LaTeX Wars Episode V: The Word Users Strike Back

Of course I edit all my documents using the original Nintendo Power Glove

Of course I edit all my documents using the original Nintendo Power Glove

Throughout the mid-90s, my father used a DOS-based typesetting program called PC-Write to produce his books and journal articles. In stark contrast to more-popular word processing¬†programs, PC-Write relied on a what-you-get-is-what-you-mean¬†approach to typesetting: dad would indicate his formatting preferences as he¬†wrote, but he would be forced to print out a page in order to¬†see his formatting options being applied. By contrast, I grew up working with Microsoft Word and so with each passing year I found my father’s system to be increasingly archaic. Eventually, after a substantial amount of healthy mockery from his son, he migrated over to Word and hasn’t looked back since.

However, by the time I arrived in grad school an increasing number of other (economics) students were using LaTeX, a typesetting language that was much closer in design to the old-fashioned¬†PC-Write than to the what-you-see-is-what-you-get format of Word. Although I suspected that LaTeX was another manifestation of the academic economist’s tendency to choose overly-complex methods and technical mastery over user-friendliness, I eventually became a convert. Somehow, I found my preferences begun to mirror Dad’s original love of PC-Write.

If you ever feel like experiencing a wonderfully-arbitrary argument, ask a group of economists if they prefer LaTeX or Word. Within the profession there is a pretty serious division between those who prefer the look and workflow of the former  and those who prefer the accessibility of the latter. While there are some of us who are comfortable working in both formats, each camp has its stalwarts who find members of the other camp to be bizarrely inefficient.

The two sides appeared to be in a stable stalemate until recently, when a new study comparing the efficiency and error rates among LaTeX and Word users appeared in PLOS One. The headline result: Word users work faster AND make less errors than LaTeX users.

journal.pone.0115069.g004

Ooof РI hear the sound of a thousand co-authors crying out with righteous indignation. The Word camp was quick to seize upon this study as clear evidence that LaTeX users were probably deluding themselves and that now would be a good time for everyone to get off of their high horse. The authors of report  even went as far to suggest that LaTeX users were wasting public resources and that journals should consider not accepting manuscripts written up using LaTex:

Given these numbers it remains an open question to determine the amount of taxpayer money that is spent worldwide for researchers to use LaTeX over a more efficient document preparation system, which would free up their time to advance their respective field. Some publishers may save a significant amount of money by requesting or allowing LaTeX submissions because a well-formed LaTeX document complying with a well-designed class file (template) is much easier to bring into their publication workflow. However, this is at the expense of the researchers’ labor time and effort. We therefore suggest that leading scientific journals should consider accepting submissions in LaTeX only if this is justified by the level of mathematics presented in the paper.

Pretty damning, eh? Not so fast! There are several reasons we should doubt the headline result.

For one, rather than randomly assigning participants to Word or LaTex, the researchers decided to allow participants to self-select into their respective groups. On one hand, this makes the result even more damning: even basic Word users outperformed expert LaTeX users. The authors themselves admit that preference for the two typesetting programs varied wildly across disciplines (e.g. computer scientists love LaTeX and health researchers prefer Word). It’s perfectly possible that the types of people that select into more math-based disciplines are inherently less efficient at performing the sort of formatting tasks set by the researchers. Indeed, the researchers found that LaTeX users actually¬†outperformed Word users when it came to more complex operations such as formatting equations.

Furthermore, the researchers only evaluated these typesetting programs along two basic dimensions: formatting speed and error-rates, ignoring other advantages that LaTeX might have over Word. As an empirical researcher, I find it enormously easier to link LaTeX documents to automated data output from programs like Stata, making it simple to update results in a document without having to copy and paste all the time. Word can also do this, but it has always been far clunkier.

So, in short, the jury is still out. Feel free to return to your respective camps and let the war continue.

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