Friday, March 4, 2016

I have no idea why anybody uses LaTex

When I was in what would here be called high school, in the early 1990ies, I already had a mathematics teacher who was evangelising for LaTex in the classroom. I never bothered looking into it more deeply, as writing scientific papers in MS Word or LibreOffice worked quite well. But I kind of thought it would have its advantages, otherwise it would not have its niche.

In the last few weeks now I had to deal with a manuscript that was written in LaTex, i.e. I had to integrate the text into a larger Word document and I later had to peer review it. There are many things in life that I do not understand, often with regard to why people believe certain things or behave in certain ways. I can now add to the sum of my ignorance my complete lack of understanding why anybody would want to use LaTex.

Let's ignore for the moment that treating a text document with some bolding and some italics as a programming project already seems needlessly complicated. Yes, it would be easier to mark something and press ctrl-i than to put command tags around the phrase, and a text that is not interrupted by tags is also easier to proof-read, but fine, not the point now.

Point is, a few weeks ago I tried to get the text of this LaTex document into a larger Word document, together with other text elements. The author was unable to export it into Word for me, and another colleague agreed that it wasn't possible. Great. So while, for example, LibreOffice can easily export into a gazillion other formats, a user of LaTex apparently has to rely on all their collaboration partners also having LaTex installed. That seems somewhat inconvenient. I ultimately found a trial version of a Word add-on that allowed me to convert (at the cost of some major formatting disasters), and I sincerely hope I never have reason to buy the full version.

Now I had to review a later version of the same manuscript, and because I had to make lots of minor suggestions I very much wanted to use tracked changes instead of having to laboriously add individual comments to a PDF version. When I was told that LaTex has track changes functionality, I reasoned that using LaTex would also be the best for the authors, as in that way they would be able to easily open the annotated version they would receive from me, and the formatting would be untouched. And who knows, maybe it is a good idea to have LaTex installed anyway, in case another such manuscript comes past my desk in the future.

So let's look into getting LaTex for my Windows computer at work... aha, they recommend proTeXt. Let's see... "You can download the self-extracting protext.exe file from CTAN; it is well over 1GB."

AHAHAHAHAHA... no. They have got to be kidding, right?

What is the argument here? 'We are even clunkier and less efficiently programmed and less user-friendly than Word, but on the plus side...' Well, what? Easier to write mathematical formulas, perhaps? Is that it?

I will stay with LibreOffice and Zotero for the moment, thank you very much.


  1. As you say, for a lightly formatted text document, you might as well use MS Word.

    With lots of equations and specialist notation, it's a different story. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation in Scientific Word and PhD thesis in LaTeX, both in mathematics. No comparison at all. LaTeX was SO MUCH BETTER.

    Word's "track changes" functionality is clunky and underpowered compared to a proper version control system such as Git or Subversion; those will work on LaTeX source (or any other plain text) but not the bloated files produced by Word. If you don't need that extra capabability, fair enough, but in some applications it is worth having.

    LaTeX also has an extremely powerful system for bibliography and citations. Again, it's sometimes overkill, but can be very useful, especially for something the size of a book or PhD thesis.

    (Getting back to your original example, the underlying problem is Word's horrible format specification. Converting from LaTeX to Rich Text Format (RTF) is much easier, and from there you can import into Word:

    Here ends the LaTeX evangelisation. ;-)


    Iain (Talisker on Gin & Tacos)

    1. Thanks for the link to latex2rtf, that would have been handy to have!