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What are objective advantages or disadvantages of using the markup language LaTeX instead of a WYSIWYG word processor like MS Word or LibreOffice Writer?

Please use objective arguments to prevent a flame war...

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In which field? Extensive use of mathematical formalism make a real difference. –  Charles Morisset Nov 23 '12 at 15:31
    
In principle the question does not limit itself to only math heavy papers, although I think mathematical equations are one big advantage of LaTeX, so I suspect it will be part of a good answer –  Paul Hiemstra Nov 23 '12 at 15:33
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related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/3054/675 –  Md Golam Rashed Nov 23 '12 at 16:55
    
Back in my Uni day's (early 90's) I used TechWriter, on RISC OS, which offered the best of both worlds. Unfortunately there doesn't appear to be anything as functional today (unless you obtain an old copy, and run it under an emulator or Raspberry Pi), but there are LaTex export Wizards available for all the popular office suites, if you can live with the quotation editors (the one in word used to be very buggy, but haven't used it in years). –  arober11 Nov 23 '12 at 18:56
    
In 1994 I was asking myself the same question. FrameMaker was my final choice as it was WYSIWYG, decent cross references, ran under MacOS and Solaris, supported PS/PDF output, integrated color graphics and equation editor, etc. It's still way better than Word, IMO, but costs too much. Adobe bought the company and aimed the product at a niche market (SGML). –  Fuhrmanator Nov 24 '12 at 18:38
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9 Answers 9

up vote 59 down vote accepted

LaTeX is better at:

  • Dealing with mathematical notation: layout and entry are generally easier using LaTeX than some other sort of equation editor.
  • Consistent handling of intra-document references and bibliography, as of a couple of years ago the major WYSIWYG editors still had problems with re-numbering cross-references and bibliography items. This is never a problem with BibTeX or LaTeX.
  • Separation of content and style. In principle this means that you can write your document without caring how it is formatted, and at the end of the day wrap it in the style-file provided by the journal publisher before submission to conform to the house style. In practice some of the journal publishers demand special formatting commands that partially moots this process. Furthermore recent versions of Word and LibreOffice Writer, when properly used, should be able to keep track of various levels of section heading separate from the body text, and apply uniform styling to each level. So the gap is closing somewhat.
  • Tables and illustrations. With PSTricks or TikZ, one can produce high quality illustrations within the document (though the learning curve is a bit steep there). And I've found LaTeX to be better at preparing complex tables.

WYSIWYG (especially Word and Writer) is better at:

  • Collaborative editing. In LaTeX to collaboratively work on a file one needs to ideally use some sort of revision control software separately. Word and Writer have very good comments/annotations and edit-tracking features. When a large number of authors are commenting on the writing of one file, this can be very useful.
  • Spell check. Admittedly most text editors one uses to edit TeX files also do spell check. But this is generally conveniently built into WYSIWYG editors.
  • Compatibility. Unless you work in mathematics, computer science, or physics (and sometimes even if you work in those fields), it is more likely that your collaborators will know what to do with a Word or Writer file than a LaTeX file.
  • Minimum barrier to entry. If you just care about getting the ideas down on paper, you can use a WYSIWYG editor just like a typewriter. Sure, it may be tedious to fix the formatting later on, compared to LaTeX where one need to first figure out how to setup a bare-minimum file before using, it may be an attractive point.

A wash:

  • Most journals provide templates for both Word and LaTeX, so there's no real winner there.

Suggestion: if you want to convince someone to start using LaTeX, start them out first in one of the WYSIWYG environments designed for LaTeX first (for example LyX). This will help somewhat to ameliorate the scary entry barrier.

