Gas station without pumps

2015 March 27

Bogus comparison of Word and LaTeX

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:36
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An article was recently brought to my attention that claimed to compare LaTeX to Word for preparing manuscripts: PLOS ONE: An Efficiency Comparison of Document Preparation Systems Used in Academic Research and Development. The authors claim,

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.

It turns out to be a completely bogus study—they compared typist or typesetting tasks, not authoring tasks. There was no inserting new figures or equations into the middle of a draft, no rearranging sections, no changing citations styles—not even any writing—just copying text from an existing typeset document. It is very misleading to say that the “LaTeX users … wrote less text”, as none of the subjects were writing, just copying, which uses a very different set of skills.

I don’t think that there is much question that for simply retyping an existing document, a WYSIWYG editor like Word is better than a document compiler like LaTeX, but that has very little to do with the tasks of an author. (And even they noted that the LaTeX users enjoyed the task more than the Word users.)

For those of us who use LaTeX on a regular basis, the benefits do not come from speeding up our typing—LaTeX is a bit slower to work with than a WYSIWYG editor.  The advantages come from things like automatic renumbering of figures and references to them, floating figures that don’t require manual placement (except when there are too many figures—then having to do manual placement with LaTeX is a pain), good math handling, automatic formatting of section and chapter headings, being able to define macros for commonly used actions, and the versatility of having a programming language available. For example, I have a macro that I like to use for proper formatting of conditional probability expressions, and another that I use for references to sections, so that I can switch between “Section 3.2”, “Sec. 3.2”, and “§3.2” through an entire book with a change to just one line in the file.

LaTeX also has the advantage of having a much longer life span than Word—I can still run 30-year-old LaTeX files and print them, and I expect that the files I create now will still be usable in 30 years (if anyone still cares), while Word files become unusable in only 10-to-20 years.  LaTeX is also free and runs on almost any computer (the original TeX was written for machines that by modern standards were really tiny—64k bytes of RAM).

For those who want multiple-author simultaneous access (like Google Docs), there are web services like that permit multiple authors to edit a LaTeX document simultaneously. I’ve used with a co-author, and found it to be fairly effective, though the server behind the rendering is ridiculously slow—40 seconds for  a 10-page document on the web service, while I can compile my whole 217-page textbook three times in about 12 seconds on my 2009 MacBook Pro.

Like the emacs vs. vi wars, the LaTeX vs. Word camps are more about what people are used to and what culture they identify with than the actual advantages and disadvantages of the different tools. Bogus studies like the one in PLoS One don’t really serve any positive function (unless you happen to be a monopoly software seller like Microsoft).



  1. Did the poor bastards have to type LaTex using Word? Might have been faster if they could have used emacs or vi on an ancient Vax workstation, and I once had a typist who could probably beat them all on the text or table combos with just an IBM Selectric. She could swap the symbol ball faster than you can select a new font in Word. But seriously, “several mathematical equations”? How about a one-page equation?

    What I like about LaTex is that it is so easy to write equations. They go in pretty much the way you say them. What you type is what you get, regardless of whether the page is formatted with one column or two with the APS version.

    Comment by CCPhysicist — 2015 March 27 @ 18:15 | Reply

  2. Who funded that “study”?

    (Though I guess the amount of rigor that went into it was par for the course in the paper mill. One more line for the vita?)

    Comment by Michael K Johnson — 2015 March 28 @ 03:51 | Reply

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