Knauff and Nejasmic recommend banning LaTeX

Two German psychology professors, Knauff and Nejasmic, recently published a paper on the benefits of Microsoft Word over LaTeX. The paper was reported in Nature.

They show that you can copy a simple document (containing little mathematics) faster and with fewer errors when using Word. Of course, those of us using LaTeX are aware of these shortcomings. LaTeX is not suited for quick-and-dirty jobs.

I should stress that Knauff and Nejasmic did not have authors compose a document, let alone craft an actual research article, let alone a sophisticated scientific article. They do not even try to assess the tools in the scientific workflow (data generation, analysis, processing, figure generation, and so on). They compare Word and LaTeX on a data entry job akin to what you might ask from a secretary. They also make no attempt to measure how much of this type of purely secretarial work scientists do… or whether it is representative of what scientists do.

It is clear that Knauff and Nejasmic have been frustrated by their collaboration with computer scientists that expected them to use LaTeX. In this story, they are not objective observers. Their frustration runs deep as they urge publish to restrict or even ban the use of LaTeX. Their main message is in the conclusion:

We therefore suggest that leading scientific journals should consider accepting submissions in LaTeX only if this is justified by the level of mathematics presented in the paper. In all other cases, we think that scholarly journals should request authors to submit their documents in Word (…) preventing researchers from producing documents in LaTeX would save time and money to maximize the benefit of research and development for both the research team and the public.

According to Knauff and Nejasmic, scientists who use LaTeX suffer from cognitive dissonance. To help them and improve science, we should force them to use Microsoft Word.

Given the obvious methodological gaps in their manuscript… how do Knauff and Nejasmic answer? Basically by describing LaTeX users as an irrational sect:

It is astonishing how some commentators ignore the basic principles of scientific decision-making that is, collecting facts, control over variables, using systematic methods, careful measurement, connecting causes and effects, and making rational evidence-based decisions, instead of generalizing personal impressions or opinions. (…) Why do so many people disagree with our conclusions? (…) from the beginning on we were aware that the issue is a highly emotional issue for many LaTeX users. (…) we think that the passion is a special habitus of the LaTeX community.

In the answers to the comments, their main objection regarding LaTeX is collaboration. They write: Word offers the helpful track changes tool, which makes collaboration very easy and efficient. In comparison, LaTeX produces text files. Text files are silly things that do nothing on their own. Except that we know a lot about how to collaborate on text files. It is called version control. Version control allows many people to work a the same time on the same files. There are builtin conflict resolution mechanisms. Everyone has instant access to the latest version of the file and there can be no ambiguity about the revision history of the document. You should be using version control in any case, to store your data and your software. You are not relying on data that has been saved on one of your students’ hard drive, are you?

I applaud Knauff and Nejasmic for trying to improve the productivity of scientists. But I give them a falling grade because there is an unacceptable gap between their conclusion and their actual experiments. It might be that your productivity as a scientist depends critically on whether you use Word or LaTeX for producing research articles. But their experiments tell us nothing about this question. Their paper is an opinion piece, not science.

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26 thoughts on “Knauff and Nejasmic recommend banning LaTeX”

  1. You are considering Knauff and Nejasmic as scientists, expectations they are not up to live for. IMHO they are fine test subjects, to explore the cognitive limitations due to which some people are less efficient in LaTeX than in Word. Think about all the time that could be saved in bureaucracy (filling up fields in plain text!) and the money that would be saved (except for Microsoft, but they will be fine anyway). Such research would be crucial, if only it was possible to tell whether the fault is in the software usability or the user incompetence.

  2. @Leonel do you organize your ideas based on how do they look like when written (in paper pages) or based on what they *mean*?

    I divide my papers in sections and sections in files. I use macros and commands for everything, with representative names and avoiding boilerplate. Reading the source files is often easier than reading the paper (at least for me).

    Sure, all that and much more can be done in Word using VBScript, but at that point using HTML and JavaScript is easier and more powerful.

    Related: http://www.paulgraham.com/avg.html

    As usual, there is an “easy” way to find out: split the research in Word and LaTeX adherents and let’s see which group is more productive.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I have never had a basic text editor suddenly reduce my 100+ page document to a single dense blob in the corner of the page, but word has done this to me – repeatedly and repeatably.

    I have never successfully used version control on a word document. I have never had any success creating dynamic contents and indices in word, nor cross references.

    Latex consistently produces clean formatting, without me having to remember fonts and sizes, without worrying about page breaks etc.

