Word or LaTeX typesetting: which one is more productive? Finally, scientifically assessed
One of the main goals for anyone in the Academia, for any research group, is to publish the results of their research. Therefore, enormous amounts of time and effort are devoted to producing manuscripts which will be evaluated for publication in scientific journals or international conferences. Being this goal so central to the career of many people, it is more than reasonable trying to employ the right tools to achieve the best results in writing, measured in terms on quality vs. time devoted to writing.
We can take for granted that the reader knows Microsoft Word, but perhaps some of you are not familiar with that LaTeX thing. LaTeX (yes, it is always capitalized like that) is a sort of “programming language”, a markup language actually, pretty much like HTML. So, if one want to write a bold sentence, instead of selecting with the mouse and clicking, one must type a specific command around the sentence. The same applies to any other document element: images, tables, section headers, etc. there are commands that must be memorized for every element. It may seem cumbersome. Indeed, it is. It is really cumbersome, at the beginning. I stillr remember how much I protested when a Professor forced me to elaborate an assignment in LaTeX during the PhD courses. But once one overcomes the (steep) learning curve of LaTeX, the realization of its advantages means that there is no turning back:
Mathematical equations of unbeatable quality.
Easy generation of all kind of indices, bibliography, cross references, etc.
It allows you to focus on the text content, instead of its appearance. In theory, a text prepared according to the guidelines of a specific journal may be made to fit another’s style by just using one external style file. In practice, sometimes one finds some incompatibilities, but in all cases it is orders of magnitude faster, cleaner and easier than manually changing all the formatting details in Word.
At least, these are the advantages that we, part of the researchers, see in LaTeX: the call to pick among Word or LaTeX has become one of those endless, “religious” discussions. One support one or the other just like people support different football teams.
But finally here comes a space for objectivity in this debate. A group of researchers on Experimental Psychology from the University of Giessen (Germany) has addressed the problem by measuring the pros and cons of each typesetting system 1. Next we summarize the experimental setup and their findings.
The experiment consisted in asking a group of volunteers to typeset a number of texts using either Word or LaTeX, provided they had 30 minutes to end the task. In order to characterize the performance for all kinds of texts, the researchers proposed three different texts: (1) a long, continuous text, (2) a text with some tables and (3) one plenty of equations (as one typically found in Mathematics, Physics, Engineering…).
Regarding the volunteers, they were 40 users selected such that there were 10 experts and 10 novices in each typesetting system (Word and LaTeX). The intention was determining whether the efficiency improved or not as users gain experience in each system.
Afterward, the researchers measured the amount of typeset text and the number of mistakes. Text length was such that only about 90% of experts could type it entirely. Ah! The motivation of volunteers was boosted by means of prizes of up to 150€ for the best one in each category.
We start with the manuscripts comprising just long blocks of continuous text, in which is clear that Word is unbeatable: even the (relatively) novice Word users perform really far better than LaTeX users in both, the quantity and the quality of the typeset text. Regarding the existence of orthographic errors, we must highlight that LaTeX users were allowed to use their favorite IDE with any desired plugin or additional tool, thus their errors cannot be attributed to the intentional privation of any of those helps.
Regarding table editing, Word wins again… and this is not big news to anyone who ever tried to enter a table in a LaTeX document. How can something so easy in a WYSIWYG editor and so incredibly complex in LaTex? How many visits to TeX – LaTeX Stack Exchange does it take to create a decent LaTeX table?
As can be seen in Figure 3, the study found that it is not only less efficient to typeset tables in LaTeX, but that the number of mistakes skyrocketed as well. However, the large standard deviation in LaTeX mistakes reveals that it is possible to make it right… but there are so few people capable of such an achievement!
And finally we get to LaTeX comfort zone: texts with plenty of equations. In this last experiment, it is demonstrated that even untrained LaTeX users make fewer mistakes and are more productive than expert Word users.
Apart of measuring the efficiency of typesetting in such an objective way, the researchers also asked the volunteers to fulfil a usability questionnaire (results shown in Figure 5), from which we must highlight the emotional aspect: LaTeX users claim to enjoy much more than Word users while writing (5.2±1.4 vs 3.6±1.7), while also reporting feeling less frustration and tiredness.
