link to them.

A desktop client is available for 32-bit Windows machines. A Mac version is in beta. For those for whom the client does not work, the WebSpace drive can be mapped as a network drive.

Dropbox is the most popular of the cloud-based file sharing services as a stand-alone application, and is also used by many other applications as a storage mechanism. Dropbox allows for public or private file sharing among groups and individuals. Dropbox group members must also be members of Dropbox.

Dropbox can be mounted as a web drive on Mac and Windows, and also has a desktop client for Mac, Windows and Linux. Dropbox is used for many mobile applications, and automatically syncs all versions to the web. Dropbox free accounts have 2GB of storage, and can track changes, for some level of document versioning control.


Cloud-based, Mac, Windows, and Linux. Both tools can be used for file sharing, and collaboration, and while Dropbox is the easier tool to use, WebSpace has integration with Princeton-specific resources that can aid collaboration.


Diigo is a social bookmarking tool that allows you to bookmark web pages, annotate and highlight them, and then share your marks publicly or privately. You can create groups for gathering and sharing bookmarks. Bookmarks are organized by tags, and group ownership can be transferred to another user. Diigo, and Diigolet, the Diigo bookmarklet tool, work with Firefox and Chrome. For fans of Delicious, a popular social bookmarking among scholars that has been around for years, Diigo is a good alternative. (Delicious’s new owner, Yahoo!, has announced that it will soon “sunset” Delicious.) Diigo has an import tool that will ingest your existing Delicious bookmarks, and at lest for now, has a setting that will allow you to bookmark sites in Diigo and Delicious simultaneously.

A copy of the presentation used in the talk is visible here:

The presentation can also be viewed online here, or downloaded from this location.

A podcast will be posted here shortly.