    Perhaps I have been overly influenced by the emotions of losing my data in word, or spending hours checking my page numbers for creating tables of contents, or tearing my hair out with weird formatting errors, or having to split my documents up into chunks of no more than 30 pages in fear of corruption.

  4. When tracking changes are enabled, earlier or later MS Word fails to save the file. It is that simple: you can’t save the file.

    Furthermore, formulas turn into images. I had it in my practice. My friend’s PhD thesis was once completely destroyed this way (and they had to retype it in Latex). According to reports of some of the Word users, formulas still keep disappearing here and there.

    Another problem is that links are not working properly. No matter how carefully your proceed, eventually some links get broken. People who use Word often employ a professional editor who does two things (1) fixes broken stuff in the final version (2) reformats documents if they need to be resubmitted to a different conference/journal.

    I tried to use Word myself and, unfortunately, came to a conclusion that this is an editor that simply doesn’t work. It is that simple.

  5. I’d challenge these authors to produce a report with inline citations, figures on a specific page, tables at a specific locations, and then reorganize the sections and citations. All in Word!! Without uttering a single curse!

    If they can do it without resorting to uttering any 4 letter words, I’d hang up my LaTeX hat.

    Until then, LaTeX it is!!

    (I have nothing against word … it’s nice for writing say a letter. But for a report/scientific paper with citations, Word is a horrible and time consuming way of doing it. Takes up 10 times more hours to fix a word document, when this can easily be done in LaTeX in a jiffy)

  6. @Leonid

    In general, in my writing, actual typing and typesetting takes a tiny fraction of overall time. It wouldn’t have helped me, if this time were zero.

    This is the gist of the matter for me and it is my main objection.

    We spend a lot of time deciding what to write and how to write it. Once you do have the text in mind, the actual writing is not hard.

    It could be that this is just a false impression, but then their paper offers absolutely no evidence to the contrary. It does the opposite: it makes the implicit assumption that copying and formatting a text is representative of a significant part of what we do.

  7. A thoughtful response to a flawed study.

    I was brought up on document preparation via mark-up and consequently find Word and its equivalents terribly unintuitive and difficult for large or complex documents.

    Having said that, I have no problems using Word or similar tools for simple documents.

    A properly-configured editor, with autocomplete for LaTeX commands and handy snippets for frequently used structures such as figures, tables, etc, goes a long way toward addressing the issue of document preparation speed. Add version control in there and you have a much more powerful and sophisticated environment for writing documents collaboratively.

  8. It’s a step in the right direction. Use of Latex ignores the fact that visual formatting is not just for pretty effects. It is part of the writer’s mental organization of ideas, and there is mutual interaction between writing text and formatting it. Using Latex, whose side-by-side alternatives are far inferior (at the moment) disregards this and assumes that nothing needs to change from the electric typewriter days.
    Sure, we need better experiences. But I fear Latex aficionados won’t like the results.

  9. @Leonel

    There are usability issues with LaTeX. I find some of them deeply annoying.

    However, objectively, Word behaves much more like a typewriter than LaTeX. Word processors have evolved straight out of typewriters.

  10. “It could be that this is just a false impression, but then their paper offers absolutely no evidence to the contrary. It does the opposite: it makes the implicit assumption that copying and formatting a text is representative of a significant part of what we do.”

    absolutely.

  11. Knauss and Nejasmic coded incomplete documents as errors; if you look at their data, some LaTeX submissions for the table exercise were empty and had hundreds of “errors”. As far as I can tell, they never acknowledge this choice in their paper, and it accounts for most of the variation in error rates between LaTeX and Word users (relating to their finding that LaTeX is not only slower but more error-prone).

    That being said, are their findings that hard to believe? It is genuinely difficult to typeset tables in LaTeX. Obviously LaTeX wins when it comes to mathematics, which they verified. I’d rather typeset tables in LaTeX than equations in Word, though; since most of what I write has equations, Word is a non-starter.

    The authors also claim at some point that although the output from LaTeX is more attractive than that of Word, the gap has narrowed considerably. It is actually pretty easy to produce ugly documents with LaTeX; I have no sense of what the most beautiful Word documents look like. In any case, most journals are not prepared in Word, even if they accept Word submissions. (I assume they use InDesign, Advanced Print Publisher or some similar commercial product.) It could be that those journals have to do more work typesetting Word articles and preparing them for publication than those that publish LaTeX articles.