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+1 The separation of content and formatting is hard to get right in Word, and trivial in LaTeX. –  Paul Hiemstra Nov 23 '12 at 16:45
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In addition, if you have them using LyX, don't do collaborative editing with someone else not using LyX. LyX is idiosyncratic and LyX documents don't easily compile with other LaTeX flavors –  Suresh Nov 24 '12 at 5:29
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I agree, but I have a comment. LaTeX does not really separate content and formatting. If LaTeX is used properly, you'll practically get content and formatting mostly separated, but LaTeX does not enforce this. It's common to see "{\bf foo}" and numerous minor tweaks to get formatting look right, such as "\vskip{1ex}", in LaTeX documents. XHTML/CSS gets separation right at a conceptual level. –  Jan Nov 25 '12 at 11:35
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@Jan: I agree. Hence "LaTeX is better at [it]" and not "LaTeX forces you to [it]". And for argument's sake neither does XHTML/CSS do it. There's nothing preventing you from defining a <div class=boldface> </div> that does exactly the same function as {\bf foo}. (Ever try reading some of the code produced by inferior WYSIWYG front ends for editing web pages?) –  Willie Wong Nov 26 '12 at 9:57
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@WillieWong: No, it's not part of LaTeX but one of the principle benefits of LaTeX is that it plays nicely with VCS. To ignore it is missing a major part of what makes LaTeX better. Like many such tools, LaTeX is sensibly viewed as part of a suite than a standalone option otherwise you may as well complain that LaTeX has no editor when in fact everyone who uses LaTeX uses a well featured text editor to work with it. The point remains that proper VCS blows Word's "Track Changes" out of the water. –  Jack Aidley Feb 20 '13 at 9:17
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Word

Advantages:

  • Minimal learning curve
  • WYSIWYG
  • Ridiculously high install base; almost guaranteed that anyone can read/edit your file without modifying anything
  • Easy-to-use reviewing tools (view changes, add comments, etc)

Disadvantages:

  • Layout can be a real bear to get correct
  • Math is difficult, slow, and often ugly
  • Included bibliography editor is virtually unusable for most scientific writing; you'll need to buy a third-party solution to manage your bibliography

LaTeX

Advantages:

  • It's just text; anyone can edit your file
  • You don't have to worry about layout, it's all automatic. Just put the words down there and you're golden
  • Produces aesthetically beautiful documents
  • Easy to use math, symbols, etc
  • Once learned, much faster and more intuitive (e.g., \label and \ref for referencing, as opposed to Word's fairly kludgy "Cross-referencing" window which requires way too many clicks to insert a single reference)

Disadvantages:

  • Fairly steep learning curve
  • Collaborators unfamiliar with LaTeX will have difficulty reviewing your manuscripts
  • Many features require libraries, which you have to find/be made aware of (view changes, etc)
  • Layout changes are difficult (i.e., will require time for you to hunt down solution and implement it)
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+1 cross-referencing in LaTeX is a breath of fresh air in comparison to Word. –  Paul Hiemstra Nov 23 '12 at 16:46
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"Layout changes are difficult" is an advantage of LaTeX, not a disadvantage. –  JeffE Nov 23 '12 at 16:47
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Could you elaborate a bit more on why this is an advantage? –  Paul Hiemstra Nov 23 '12 at 16:49
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@JeffE - Spending time figuring out how to change the default margins, or how to allow plots to take up more than 80% of the page, or other details like that can be a royal pain in the keister. –  eykanal Nov 23 '12 at 16:57
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@eykanal But...you're using the class the journal provided (i.e. revtex in my business) so you don't want to change the margins or column count. And if you're writing a book or other independent publication you'll be using memoir or a similar class where those things are clearly and copiously documented, right? –  dmckee Nov 24 '12 at 2:50
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I am currently studying for a PhD (engineering, almost done) and I supervised some student projects (diploma thesis and so on). Therefore I experienced both the typical Word and LaTeX workflow.

Most of the points are already mentioned in the very good other answers. I just want to add some general comments. Since I am not a geek I think that I can give roughly an average opinion.

The Typical Word User

  • Almost every student was complaining about mysterious behaviour like disappearing pictures or lost formatting.
  • In addition, it happened quite often that large documents get somehow corrupted and it wasn't possible to edit/open it again. Then the students had to fall back on one of their backups.
  • The larger the document the harder it is to keep the typography consistent. Because it is so easy to edit the text manually (this one bold, that one italic and so on) the students usually pay little attention to the systematic use of style sheets (don't know if that's the correct English term).
  • Dealing with complex mathematical expressions is painful.
  • Many of the settings are done using some menu entry and so it is very hard to document the settings or to make comments on how or why someone did something.
  • Only one out of 100 students knows that you can work with vector graphics (in this case EPS) in Word. So most of the figures are ugly.
  • In the last days of the thesis it is an advantage in Word that you can -- in the case of an emergency -- just draw anything everywhere in order to meet specific goals.
  • It is hard to reuse content in Word -- I mean reuse it that way, that a change at one instance affects all instances.
  • ...

