Any alternatives to LaTeX for collaborative manuscript writing in science ?

In a world in which we read mostly on screens and in which unprintable data like videos or high resolution images are part of published papers, it makes sense to think of new ways of producing, sharing and reading research results. Finding ways to easily collaborate with co-workers and to be able to keep a manuscript in a shareable and flexible format is an ongoing quest (see for example, datacite).

When trying to see what online tools allow to write manuscripts in a collaborative way, I was very much impressed by Overleaf‘s interface and gave it a try for a real manuscript writing. While some of my colleagues had no problem in working with the system, it is still a little odd that, for example, including citations requires uploading a file in the .bib format. Some ‘infinite compiling’ errors scared one of my collaborators and were perceived as a lack of robustness of the system. Adding references and cross-references remains quite involved and one needs some time spent in LaTeX innards to be able to get to a nice end result.

Lens Writer screenshot
An image of Lens Writer in action. Installing the package from github and launching a local server is very simple.

This post was motivated by my recent enthusiasm when reading about a JavaScript library called Substance that serves as a basis for several projects, including one that is designed to allow easy writing and sharing of scientific data:  Lens Writer. The philosophy of this way of writing a scientific report is, from my very limited understanding of it, that everything revolves around web-based technologies, running with JavaScript. An early version of the editor, working with Node.js, provides a play ground for those curious to test its capabilities. Definitely a project that will be very interesting to follow and see its evolution!