Word vs. LaTEX

Jan 09, 2015

A BRIEF COMPARISON OF MICROSOFT WORD VS. LATEX: HISTORY AND MYTHS

The choice of a document design system is a huge decision for any organization. In light of the struggle writers face over which software to pick as they compose their documents, we offer some commentary in this section on the advantages and disadvantages of both Microsoft Word and LaTeX. Our goal is to demonstrate not just the differences, but also to show why using Microsoft Word will make your writing team more efficient and effective.

Two fundamentally different systems dominate the market for producing research and technical documents: Microsoft Word and LaTeX (or TeX for the most proficient users). Microsoft Word is based on the principle of “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG); that is, the writer can immediately see where on each page the text, figures, equations, etc., that he or she adds will appear. One can start using Microsoft Word within seconds as it requires little start-up time; most computer users have now become familiar with Microsoft Word due to its overwhelming dominance of the general word processing market.

LaTeX, on the other hand, requires entering the text and the references to all graphical elements into a coded text file, which then is compiled into a final document. The principles of LaTeX are quite close to those of HTML language, where the presentation of content and the content itself are separate. The software handles the pagination, spacing, margins, orphan control, figure placement and many other small details and so the document looks professional even when prepared by a novice. In addition, LaTeX is greatly suited for writing large manuscripts. Even a thousand-page book full of graphics can be compiled with LaTeX using very modest hardware.

The downside is that many people are not familiar with LaTeX and it is difficult for people to learn the software. In collaborative groups where members belong to different organizations, or in large research groups where members have diverse backgrounds, it is nearly impossible to get everyone to learn LaTeX. Besides, the team’s time is best spent on research and innovation, not learning software packages. Because LaTeX has a steep learning curve and because many people simply don’t have time to learn yet another software package, STREAM Tools employs Microsoft Word as the foundation for collaboration. The methods described in this book rely only on Microsoft Word. You simply cannot get a typical non-technical person started on LaTeX in 30 minutes, whereas it is entirely feasible to get a typical non-technical person started on STREAM Tools in 30 minutes.

Given this general background, let’s examine various issues surrounding the use of Microsoft Word and LaTeX in some detail. First of all, the compatibility between the two systems leaves much to be desired. Although there are software converters which take a Microsoft Word file as an input and then output a LaTeX-compatible file (and vice versa), the formatting of complex documents is not well preserved in the conversion steps. Much like a computer translation from a foreign language, extensive human corrections are necessary in order to guarantee the quality of the final result.

A second issue is that different fields use different tools, and since most research teams now span disciplines, deciding on a single authoring tool becomes critical. For example, in business, law, medicine, and most professional communication, Microsoft Word unquestionably dominates. However, LaTeX is the frequent choice in certain fields of hard sciences, like mathematics, physics, or engineering. Professionals in these fields are comfortable with the technical complexity associated with the text file that looks like a computer program and, more importantly, scientists and engineers frequently need to manipulate large quantities of equations and graphics.

As long these two groups do not need to collaborate, there is no problem. However, most complex research and innovation now requires interdisciplinary teams. For example, a sizeable biomedical instrumentation research project may require input from medical doctors, engineers, statisticians, lawyers, technical writers, and even patients. It is just not realistic to expect all these participants to give up their expectations of WYSIWYG convenience and instead learn to compile their documents using a rather complex set of rules.

In spite of the practical concerns associated with forcing team members to learn LaTeX, one commonly encounters the opinion in many academic settings that LaTeX solves all typesetting problems; some aficionados will not step away from it under any pressure. A fraction of people who hold this position are justified in their view because, indeed, they stand to lose too much by this conversion. For example, a tightly knit team composed of a professor and three graduate students who publish only in specialized journals indeed might be better off with LaTeX. However, in most cases, the decision to use multiple incompatible packages in the same collaborative group is driven by habit rather than a judicious choice: the team leaders choose the system based on tradition, personal preference, local user knowledge, or institutional support rather than what will produce the highest quality product most effectively.

To demonstrate why some authors might prefer LaTeX, and then to demonstrate why we encourage using Microsoft Word, let’s examine some of the advantages of each package and then debunk a few myths that arise from the differences.

The advantages of LaTeX over Microsoft Word:

  • LaTeX enforces proper typesetting, especially for inexperienced writers. The math symbols are italicized, equations are numbered, and figures are properly captioned because the templates take care of it. By contrast, inexperienced Microsoft Word users have plenty of opportunities to divert from proper typesetting options.
  • LaTeX is stable. It does not crash much and has low machine memory requirements. Microsoft Word, especially with large documents, requires both memory and speed.
  • LaTeX software packages are forward and backward compatible. LaTeX manuscripts written in 1988 compile in 2008 with few or no problems. In previous years, backward compatibility of Microsoft Word was especially problematic and numerous issues still arise today.
  • Automatic figure positioning is far more efficient in LaTeX than in Microsoft Word.

 

In short, LaTeX does provide some advantages over Microsoft Word, particularly for very long and very complex technical documents. However, Microsoft Word also has advantages.

 

The advantages of Microsoft Word over LaTeX:.

  • Microsoft Word is ubiquitous. In most cases, co-writing with groups from different companies or across industry and academia is a lot easier with Microsoft Word than with LaTeX.
  • Such features as spell-check, grammar check, WYSIWYG, track changes, word count, line numbering, and the manuscript marking system are more powerful and convenient with Microsoft Word.
  • Microsoft Word is easier to use for novices.
  • Microsoft Word now has many handy multi-authoring tools built in.
  • Reuse of figures and text is easier when using Microsoft Word and PowerPoint together (as opposed to LaTeX and PowerPoint).

 

Naturally, experienced writers tend to prefer one package or the other. Often, these opinions are a result of not being adequately informed about software capabilities. The following section examines some common misconceptions.

 

Myth: Only LaTeX should be used for scientific writing. Microsoft Word just does not have proper tools to manipulate figures, form equations, etc.

Reality: This might be true for highly specialized areas of mathematics. For most engineering and science disciplines, however, Microsoft Word is adequate, as long as it is used effectively.

 

Myth: LaTeX is good for writing long manuscripts, whereas Microsoft Word is good for memos and short papers.

Reality: This used to be true when computers crashed frequently and had slow processors. In the last few years, however, creating manuscripts of several hundred pages, filled with figures and equations, became feasible and easily manageable with Microsoft Word.

 

Myth: In LaTeX, one can write equations without leaving the keyboard, whereas in Microsoft Word, one needs to use the mouse all the time.

Reality: This is not quite true. A handy add-on to Microsoft Word, MathType, provides keyboard shortcuts that allow writing equations with only the keyboard. However, since an option of using the mouse is available, many people never invest their time into learning keyboard shortcuts.

 

All things considered, we contend that Microsoft Word can now be used in the majority of collaborative writing projects in technical settings because Microsoft Word now has nearly the same capabilities as LaTeX. Most importantly for getting the team collaborating right away, Microsoft Word requires little training time because it is so ubiquitous. Since a primary goal of this book is to provide tips and techniques for those who want to be efficient and effective in their collaborative work, we focus strictly on how to use Microsoft Word for team collaborations as the core of STREAM Tools.



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