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Word-processing Wars

2015 January 8
by Michał

Three days ago Nature published a note commenting on an recent heated social media discussions whether MS Word is better than LaTeX for writing scientific papers. The note refers to a PLOS article by Knauf & Nejasmic reporting a study on word-processor use. The overall result of that study is that participants who used Word took less time and made less mistakes in reproducing the probe text as compared to people who used LaTeX.

I find it rather funny that Nature picked-up the topic. Such discussions always seemed rather futile to me (de gustibus non disputandum est and the fact that some solution A is better or more “efficient” than B does not necessarily lead to A becoming accepted, as is the case with QWERTY vs Dvorak keyboard layouts) and far away from anything scientific.

As it goes for myself, I do not like Word nor its Linux counterparts (LibreOffice, Abiword etc), let’s call them WYSIWYGs. First and foremost because I believe they are very poor text editors (as compared to Vim or Emacs): it is cumbersome to navigate longer texts, search. The fact that it is convenient to read a piece of text in, say, Times New Roman does not mean that it is convenient to write using it. Second, when writing in WYSIWYGs I always have an impression that I am handcrafting something: formatting, styles and so on. It is like sculpturing: if you don’t like the result you need to get another piece of wood and start from the beginning. All that seems to counter the main purpuse for which the computers were developed in the first place, which is taking over “mechanistic” tasks and leave “creative” ones to the user.

I like that the Nature note referred to Markdown as an emerging technology for writing [scientific] texts. If do not know, Markdown is a lightweight plain text format, not unlike Wikipedia markup. Texts written in Markdown can be processed to PDF, HTML, MSWord and so on. More and more people are using for writing articles or even books. It is simple (plain text) and allows to focus on writing.

Last, the note still contains a popular misconception that one of the downsides of LaTeX is a lack of spell checker…

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