It is not important whether all this happened because of a unprofessional use of Word -- the point is, that it happens.

The Typical LaTeX User

  • You need a friend!: It is almost suicide to start using LaTeX on your own when you start writing your last and most important thesis at university. This can only work if you have a friend or colleague (like me) who can give you a template and a crash course.
  • Almost all students who decided to use LaTeX reported that they had fun using it! I think the main reason is that the documents look very professional without doing much.
  • In addition, students find it "cool" that the output is directly a PDF with hyperlinks and so on. Most of the normal WORD users don't create cool PDFs.
  • Students like the fact that they can easily input PDF files like datasheets to the appendix. This way they even appear in the table of content (TOC). I have never seen a Word document with a detailed TOC for the appendix. This is especially important in the field of engineering.
  • Using/creating bibliographies is not fun. But after they figure it out it works fine.
  • The concept of using a distribution like MiKTeX or TeXLive is new to most of the students and confusing at the beginning. In addition they sometimes can't distinguish between LaTeX itself and the LaTeX text editor (e. g. Texmaker). Therefore I made a video tutorial for that ;): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RL15I-6NQFQ
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Very good answer. It is true that the WYSIWYG editors are getting better in separeting content and layout as Willie Wong pointed out. But I don't know many people using it. Up to my experience, this is the normal workflow. But maybe the people had fun with LaTeX since only the brave ones tried. I know some people giving it up after a very short try. –  Markus Klein Nov 25 '12 at 21:22
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Despite this post being "already" 1.5 years ago, it still holds so true. It kind of made me smile... –  henry Mar 15 at 9:55
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As primary author I usually use LaTeX, most colleagues use word, so I (have to) use that when contributing to papers.

Advantage of LateX:

  • Mathematical equations were mentioned already.
  • More important for me is that pure-text formats work better with literate programming tools like Sweave/knitr (I do data analysis in R)
    These tools also produce graphics and automatically put them into the paper
  • pure text formats work well with version control
    • I use latexdiff to produce versions with highlighted changes automatically
    • git diff --color-words is good for seeing changes and is not confused by changes in the line.
  • Lightweight in terms of computational resources for typing
  • Publishers have document classes that will format the text. Allows to produce nicely readable author's versions.
    By loading few packages (or even only setting some option) you can switch back and forth to the ridiculously unreadable format the publisher demands.

  • Bibliography styles: changing the style allows to switch back and forth between e.g. references with title and linked doi and the journal's requested format without.

Disadvantages:

  • many coworkers don't use/know it
  • believe it or not, but even pdf files can be problematic wrt. printing/display.

Side Note:

  • Lyx provides WSIWYM on top of Latex.

Advantages of Word

  • Almost everyone has it

Disadvantages

  • Resource demanding
  • No/difficult literate programming (Openoffice works, though not as nicely as LaTeX)
  • Problems between versions
  • (Problems with merging versions which is supposed to work)

Literate programming and paper.

Here's an example. I didn't go the full length of literate programming for the whole article: the simulation in section 3 took some week on our server blade, so that was done separately and I just pulled in the result graphics. But I wrote section 4 in Sweave, so the calculated numers end up automatically in the text. A slightly modified .Rnw file of the calculations in section 4 (knitr version) is supplementary-code.Rnw in the sources.

  • (I just saw that I forgot to upload the .Rnw for the whole paper to arXiv, and it wouldn't let me do it when I just tried - I'll correct this, probably when I have the final volume/pages for the journal)

  • Why Sweave and knitr: I prepared the document in Sweave (and without any caching as two of the coauthors use R as well. So they automatically have Sweave. I wanted to keep the dependecies low. However it turned out that they did not wish to run it. Next paper will use only knitr, and cache longer calcluations.

