A Brief Explanation of GitHub for Non-Software-Developers

GitHub is a platform mostly used by software developers for collaborative work. You might be thinking “I’m not a software developer, what does this have to do with me?” Don’t go anywhere! In this post I explain what GitHub is and how it can be applied to collaborative writing for non-programmers. Who knows, GitHub might become your new best friend.

Gif of a cat typing
You don’t need to be a computer wiz to get Git.

Picture this: you and some colleagues have similar research interests and want to collaborate on a paper. You have divided the writing work to allow each of you to work on a different element of the paper. Using a cloud platform like Google Docs or Microsoft Word online you compile your work, but things start to get messy. Edits are made on the document and you are unsure who made them or why. Elements get deleted and you do not know how to retrieve your previous work. You have multiple files saved on your computer with names like “researchpaper1.dox”, “researchpaper1 with edits.dox” and “research paper1 with new edits.dox”. Managing your own work is hard enough but when collaborators are added to the mix it just becomes unmanageable. After a never ending reply-all email chain and what felt like the longest meeting of all time, you and your colleagues are finally on the same page about the writing and editing of your paper. It just makes you think, there has got to be a better way to do this. Issues with collaboration are not exclusive to writing, they happen all the time in programming, which is why software-developers came up with version control systems like Git and GitHub.

Gif of Spongebob running around an office on fire with paper and filing cabinets on the floor
Managing versions of your work can be stressful. Don’t panic because GitHub can help.

GitHub allows developers to work together through branching and merging. Branching is the process by which the original file or source code is duplicated into clone files. These clones contain all the elements already in the original file and can be worked in independently. Developers use these clones to write and test code before combining it with the original code. Once their version of the code is ready they integrate or “push” it into the source code in a process called merging. Then, other members of the team are alerted of these changes and can “pull” the merged code from the source code into their respective clones. Additionally, every version of the project is saved after changes are made, allowing users to consult previous versions. Every version of your project is saved with with descriptions of what changes were made in that particular version, these are called commits. Now, this is a simplified explanation of what GitHub does but my hope is that you now understand GitHub’s applications because what I am about to say next might blow your mind: GitHub is not just for programmers! You do not need to know any coding to work with GitHub. After all, code and written language are very similar.

Even if you cannot write a single line of code, GitHub can be incredibly useful for a variety of reasons:
1. It allows you to electronically backup your work for free.
2. All the different versions of your work are saved separately, allowing you to look back at previous edits.
3. It alerts all collaborators when a change is made and they can merge that change into their own versions of the text.
4. It allows you to write using plain text, something commonly requested by publishers.

Hopefully, if you’ve made it this far into the article you’re thinking, “This sounds great, let’s get started!” For more information on using GitHub you can consult the Library’s guide on GitHub or follow the step by step instructions on GitHub’s Hello-World Guide.

Gif of man saying "check it out" and pointing to the right.
There are many resources on getting started with GitHub. Check them out!

Here are some links to what others have said about using GitHub for non-programmers:

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