Monthly Archives: January 2015

Commentary: Does it even matter whether you use Microsoft Word or LaTeX?

Shortly before Christmas, PLOS ONE published a paper comparing the efficiency of using Microsoft Word and LaTeX for document preparation:

An Efficiency Comparison of Document Preparation Systems Used in Academic Research and Development

The choice of an efficient document preparation system is an important decision for any academic researcher. To assist the research community, we report a software usability study in which 40 researchers across different disciplines prepared scholarly texts with either Microsoft Word or LaTeX. The probe texts included simple continuous text, text with tables and subheadings, and complex text with several mathematical equations. We show that LaTeX users were slower than Word users, wrote less text in the same amount of time, and produced more typesetting, orthographical, grammatical, and formatting errors. On most measures, expert LaTeX users performed even worse than novice Word users. LaTeX users, however, more often report enjoying using their respective software. We conclude that even experienced LaTeX users may suffer a loss in productivity when LaTeX is used, relative to other document preparation systems. Individuals, institutions, and journals should carefully consider the ramifications of this finding when choosing document preparation strategies, or requiring them of authors.

This study has been criticized for being rigged in various ways to favor Word over LaTeX, which may or may not be the case. However, in my opinion, the much bigger question is this: does the efficiency of the document preparation system used by a researcher even matter?

Most readers of this blog are probably familiar with performance optimization of software. The crucial first step is to profile the program to identify the parts of the code in which most time is being spent. The reason for doing profiling is, that optimization of other parts of the program will make hardly any difference to the overall runtime.

If we want to optimize the efficiency with which we publish research articles, I think it would be fruitful to adopt the same strategy. The first thing we need to do is thus to identify which parts of the process take the most time. In my experience, what takes by far the most time is the actual writing process, which includes reading related work that should be cited. The time spent on document preparation is insignificant compared to the time spent on authoring the text, and the efficiency of the software you use for this task is thus of little importance.

What, then, can you do to become more efficient at writing? My best advice is to start writing the manuscript as soon as you start on a project. Whenever you perform an analysis, document what you did in the Methods section. Whenever you read a paper that may be of relevance to the project, write a one- or two-sentence summary of it in the Introduction section and cite it. The text will look nothing like the final manuscript, but it will be an infinitely better starting point than that scary blank page.