Dropbox is an academic’s best friend

Have you ever been writing a paper, working on an article, or organizing a book project — for example — at home, but then need to jot down an idea or insert a phrase of perfectly crafted language while you’re at work?

Or, have you ever started working on a paper on your laptop only to continue it on your desktop, then finish the editing back on your laptop? Most likely, you’ve had an experience like this, and the back-and-forth exchange of drafts can be maddening. If so, you have run into the problem of file synchronization. Dropbox is the solution, but I will get to that in a second.

How do you get your drafts from one computer to another? Many of the scholars with whom I have worked have used one of two methods (or both): USB key drives or email. And both have limitations. If you rely on a USB key drive (thumb drive, pen drive, USB stick, call it what you want), then you have to remember to save a copy of the latest version of your paper on the drive. Right there, your draft is already messy, and here’s why — you saved a copy on your thumb drive. And now you have at least two copies. It’s more likely that you have another copy on your other computer too, the one to which you’re planning to take the USB drive next. It’s not difficult to imagine problems with having multiple copies of a single document. Every time you make an edit, add a sentence, revise a draft, the copies are out of sync.

You could solve this by having just one copy of your draft, the copy that’s on your USB drive.  But, I recommend that you do not try this. One good static shock to the USB drive, and it’s a blank slate. Besides, a typical USB drive’s small size is both its strength and its weakness. Portable, it is also as easy to forget as it is to lose, not to mention easy to steal. You don’t want the only working copy of your next article to live in such a precarious environment.

Or, if you email your drafts back and forth, you have the problem of endlessly multiplying drafts. Every email attachment in a chain of emails sent to yourself has an iteration of your writing. And unless you have good email habits, it is deceptively easy (especially using an email client such Microsoft Office) to double-click the Word Doc icon in the email, opening the document unwittingly from a temporary folder, and working in an ephemeral environment that, once you close the document, disappears. None of the changes you make will be saved in the document that’s attached to your email, even though the working environment’s false sense of security stems from its familiar look and feel.

What you need is a folder that lives in two places: on both of your computers. This magic folder would be a place where, when you save a document, that same document with all of its current revisions automatically appears on your other computer as well. That way, you could write at home in the morning, saving your draft before heading in to the office. Then, after class and during dormant office hours, you fire up your office desktop, and look in that folder — there is your latest draft. Open it with your favorite writing program (Word, Pages, Scrivener, etc) and keep on working. Save it before you head out the door, bound for home. Later that night, when you steal a few moments to add some phrases you’ve mulled over, you open up your laptop and open the document from the magic folder; you’re right where you left off.

Dropbox is this magic folder.

Dropbox is a program you download and install on your computer, creating an account that you link to your email address. When Dropbox installs, it creates a folder in your computer. By default, it makes a folder called Dropbox in your My Documents folder (on Windows) or in your user folder list (on a Mac). Whatever you put in this folder is automatically saved to the slice of server space that Dropbox reserves for you based on your email address (and kept secure with the password you created). The magic happens once you install Dropbox on the second computer and log in using the account credentials you just created. Wait a few moments (depending on the speed of your internet connection and how many files you put in your Dropbox folder), and your files start appearing in the folder, ready to use.

From this point on, Dropbox will keep your files in sync. Newer versions of the files in your Dropbox folder (i.e. Every time you save a document that resides in the folder) are uploaded to Dropbox’s online space, which are then downloaded to your other computer’s Dropbox folder. You don’t have to do anything.

It is helpful to remember that Dropbox needs your computer to be online in order to sync properly, but that doesn’t mean that you need to be online to access the files in your Dropbox folder. If you work on a file while off-line, using your laptop to edit an article while outdoors or mid-flight for example, then Dropbox will simply sync your changes the next time you establish an internet connection.

Dropbox is platform agnostic, meaning that it doesn’t matter whether you use a Mac, a PC, or a Linux computer. There is a Dropbox version for you, and you can sync files between the different types of computers. Dropbox builds on this idea and seems to make your work computer agnostic. That is, it doesn’t matter whether you are working on your home computer or your office computer, your laptop or your desktop. Dropbox is also file agnostic in the sense that it doesn’t care whether the files you save in your Dropbox folder are Word documents or Pages documents, jpgs or mp3s, video files or EndNote files. As long as the total size of the files in your Dropbox folder does not exceed your space limit, Dropbox will keep them in sync across your two (or more, if you have more) computers.

Dropbox Pricing

Dropbox gives you 2GB of free space to start. If all you are using it for is syncing your writings, and your documents don’t have images embedded in them, then 2GB should be plenty of room. If you need more space, you have two options. You can purchase more: $10 per month for 50GB. Or, you can invite your friends to use Dropbox. If they sign up based on your recommendation (following a personalized link that you give them), then Dropbox gives you an additional 500MB of space per person. You can earn up to 16GB of free space this way.

Dropbox solves something that has long been an annoying problem for scholars. In addition to being unreliable, email and USB drives are inefficient ways of keeping your documents in sync. They’re inefficient in that each method has idiosyncratic baggage. You have to remember to move your email attachments into a regular folder before opening them; otherwise, you risk working within that impermanent “Temp” folder that saves nothing but frustrates everything. Or, you have to remember to carry your USB drive, to open the latest version from it, to save a copy on your computer (for security beyond the USB drive), and then to save a copy back to your USB drive, then start all over again on the next computer.

I don’t know about you, but the less I have to remember about how all this works, the more mental space I reserve for working on important things — like my work. Spending less time making things work right and more time working within an intuitive digital environment leads to more productivity.

Dropbox works the way you want any utility to work: in the background, requiring minimal set up and little-to-no maintenance.

 

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