  12. I’ve worked on group-written grants with Word many times, and it is awful. People are forever changing fonts, spacing, and other formatting. They have many different ways of doing citations, some of which are not compatible. I have at times copied the whole paper into the clipboard, then pasted into a text-only editor to remove all the formatting, then put it all back into word and formated it consistently. Ugh.

  13. Comparing Latex and Word is like comparing a movie and a movie script… Certainly editing Latex directly is not time-efficient. That’s why there’s interfaces on top of it, like Lyx. I recommend anyone trying it once, it’s extremely good in particular for making Latex snipplets like complicated equations or tables.

  14. @trylks, I and you and the entire human species (apart from the possibility of existing a rare individual with a specific, distinct mental organization) react to our environment. Having larger or smaller text, having it indented or slanted, having more or less spacing or kerning, etc. – all of this REALLY impacts meaning. And the use of capital case in the word is a basic demonstration of the fact.

    Alas, it is not easy in the least. As research in human-computer interaction has shown repeatedly, humans are more productive using the tool they are proficient with. And benefits from proficiency are not directly related with benefits for novices. So removing bias from such an effort is a challenge.
    As for your proposed setup, again, it depends on how you measure “productivity”, first and foremost, not an easy task (is it number of pages? is it clarity of arguments? is it the persuasion effectiveness of arguments?) and definitely not one depending on only one variable. But more critically, that proposed setup would only yield correlation. Not causality. Regardless of the results.

  15. If the authors of this paper spent as much time in learning basics of LaTeX as they spent in formatting this paper in MS Word, we would not have to read through this.

  16. @Leonel

    There is no question that LaTeX has usability issues.

    Having larger or smaller text, having it indented or slanted, having more or less spacing or kerning, etc. – all of this REALLY impacts meaning.

    I agree that presentation and content are not so easily separated, but that is not entirely in favour of Knauff and Nejasmic’s argument. Experienced LaTeX users tend to produce documents that are more finely tuned. Most Word users barely know about unbreakable spaces, let alone thin spaces and so on. Many of us create LaTeX documents with internal hyperlinks so that if you click on a reference it brings you to it, and so on. LaTeX makes it relatively easy to fine tune your presentation. If you want to use Word to achieve this same level of fine tuning, you will have to work hard.

    Accordingly, Knauff and Nejasmic state that professional typesetting is easier with LaTeX. But then they dismiss this with the following remark:

    we think that the appearance of the text is secondary to the scientific merit of an article

    So which way is it?

  17. @Samuel

    It could be that those journals have to do more work typesetting Word articles and preparing them for publication than those that publish LaTeX articles.

    In many of the journals I work with, papers are expected to be publication-ready by the time they are accepted. So the LaTeX document provided by the author is actually what is published with sometimes a few minor changes.

  18. @Daniel I agree that the shortcomings presented about the K&N paper make it almost irrelevant – but not entirely, of course. The concept itself of collecting empirical data is what I meant by stating “a step in the right direction”. It is about the need to seriously confront the almost cult-like status of LaTeX in some circles, which tend to dismiss non-LaTeXers with disdain, ignoring HCI issues as trylks as done above, pretending that only the content matters. And the way to do it is with empirical data. So I can only hope more rigorous inquiry is made subsequently.
    I fear the problem is open-ended… Most Word users would have less of a problem if they cared about non-visible chars (paragraph marks, line breaks, etc.) and entities (styles, style hierarchies, etc.). Sadly, most don’t care the least about that, only about the looks… and I wonder if using LaTeX with a WYSIWYG editor wouldn’t originate a similar situation.

    For what it’s worth, I create my equations using LaTeX notation, generate pictures from that, and then insert the pictures in Word.

  19. My main criticism is that the authors are not comparing like with like. LaTeX is a markup language, not a word processor, or editor. There are many tools that can be used in conjunction with LaTeX, including WYSIWYG editors that let you see the processed LaTeX document as you enter the text.

    In their comments about cost they make no mention of the fact that Word is a commercial product that has to be purchased, whereas LaTeX and most of the associated tools are free.

  20. @Sven, people have staff editors just to deal with Word quirks. I guess it greatly outweighs costs of buying the software itself. Why do they need them, you ask? For two reasons
    1) Reformat papers for another journal/conference
    2) Fix a lot of things that almost inadvertently occur when Word is used to create large and complex documents. In particular, the editor fixes broken links.

  21. I agree with @Leonid. As much as I prefer free software, the Microsoft tax remains relatively small. Moreover, though I would not know how, I am quite sure that pirating Microsoft Word is not terribly difficult.

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