WordPress for Collaborative Editing

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Using WordPress

Working with others to create a document can be a trying affair. Authors on different computers have to deal with minor differences between Microsoft Word for PC vs. Mac or between different versions of MS Word. What do you do when a co-author can’t read a .docx file? (You can’t seriously want to use Open Office?!!) And which version of the file that has been emailed back and forth is current?

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone working on a document were “on the same page” using exactly the same software? This post describes how to set up WordPress as a private, collaborative site for editing documents like proposals and paper drafts.

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

When it comes to using modern web tools scientists can be luddites. Standard practice for editing documents seems to be emailing MS Word files as attachments back and forth with “Track Changes” enabled. Little seems to have changed in the last decade despite the plethora of tools out there. But perhaps that plethora is precisely the problem — too many tools, each with a different feature set, a different interface and a different set of bugs.

One of the things we have observed over the last couple of years is that even luddites are pretty comfortable editing documents with WordPress. And the bottom line with any editing software is that it is only useful if the content creators will use it, regardless of how many cool features it has. So let’s see what it would take to use WordPress as a collaborative editing tool for co-authoring articles and proposals.

Plugins

First we’ll customize a default WordPress installation with a carefully selected set of plugins:

Private Only redirects non-logged in viewers to the login page so that content is only visible to those who can log in — the co-authors. (You don’t want others to steal your ideas!)

Co-Authors Plus allows multiple authors to be assigned to a post, giving each the ability to edit content. (As any parent knows, having multiple people responsible for something requires a lot of communication. See below.)

WP-UserOnline displays how many members are logged in so that co-authors can avoid stepping on each others’ toes when editing a page or post. (You don’t want both parents picking up the same kid.)

After installing the plugin, we recommend modifying wp-admin/admin-header.php to display the logged in users on all editing pages:

<h1 id="site-heading" <?php echo $title_class ?>>
    <a  ...
        <span id="site-title"><?php echo $blog_name ?></span>
    </a>
<!-- NOTE:  BEGIN users_online modification -->
:&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;
<?php if (function_exists('users_online')): ?>
    <?php users_online(); ?>
<?php endif; ?>
<!-- NOTE:  END users_online modification -->
</h1>

WP-Footnotes allows for the easy creation of numbered footnotes. (See WordPress for Scientific Publishing.)

TinyMCE Advanced adds additional formatting buttons (like sub and super) to the editor. With the addition of just these two it is possible to create documents that serve just about every need. (Serious equations are available with the WP LaTex plugin also covered in the above mentioned earlier post.)

PDF24 Post To PDF accesses a free, customizable pdf conversion service to provide “Download article as PDF” links for each post. (We’re still not clear what the business model for this company is as the pdf files are delivered without any advertising. But their particular web service does the best pdf conversion job we’ve tested, even when presented with footnotes and equations. Within the plugin settings you can specify CSS styling that will modify the pdf output. It’s pretty amazing!)

Best Practices

OK. You’ve set up a new WordPress instance, created users for all your co-authors and installed the recommended plugins. Now you need to educate your collaborators as to how to use the site. We recommend adding a page titled “Editing and Formatting Instructions”. Here is what we have on ours:

Starting a New Article

Each article begins when an author creates a new post with just an outline of sections. Additional authors can be added using the “Post Authors” block at the bottom of the page. The article should then be published and its availability announced to all co-authors. Co-authors can comment on the outline or edit the outline directly, being careful to make sure that no other co-authors are currently editing that page. (The top of each page has a Users Online link that states how many users are currently on line.)

Once all co-authors agree on the structure and ownership of different sections, individual authors can create draft posts named Article – Section and begin writing. If desired, each sub-section can have multiple authors. This would allow co-authors to read each other’s sub-sections as they evolve to get a sense of the emerging style. Or, sub-sections can remain private until they are merged into the full article. Each group of co-authors will figure out their own working style.

Merging Sections

As sections are completed, authors can insert their work into the appropriate place in the full article. Again, being careful to avoid simultaneous editing which WordPress does not support. When all the sections are in place, co-authors can comment on the almost finished piece. Co-authors may choose to put one person in charge of final edits or take turns polishing the prose.

When everyone is satisfied, the full article (including footnotes) can be copied and pasted into another WordPress site or any other software for final publication or editing.

Special Formatting

Footnotes:

The WP-footnotes plugin allows you to designate a block of text as something to be replaced by a number in the text that links to the footnotes section at the end of the article. Simply enclose the text to be replaced in double parentheses with both a leading and following space.

Clearly, best practices are something that will evolve depending on the set of collaborators. Lots of questions still remain:

  • Should in-progress documents be posts or pages?
  • How can Contributor/Author/Editor roles be utilized?
  • Would a WordPress chat plugin be useful?
  • etc.

If you have your own suggestions for best practices, please add them as a comment.

Conclusion

Getting everyone “on the same page” doesn’t need to be an empty metaphor these days. With just a little effort, someone comfortable setting up WordPress can create a collaborative editing environment that has most of the features you would want. The real heavy lifting involves getting people to actually use it and to follow whatever best practices you end up with. As the saying goes:

If herding cats were easy, everyone would do it.

Best of luck with your next joint proposal!

 

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