  • It is a trade-off: typing in the numbers is faster than the lengthy Sweave/knitr code. But then you need to re-read the paper so carefully to make sure you have no typo somewhere in there, which takes a lot of time, too.

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Could you expand more on the literate programming? –  Paul Hiemstra Nov 23 '12 at 16:48
    
I second Paul's request. I would love to see an example of literate programming being useful in writing a scientific paper. –  Willie Wong Nov 23 '12 at 16:50
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@WillieWong combining R and LaTeX seems to be the pinnacle of reproducible research. Creating the paper, including the statistical analyses, requires you to just rerun the scripts, i.e. a one step procedure. In practice I find it hard to implement, especially because some of my analyses take quite long. Take a look at knitr for a good integration of R and LaTeX. –  Paul Hiemstra Nov 23 '12 at 16:54
    
@Paul: that's a beautiful example. Thanks. –  Willie Wong Nov 23 '12 at 17:00
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A list of examples of reproducible analysis: stats.stackexchange.com/questions/1980/… –  Jeromy Anglim Nov 24 '12 at 0:21
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The following is based on LaTeX and Friends.

Cons

  • Difficult to learn and use. True, but it will save you time in the long run, even if you're writing a minor thesis.
  • Not WYSIWYG. True, but there are many IDEs. For example, TeXWorks, TeXMaker, MacTeX, LyX, ....
  • Little support for physical markup. True, but this is a good thing. It ensures your document style is consistent. Also it saves time because fiddling with style will cost you time.
  • Using non-standard fonts is difficult. This used to be true but nowadays installing new fonts is relatively easy.
  • No spell checking. True, but some IDEs support it. Also you can spell-check at the command line level.
  • Too many packages. Yes, it may be difficult to find the right package. However, asking a question in TeX Stack Exchange or comp.text.tex will quickly give you an answer. Also you usually only need a few core packages, which you can package as a user-defined library.
  • LaTeX is for techies only. False, LaTeX is used in mathematics, computer science, physics, life sciences, humanities, ....
  • Encourages structured writing. Some people don't like this. Others do.

Pros

  • Separation of style and content. LaTeX is a procedural markup language sitting on top of a typesetting engine. You make the purpose of your writing explicit by annotating (marking up) your writing. LaTeX uses the markup to typeset your writing in the right style.
  • Trust. In a recent TUGboat (Volume 33, Number 3, 2012) Boris Veytsman writes an interesting paper that shows that using Computer Modern (the default LaTeX font) increases the level of trust people have in written statements: it came second, closely following Baskerville, which came first. At the lower end of the scale of trustworthyness is Comic Sans. (Results based on results from Morris.)
  • Generation of plots and tables. LaTeX has packages that automate the generation of plots and tables. You provide the data and the packages do the typesetting. If done properly, this ensures that all plots and tables are typeset in the same consistent style.
  • Technical diagrams. LaTeX has packages that can generate technical diagrams such as trees, state transition machines, petri nets, and so on. Using these packages guarantees a consistent presentation.
  • High-quality typesetting and good automatic hyphenation. This inludes kerning, real small caps, common and non-common ligatures, glyph variants, .... LateX's hyphenation is second to none.
  • Many conferences and publishers accept LaTeX. This is useful because it guarantees your paper will comply with the conference's formatting guidelines.
  • Turing-complete programming language! This lets you compute things that you can then typeset (similar to a spreadsheet with input and output columns).
  • Write notes/book/presentation in same source file. This is related to the previous item. LaTeX can make decisions and this lets you write several output documents in one input document. For example you may have a presentation version and a notes version. You can share text for both versions and use some text for just one version.
  • LaTeX is highly configurable. For example, you can define your own book/paper style and package the settings as a library so you can use them over and over again.
  • You can translate LaTeX to html, ps, pdf, DocBook, ...
  • Automatic numbering of sectional units, figures, ... This guarantees consistency of the output document. In addition LaTeX provides a consistent and easy cross-referencing mechanism.
  • Excellent Bibliography support. LaTeX automates the typesetting of the citations and the generation of the bibliography/references. It lets you control the style of both citations and references. The result is a perfect bibliography and consistent citations.
  • Very stable, free, and available on many platforms. Who doesn't want that?
  • Large and active, friendly, and helpful user-base. Ask a question in TeX Stack Exchange or comp.text.tex and you usually get a detailed answer in minutes.
  • LaTeX has comments. So you can remember why/how something worked.
  • Can produce coffee stains on your papers. So you have consistent coffee stains on your papers!
  • Most importantly: LaTeX is fun!
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I am a freelance writer, writing mostly articles and fiction, and I prefer LaTeX over Word for a few reasons:

