Joint Editing as a Group Communication Process

ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 18/WG 4 N1239
Version 2, Date: October1989
Last update: 12 december 1996 by Jacob Palme E-mail:

By joint editing is meant the process of development of a document by several authors, communicating partly or wholly via computer networks. In particular, the exchange of text items which will eventually end up as the finished product, is done via computer networks.

Table of contents

1. Definition of joint editing

Within this definition, joint editing can be performed in a synchronous or asynchronous mode. In the synchronous mode, all the participants are active simultaneously on the common document. In the asynchronous mode, the participants need not be active simultaneously, although of course the system must support the situation where several participants happen to be active at the same time.

Experience with computer conferencing systems, which were initially designed to operate in both a synchronous and an asynchronous mode, is that almost all usage is in the asynchronous mode. Practical experience thus shows, that when both modes are available to users, users almost always chose the asynchronous mode for serious interchanges.

In fact, the advantages of the asynchronous mode are often quoted as important reasons for using computer conferencing systems:

The assumption is thus that the same reasons that cause people to prefer an asynchronous mode of operation in computer conferencing are equally valid for joint editing, and that thus systems and standards for joint editing should be designed to work well particularly in asynchronous circumstances.

2. Synchronous or asynchronous mode

Several subtasks within joint editing are similar to tasks in computer conferencing and electronic mail. Thus, just as in computer conferencing, there is a discussion phase, where different facts and arguments are collected and weighed by the participants. Some of this discussion may take place via computer conferencing, some via inter-personal exchanges. Of course also other media, and face-to-face meetings, may be used for part of this process.

The common procedure today, using the rather limited electronic mail software utilities usually available today, is that one of the participants holds a master copy of the document. The whole document, or sections of it, are sometimes sent out via electronic mail to the editing group, and comments on it are collected via e-mail. Sometimes, tha master control of the main document is shifted between participants, such as when two people work on a document and send it back and forwards, each improving the document when that user has control of it.

3. Relation to computer conferencing
and electronic mail

Here are some requirements on support for joint editing:

4. Joint editing requirements

The joint editing process will be easier to handle if the document being developed is partioned into parts, chapters, subchapters etc., probably in a tree structure. This will make simultaneous work much easier, since there will only be a merging problem if two participants have simultaneously updated the same part of the document.

Given this structure, a merging problem will only occur when different users have simultaneously modified the same subchapter, or simultaneously modified the chaptering structure of the document.

Assume that work has progressed so far that a structure for the final document of the kind shown in the figure above has been provisionally defined. The next step is then to fill the structure with content. Sometimes, one person or a local group is given the task of writing one subchapter. But sometimes, discussion in the whole group is needed before a subchapter is written. There is thus a need to connect a discussion, a computer conference, to a certain subchapter. We may thus have the following structure:

Based on the discussion, someone is given the task of writing a proposed text for the subchapters. The next stage is thus that we have a first version of the document filled with text. After reading this, some participants may want to modify the text in some places, and they will thus produce comments on the text and alternative proposals for some wordings. We will then have the following structure:

Finally, when agreement has been reached, the person who has access rights to modify the master document (perhaps the chairman or secretary of the group) modifies the master text according to the results of the discussion.

5. A structured view of the editing process

In an administrative process, a document is often first produced by a lower-echelon employee, and then forwarded to his boss, who comments on it and asks for modifications. The document will then after approval by the boss be forwarded to a higher-echelon boss where updating and approval takes place in a similar way, as shown in this figure:

6. An administrative editing process

An important part of joint editing support is the handling of access control. In order to avoid problems when two different people at the same time want to edit the same part of the same document, access control for each part could be given to only one person at a time, either by request of the updator or by decision on who is the editor for each part of the document. If simultaneous updates do occur, a merging procedure is necessary before updating the main version of the document.

7. Access control

How then, will a joint editing process, as described in chapter 5 above, influence standards. The technical requirements which such a process puts on a standard are:

In order to do this, we need the following basic tools:

The process of recreating this structure in the storages of the participants uses idetification codes (id-s) on the items being propagated. Every text item has an id, and a link between two text items consists of two id-s and a type code. The link also has an id itself.

These id-s can either be globally unique (as the IPMessageID in MOTIS/X.400) or they can be unique within the environment of a certain editing process. The advantage with globally unique id-s is that they allow, when needed, the creation of links between text items in different environments.

8. Impact on standards

9. Evaluation of existing tools

MHS (X.400/MOTIS) has in the P22 protocol IPMessages, which can be used to convey text items. A globally unique id is available. Links can be created using the defined extension mechanism of MHS.

There are some imperfections in MHS. Thus, different versions of the same message may have the same id, even though they differ in the following ways:


The document profile of ODA contains a facility for references to other documents ( identifying the documents with attributes in the filing and retrieval clause (6.3.6).

The only way of ensuring that the id-s are globally unique, is in ODA to use a central library to assign labels to the documents (


This standards group is working on a standard for citations to electronic documents. A document is given a globally unique identifier by a combination of title, version, update date, document identifier and database host identifier.

ISO TC 46/SC 9

EDIFACT and DFR should also be studied to investigate whether they provide the necessary tools.


ISO/DP 8613/4: Information Processing -- Text and Office Systems -- Document Structures -- Part 4: Document Profile.

ISO/IEC DIS 10021-7/CCITT X.420: Information Processing -- Text and Office Systems -- Message Handling Systems -- Interpersonal Messaging System.

CCITT SG VIII: Contribution D 33: Remote Open Document Editing (RODE) for ODA/DTAM, 12-20 April 1989.

ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 18/WG 4 N 1144: Group Communication Functionality. May 1989.

ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 18/WG 4 N 1145: Options for Group Communication Standardization. May 1989.

ISO/TC 46/SC 9 Secretariat: Working Draft on citations to electronic documents or parts thereof.