Version Control for Research Projects

Working on individual or collaborative projects of any size requires keeping your files organized. Inconsistent file management can result in lost work, redundancies, errors in the final products, or difficulty for others building on your work later on. One of the foundational practices for ensuring you keep your files organized is to use version control conventions and tools. Choosing the appropriate service depends on many factors including the types of files and data you are using and producing, the size of your team, and the frequency with which changes are made to your files. 

When considering the proper platform for maintaining your research files it is important to understand your responsibilities for identifying, transmitting, redistributing, storing or disposing of sensitive information. For more information, refer to UW-Madison’s guide to handling sensitive data, and the UW System policy.

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Tools: Dropbox

https://www.dropbox.com/

What It Is: Cloud-based file storage and synchronization

Cost: Free, premium, and enterprise accounts available.

Ease of Use: With its focus on appealing to a broad audience of users, the interface is designed to be simple and the software is engineered to be easy for the average person to install and use.

Sharing and Collaboration: Users can share folders or individual files; items can also be shared with people who do not have Dropbox accounts. The software is also available on many platforms; in addition to its web interface, there are desktop clients for Windows, Mac, Linux, and the major mobile devices as well. Dropbox’s focus on mass appeal and cross-platform availability makes it a good fit for both groups with users who have varying levels of technical expertise and groups whose members use different operating systems.

Organizing: Other than the traditional hierarchical filesystem structure, Dropbox does not have any built-in organizational features. There are add-ons for tagging and attaching notes, but that isn’t a particularly active area among the third-party development community and the few available add-ons are still in alpha and beta-testing phases. For group collaboration with Dropbox, maintaining findability of files is dependent upon all group members following the same folder-organization and file-naming conventions.

Exporting: Dropbox also shines in its ability to easily export the files put into it. Items can simply be dragged and dropped to another folder on the computer.

Backups and Versioning: Two areas in which Dropbox does quite well are versioning and backups. It automatically creates conflicted copies of files that have been edited by multiple people at the same time, and all free accounts come with a 30-day file history, meaning that you can recover deleted files and revert to old versions of files from within the previous 30 days. Indefinite versioning and file history are available as a paid add-on, but that service is not retroactive, meaning that if you purchase it, the indefinite history will only apply to changes made after you’ve purchased the add-on.

Security: Lack of adequate security has been brought up as a criticism by Dropbox’s detractors. While there are both third-party apps and a number of DIY methods to make individual Dropbox accounts more secure, if you are working with sensitive data and/or things which are covered by legislation such as HIPAA or FERPA, you’ll want to look for a syncing solution that places a higher priority on security.