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The Real Reasons Why Philosophers Shouldn't Use LaTeX

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Submitted by Richard Zach on Wed, 10/29/2014 - 10:29am

Josh Parsons (Oxford) has written a widely discussed post on "The LaTeX cargo cult," explaining why he discourages philosophy students from using LaTeX.  He makes some interesting points.  But what he has left out is the overarching principle that you should simply always use the best tool for the purpose at hand - and "best" should take into account lots of things: cost (in money and time you need to invest to become proficient in the use of the tool), ease of use, functionality, and the needs of the prospective audience.

For a long time, LaTeX had the upper hand over available alternatives (i.e., Microsoft Word).  It produced high quality output (Word didn't), it was free (Word wasn't), it could do lots of things Word couldn't do (like bibliographies), it was an open format (Word wasn't).  Well, times have changed. There are more alternatives, and the alternatives now can do lots of things they didn't use to be able to. The latest Word document format is open, and based on open standards like XML. There are free, open source alternatives to Microsoft, such as LibreOffice. The alternatives have gotten better at typesetting, and you can now do most of the things in which LaTeX had the upper hand for a long time, e.g., bibliographies and reference management, through plug ins and add-ons (both non-free like Endnote, and free, open, cross-platform like Zotero or JabRef).

So while at one point "well, I use bibliographies and references a lot, and I want to have a nice-looking hardcopy" were sufficient reason to use LaTeX and spurn Word, that's no longer the case.

Given this fact, other considerations should probably play a more important role now when deciding whether to learn LaTeX and when to use it.

  • LaTeX still has a steep learning curve and you can run into complex issues (and simple issues that are hard to solve).  If you have limited amounts of time - say if you're a grad student writing a dissertation - then becoming proficient at and writing everything in LaTeX will probably be a distraction.
  • LaTeX on its own is very bad at revision control and commenting, but Word and LibreOffice are very good at it.  If your piece of writing requires others to read, comment on, and make revisions to it - say, if you're a grad student writing a dissertation with an advisor who doesn't use LaTeX and would like to easily comment on your drafts - then don't use LaTeX. (The same goes for writing any kind of administrative document that anyone else in your institution has to open, comment on, reformat, reuse, or revise!)
  • LaTeX is very good at producing print-based output, but pretty bad at producing output that can easily be reused in other formats - say, on a web page or in a form - so if you need to use your piece of writing in settings where formatted or unformatted text is needed - say, if you're a grad student preparing funding applications via web-based forms - think twice about using LaTeX.
  • LaTeX is very good at making your writing conform to a given format (e.g., a thesis or journal layout), but it can be very time consuming to make LaTeX output conform to a format for which no class or style package exists.  So if there's an Word (or PowerPoint or whatever) template for what you need but no LaTeX style file - then it'll probably be easier to just use that.  (E.g., I wouldn't dream of writing letters of recommendation in LaTeX given that there's an institutional letterhead template.)

Of course all this doesn't mean that you should never use LaTeX, and I think it also doesn't mean that we should discourage students from learning (about) it.  In fact, I think it would be a mistake to do so. There are lots of scenarios in which LaTeX is the best option.  And there are good reasons grad students should at least have a passing familiarity with LaTeX.

  • Do you work in a (sub)field where LaTeX use is prevalent (logic, physics, math)? Then you should probably learn and use LaTeX. (Parsons acknowledges this! But even if all you do is TA intro to formal logic once, learning and using LaTeX can pay off immensely!)
  • Does the thing you're writing need any of the powerful features that LaTeX has but, say, LibreOffice doesn't?  Use LaTeX.
  • Does your advisor use LaTeX and invite you to co-author a paper with her? Learn LaTeX.

There are other reasons to use LaTeX. There are other reasons to not use LaTeX (and scenarios where other tools are better).  But don't not use or learn LaTeX because it's a cargo cult - it isn't - or because it's a proprietary format - it isn't - or because it's not a "declarative language."  It's a powerful tool that's useful in certain contexts. If you find yourself in such a context, learn it, and use it. And given that it is relatively widely used, at least learn what it is so you can make an informed decision. And perhaps encourage your students to do so, too.

Comments

Submitted by Kevin Klement on Wed, 10/29/2014 - 2:39pm

LaTeX is not perfect, but until there is a better alternative for academic writing, I'm still going to push it wholeheartedly. I can think of lots of ways I'd like to improve on LaTeX, but it still beats Word in almost every way, and if the choice in only between those, LaTeX wins hands down.