  • I work much faster in Vim, which is perfect for editing LaTeX markup
  • I write in a modular fashion, so LaTeX's \input{} (command/markup/whatever) is indespensible.
  • I can convert LaTeX markup to any format I need, most of the time directly: pdfs, docs, html, epub, etc.
  • Word's graphical nature is too much overhead when I can simply open vim, type what I need, add a preamble, some markup and a style file, run the document through aspell and be done.
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This site is mostly for Graduate Students and Academia, I do not think this is a proper forum for these kind of answers, fiction writing is too different from scientific writing –  Leon palafox Jan 25 '13 at 6:52
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@Leonpalafox yet in this case I think the answer is relevant. –  StrongBad Jan 28 '13 at 11:23
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An additional advantage of LaTex that I haven't seen listed among the many answers here is that:

LaTex source files can be (fairly) easily generated by a script or other program. In some research areas, you might be generating lots of data that needs to be put into tables or figures in your text. In my case, I had a computer simulation that generated the data. I programmed the simulation output to add a little bit of LaTex instructions here and there in the data and the output file then became part of my LaTex source document. No cut-n-paste. No danger of re-typing a value incorrectly. If I found a bug in my simulation (hypothetically speaking, of course), then I can easily regenerate the data and associated markup very easily.

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LaTeX

  1. Open source free software. Even the FSF thinks so.
  2. Stable: The current version of LaTeX is from 1994, the underlying program (TeX) is from 1982. You can easily process a document made with LaTeX 2.09 in 1987 with a modern TeX distribution on modern hardware
  3. Runs on any modern operating system on any hardware

Word

  1. Closed source expensive proprietary software (MS Word)
  2. Unstable: The document format of Word is constantly changing. You will be hard pressed to open a document from say Word 2003 with a recent version; getting all your formatting from a Word 5.5 document (1991) will probably be impossible. ODF created by Open/Libre Office helps here.
  3. Runs only on Windows and OSX (Word) or Linux (Open/Libre Office). Porting Open/Libre Office to a different operating system is a major undertaking.
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I'm afraid these (well-know) facts don't address the academic side of the question. Noöne here wants to launch a (∞+1)th flamewar on this topic… –  F'x Nov 24 '12 at 8:21
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Open/Libre Office runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD. What else do you need it for, a Commodore 64? –  Federico Poloni Nov 24 '12 at 9:51
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@F'x: Stability isn't an issue in academia? –  Martin Schröder Nov 24 '12 at 11:48
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@F'x: Stability is specific to academia, since works there can take years (e.g. thesis) and books can be updated for decades (e.g. tacop). –  Martin Schröder Nov 24 '12 at 14:59
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@MartinSchröder there are plenty non-academic writers who take years to write a book, and plenty technical books that are non-academic and yet updated for decades (dictionaries and standards, to give only two examples)… –  F'x Nov 24 '12 at 15:07
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I've recently switched to LaTex whilst at university and the response has been great. I have written an number of reports regarding projects and tutors were happy to see somebody using the proper software.

I have found that with larger projects that it can be split up into sections and I'm currently writing a document that is split up into a number of chapters which is very easy to manage the document.

With regard to technical documentation such as tables, diagrams and equations it does require some learning but it is very useful indeed.

Another thing to note is that the document structure is kept consistent throughout, sections and chapters are correctly numbered as well as the references, footnotes and figures all being correctly numbered.

Also, use BibDesk as it helps out tremendously when using a number of citations.

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+1, although what is proper of not is a point of debate. –  Paul Hiemstra Feb 19 '13 at 16:57
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protected by F'x Feb 19 '13 at 20:47

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