A Comparison of Cloud-based Platforms for Research Collaboration

by Thomas P Seager, PhD and Andrew Berardy, Sustainable Energy and Environmental Decisions Sciences (SEEDS) Studio, Arizona State University

I recently got an email from my former graduate advisor, Dr. Thomas L Theis (University of Illinois, Chicago) asking what I thought of the myriad cloud-based collaboration platforms now available. I passed that along to one of my PhD advisees, Andrew Berardy, and we wrote the following column that we thought might be of interest to others.

There are three popular cloud-based file storage and sharing platforms that are familiar to teams considering web-based services for managing collaborative document generation, flow, and curation: 1) Google Drive, 2) Box, and 3) Dropbox.  Although a dozen other services are available, including Amazon’s cloud, when working with research teams narrowing the field of candidates to those that are already familiar to many of the team members is important for tapping into prior knowledge and experience.  That is, beginning with a platform that some team members are already using will allow the team members who are unfamiliar to learn from those that are.  This advantage of overcoming resistance to getting everyone on the same platform may be more important that identifying the best platform that none of the team knows how to use.

Google Drive is a formidable alternative because its likely that much of the team is already familiar with other Google tools, like what used to be called “Google Docs“, gmail, calendar, word processing, spreadsheet and other applications.  Moreover, Google Drive works seamlessly with Google’s Android smartphone (and tablet) operating system (OS), which is now the most popular OS for mobile devices.  For production of new documents, Google’s applications allow multiple users to edit a single document at once.  Thus, teams can use the Google+ social networking tools to create an affiliated “circle”, use Hangout to conduct a video conference call, and in a separate window, rewrite docs together in real time.  It’s the closest digital thing to meeting in person. However, Google Drive has some shortcomings that make it problematic from the perspective of teams that will be working together for more extended periods (i.e., for more than one homework assignment or group project).  The most notable of these are version control and comments/discussion.

When using email to produce, share and curate docs, most of us have become accustomed to using file naming protocols such as renaming the latest version of a doc with a date and the initials of the most recent editor… and then emailing blasting our latest creation out to the entire group.  This can cause headaches that Google Drive seeks to solve by encouraging editors and authors to work directly in the cloud, in parallel.  However, one advantage of the email approach was that it was easy enough to roll back changes to a previous versions of the document by downloading them from our email clients.  A simple analog in Google Drive doesn’t exist, meaning that users are tempted to transfer the email file naming protocol over to Drive, clogging up folders with different files, each with new filenames, effectively defeating the advantage of working in Drive in the first place.

With regard to comments, the old email attachment protocol was to use “Track Changes” and “Comment” features in Microsoft Word to hold all of the meta-information — i.e., the discussions and information about the document that don’t actually become part of the doc itself.  In our experience, our collaborators have a complicated relationship with Track Changes.  Some will insist on it, because they need to see the incremental edits in the document at each stage.  Others hate the way that Track Changes makes an aesthetic nightmare of colors, lines, dots and distractions.  While those that are repulsed by the appearance of the doc can hide the changes using an option in Word, in practice this fails to resolve the Track Changes disagreements in our groups.  An alternative is to disaggregate the commentary from the document.  In this approach, comments are attached to the doc (like supplemental information to a journal article), rather than displayed in-line with the doc itself.  This gives the team more space to carry out extensive discussions about the doc without forcing them into the display of the doc. Except that Google Drive doesn’t facilitate this sort of asynchronous communication, which encourages participants to fall back on their old email habits.  By now, we should all be familiar with the disadvantages of the email for teams working with docs, which include: forgetting to copy key team members, scattering of the commentary across multiple threads and subject lines,  failures of curation such as delinking commentary from documents, regrettable and irrevocable “reply all” polemics, and the clogging of Inbox servers with multiple 8MB powerpoint files.

Box resolves these issues by providing automatic version control, comment and discussion curation.  Additionally, Box integrates with the same Google cloud-based applications that Google Drive uses.  Thus, Box provides the advantages of asynchronous workflows without giving up simultaneous workflows.  So what’s the downside?  Of the three platforms, Box is likely to be least familiar to team members, meaning it requires a steeper learning curve.  Box is fairly unforgiving of participants that are just starting the migration from old email and Word doc habits to protocols that take advantage of the cloud and this will likely create resistance.  For example, when using Box’s automatic version control, the old email file-naming conventions become a hindrance rather than a help.  Similarly, docs that are drafted in Word don’t port over to Google’s apps (or other online editors) very well.  Formatting gets screwy and participants will become frustrated by the fact that some people are using Word or Google to place comments in the doc itself, while others are using Box to keep their comments separated from the main document text.  That is, Box is probably the best collaborative platform for research teams, but its also the most expensive — both in terms of monthly subscription fees and in transition costs.  We know some particularly recalcitrant colleagues that steadfastly refuse to migrate to Box for document production, although they feel comfortable using Google Drive or Dropbox for backup storage and sharing.

One reason that Dropbox is probably already popular among your team members is the ease with which it syncs to local hard drives, thus providing simple document backup with occasional sharing as a bonus.  In fact, this is exactly how Dropbox was conceived and designed — as a place where an individual user can store and access docs from multiple devices.  Unfortunately, that means that Drobox works best at the scale of the individual, rather than the team.  For example, Google Drive and Box also provide syncing, but we’ve never used syncing in our teams because we have yet to imagine how trying to sync to multiple hard drives owned by several different people makes any sense.

For teams, independent reviews and our experience suggest that Box is the best platform.  That doesn’t preclude Dropbox for individual storage and occasional sharing, whereas the principle advantage of Google Drive is the familiarity that most collaborators will already have.

You can read more detailed comparisons, including a description of Microsoft’s SkyDrive, in these articles:

http://www.theverge.com/2012/4/24/2954960/google-drive-dropbox-skydrive-sugarsync-cloud-storage-competition

http://gizmodo.com/5828035/the-best-way-to-store-stuff-in-the-cloud

 

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