Some thoughts:

1. MS Word's .docx may now be an *open* format, in so far as the standard has been made public, but that does not mean it isn't proprietary! The standard is still controlled by MS, and they have complete control over it. It's not like HTML, whose standard is determined by a non-profit third party. The Word software will always be the real standard anyway. If the published standard says one thing, but their software does something different, all the other software implementing the standard will have to go along. But another way they keep it closed "in practice" if not in theory is by making the format ridiculously complex. LibreOffice, AbiWord, etc., can read .docx format files, sure, but not very well, and I doubt they'll ever do it so well that choice of Word Processor for .docx files is just as arbitrary as choice of text editor for LaTeX files.

So long as we're letting a corporation control our default format, we're allowing them more power than they should have. As a linux user, I cannot install Word on my machine. I don't want to use Word, but so long as Word is the default format philosophers use, there'll be some pressure on me to switch away from linux. That just makes me mad.

2. Word's format may be open to programmers, but it is very opaque to the actual user. You don't really have a clear sense of what it has in it and what it doesn't. This is part why people are still confused about the necessity of embedding fonts. It's WYSIWYG for them, so they assume it'll look the same to someone else. Not only is a Word user blind to what the file doesn't contain, they are blind to what the file does contain. When you send a Word file to someone else, you don't think about your revision information--but with Word, unless you actively get rid of it, you're sending that along too, and someone else can look at your changes, when you may not have intended that.

3. What you describe as a strength of Word--revision control--I see as a weakness. You are locked in to their way of doing revision control, and can't choose the tools you want to use. LaTeX files don't have their own revision control system, but why should they? You can use git, svn, whatever you want. Modularity is really nice. I can use the same revision control for my LaTeX files as I use for anything else. And it's my choice.

4. MS Word is bloated software, slow and clumsy. It is completely lacking in modularity. It crashes a lot. It tries to be all things to all people. This is just bad computing. The UNIX philosophy really needs be brought back to life; we'll all be better for it.

5. There currently don't exist very good tools for turning LaTeX documents into anything other than traditional print documents, yes, but is Word better? No! If you've tried to do this, you realize the key is to have the content marked-up semantically, rather than typographically. Word doesn't organize content semantically; in this respect, it's much worse than LaTeX. In LaTeX it's possible to mark thing up semantically, and put all the typesetting stuff in ancillary documents, like packages. Parsons's complaint I guess is just that you can still use print-based declarations, but that can be avoided at least. I guess you could try to do that with Word by only using "styles" and never using the usual italics, etc., buttons, but that would be a nightmare.

Submitted by Aldo Antonelli on Sat, 11/01/2014 - 6:02pm

I would disagree that LaTeX has a steep learning curve. You can get started with LaTeX in about 10 minutes, and as you come across something you don't know how to do, look it up! There is plenty of reference material out there, and a Google search usually yields what you want in a couple of minutes.

Submitted by Richard-Zach.local on Sun, 11/02/2014 - 8:33am

Yes, "steep learning curve" is probably too strong.  In the presentation I have for philosophy students, I can (I think!) get them to be able to use it to the level needed for basic writing (basic markup, bibliographies) in an hour, and online editors now make it possible to do that without having to install and configure a complete TexLive installation.  And those installations themselves are by now probably well-configured enough that it's not as much of a pain as it used to be.  I haven't tried to use it on Windows in over a decade and never on a Mac.  But going from a wysiwyg GUI to LaTeX is a significant adjustment, and to get to the point where you can use it at the same level as Word -- and especially to get to the level where you can make full use of LaTeX's possibilities -- that takes time.  To do many things that Word/LibreOffice just do automatically or expose in the GUI (quotation marks, fonts, line spacing) you need to at least find the right package for.  Again: not saying people shouldn't figure these things out, or steer their students away from it.  Just that we should be frank about the tradeoffs involved.

Submitted by John Kerr on Sat, 09/19/2015 - 11:22pm

The "steep" learning curve has been made flat by the large selection of LaTeX tutorial videos on Youtube.
LaTeX documents can be created on a Raspberry Pi or on a website such as Overleaf.
Take the time to learn LaTeX, you will be glad that you did. LaTeX is far more portable than WYSIWYG files.