“Making academic collaboration easier”: an interview with Overleaf co-founder John Hammersley
To mark CUP’s new partnership with Overleaf, John Hammersley told us about the origins of the collaborative writing tool and the benefits that have led to its dramatic growth.
Why did you create Overleaf?
We were two mathematicians working together on a pioneering driverless taxi system and we found that there was no easy way to collaborate when writing papers about this with our colleagues – so we built a platform!
As Overleaf’s usage grew –half-a-million people now use it worldwide – we decided to work on it full-time. Researchers spend a lot of their time writing, reviewing and publishing papers. We saw a way we could make the whole process of academic collaboration easier and more effective.
Since founding the company in 2012 we’ve focused on making this the best service for authors to use to write their articles, grant proposals, project reports and more.
What are Overleaf’s main benefits?
Authors can collaborate on documents in either a simple word processing interface or as native LaTeX source code – from anywhere. They choose from multiple book and journal template options. All the required components –chapters, sections, references and acknowledgements – are pre-defined and ready to be populated. Authors open the template and start writing, knowing that the output conforms to the guidelines of their target journal.
As authors make changes to the document, Overleaf previews the fully typeset document – what it will look like when published. Authors can link reference management tools to their Overleaf account, allowing fast and simple in-document referencing and citation. Once the document is complete the author can submit it directly to a journal (or repository or preprint server) through a one-click submission button, or output the file in LaTeX or PDF.
We’ve worked hard to make Overleaf user-friendly, effective (catching errors early), more efficient than sharing articles by email, innovative and secure to use for academic papers.
Does an author have to be familiar with LaTeX to use Overleaf?
LaTeX provides many benefits – separating content and formatting, handling equations, references and bibliography, tables and illustrations – but we have a couple of options available to help our users not familiar with it.
Our rich text mode renders headings, formatting and equations directly in the editor. This mode makes the interface familiar to those used to traditional word processors.
We also provide support to new LaTeX users. Our Interactive Introduction to LaTeX course, prepared by John Lees-Miller, covers all the basics of using LaTeX – they’ll learn how to write a complete paper, article or report in LaTeX, including text, figures, tables and a bibliography. This provides a much easier LaTeX writing experience than other programmes.
What are the most exciting developments in researcher tools and services right now?
There a lot of people doing neat things. Plotly in the US has a really nice collaborative graph-making tool. We’ve also recently seen Transcriptic, which is automating more lab protocols and making it easier for programmers to help biologists to run complicated experiments. That could do a lot for reproducibility, which is very exciting.
Scientific crowdfunding is also an interesting area that’s seeing some new developments. Crowd.Science – mentored by one of the Overleaf founders – is doing some innovative things in that space and Experiment.com is getting close to hitting that critical mass needed to be sustainable.
This recent compilation of 101 Innovations in Scholarly Communication features a lot of new services. Happy to see Overleaf featured in it, too!
Authors of the following Cambridge University Press journals can now use Overleaf: