Collaborating without Word - an interview with Matteo De Felice, Climate Scientist at ENEA
"In Word it’s really easy to leave comments, make track changes, etc, but it doesn’t scale – if working with 10 people you end up with a massive chain of emails.
LaTeX is a more comprehensive tool, but it’s too hard for non-comp scientists – if you don’t know git, track changes is hard, etc. Overleaf provides a nice balance."
– Matteo De Felice
I'm currently a staff scientist at the ENEA Climate Modelling Laboratory working on the relationship between climate and the energy sector, with a focus on power grids and renewable energy production.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you started using Overleaf?
I’m a computer scientist working on climate studies, and I usually write scientific papers using LaTeX. I recently collaborated with a couple of colleagues not based here on a paper, and so I looked at options for online authoring tools.
My first option was ShareLaTeX, but it was too expensive, and the free account doesn’t allow you to work with more than one person – and we are five. So this didn’t work for us.
So then we moved on to Authorea; it worked for a while, but we weren’t really happy with it.
For my next paper, I had found out about Overleaf (I’m not sure how). So we used that – and have been using it since.
What are the biggest challenges you face in writing up your work?
In Word it’s really easy to leave comments, make track changes, etc, but it doesn't scale – if working with 10 people you end up with a massive chain of emails.
LaTeX is a more comprehensive tool, but it’s too hard for non-comp scientists – if you don’t know git, track changes is hard etc. Overleaf provides a nice balance.
The good thing about Overleaf is that it is quick. In Authorea, it always felt like you are working remotely – lags and delays all the time. Also their comment system is nice, but not really well designed / implemented, so none of my colleagues used it. For Overleaf, we appreciated the Rich Text mode, but mainly edited directly in the LaTeX source.
Overall we felt that Overleaf has a more streamlined design, and the preview on the right is very fast. It’s easy to find things, easy to upload files, and provides a full LaTeX editor with the important feature that once we downloaded the file, we could compile it locally without any problems – this didn’t happen with Authorea.
How would you describe your experience of using Overleaf?
Nice experience – it’s quicker, and when you work with other people, just need the key features.
Didn’t really check out the rich text view, but it’s nice to have – especially to have the equations already compiled – next time I will go for rich text mode! But I love the interface – it’s really well designed. The fact that you can hide the tree view of project, and choose manual or auto preview is also helpful.
We used the share option a lot, and it’s good that you can provide a link just like google docs docs without needing your colleagues to sign up.
What's next for you and your work?
Some collaborators prefer to work in steps rather than collaboratively together – so will try to convince them to try Overleaf!
What would you like to see in Overleaf?
I have a lot of colleagues abroad who all use Dropbox – it would be great to see a tighter integration between Overleaf and Dropbox, to have all the file trees directly on Dropbox. A lot of people aren’t comfortable to have all their files stored remotely, so a better sync here would be very useful.
For submitting our papers to journals, integrations with their backend systems would be great – a game changer. It can be really annoying to spend a lot of time in each system. You waste a huge amount of time just trying upload your paper.
Finally, I sometimes I use other online tools for e.g. latex tables – can Overleaf integrate a table editor? It would save me some time, especially when I’ve spent some months not using LaTeX – I have to refresh my memory.
In summary, how would you describe Overleaf in one sentence?
I tried three tools, and I think this is the best!
Thanks Matteo! Good luck with your future research collaborations!
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