These findings are coherent with the well-known popularity of LaTeX among researchers of the more technical areas, where writing equations is typically a significant effort if attempted to do in Word. I would like to remark (making clear that this is a subjective opinion) that aesthetics is another important factor: Word equations are far less “elegant” than those obtained from LaTeX, which “look” totally professional.
Quantitatively, we can point out another work 2 which asked the Editors of several Scientific Journals for the prevalence of each format in received manuscripts. They found that LaTeX rules in the areas of Mathematics (97%), Statistics (89%) and Physics (74%), then followed by the group of Computer Science (46%) and Astronomy-Astrophysics (35%), with the rest of areas totally dominated by Microsoft Word.
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I really think that both programs are to different. As it is stated in the post, for writing long texts Word is unbeatable, but for equations it is the other way around. The discussion comes when you have a long text, few equations, and a lot os references and figures. In this case Latex is better, because it manages the bibliography in a better way, but the time needed to learn how to use Latex is also much longer and it is not clear to me if it is worthy.
What is absolutely true is this sentence: “the call to pick among Word or LaTeX has become one of those endless, “religious” discussions. One support one or the other just like people support different football teams.”
The same happens with Linux VS Mac VS Windows…
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This is an interesting study but I think the Word/LaTeX dilemma will soon be overcome in many fields. For example, for data analyses made in the free R environment one should seriously consider using knitr and R Markdown. It has both the benefits of dynamic reports (if you change a single data point all tables and figures are authomatically updated for you) and easiness of use. No need to know LaTeX to get comparable results. And of course it’s infinitely many times better than using Word, which is a text editor and nothing more.
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This study was very effectively rebutted by Daniel Lemire some time ago. It does not test tasks that are representative of what scientists do, and it does not address the difference in output quality of word vs. LaTeX.
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I don’t see how you can test anything of interest in 30 minutes especially for something like LaTeX. In 30 minutes you are not even remotely going to reap benefits from using LaTeX over Word. If I decided to use LaTeX right now I’d probably spend at least 30 minutes just setting up templates, add ons etc.
LaTeX shines when you work on large documents over several days. The ability to split into multiple files and version control it with great version control systems like git is a real benefit. Also as you write more you can benefit from easily copy pasting and modifying styles or things you need.
Also I don’t get how LaTeX user could bomb so badly on tables. If you really need to have control of this you can use a GUI tool which generates the LaTeX for you. Lots of editors has such capabilities. But for a 30 minute assignment most might not consider it worth it to use any special tools to make a table.
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Well office 2013 and onward comes with a built-in TeX interpreter, previous version has plenty of addins that did that same so it’s not really a question any more.
Word offers the easy high level editorial capabilities and low level TeX syntax editing when you need it.
Typesetting is the final act in publishing. Writing is where the bulk of the effort lies. LaTeX addresses 10% of the effort effectively (typesetting) and is cumbersome and gets in the way for 90% of the effort (writing). This is especially true for editing and collaboration where Word’s track changes is required.
“untrained LaTeX users make less mistakes and are more productive than expert Word users” ->
“untrained LaTeX users make fewer mistakes and are more productive than expert Word users”
This study is poorly constructed if it did not use the Microsoft Math Add-in for office. This official add-in makes equations dead simple.
I wonder what exactly qualifies as a “Word Expert” here? Many people who use Word regularly aren’t typing in a lot of formulae, so are likely to do it in a clumsy way via the mouse and find it unnecessarily difficult. Indeed most of the students I knew who were using Word for documents containing math were surprisingly unaware of Word’s Math Autocorrect feature, which lets you type in a very LaTeX like format. If you use it often, papers containing math are basically on par with type in ordinary text documents.
I didn’t read the paper but it seems to me like there are some obvious methodological flaws. As pointed out later on; to be an expert in LaTeX – one is also likely to be highly trained in Mathematics. Tables are indeed the most annoying thing in LaTeX but it’s just a markup language! The real problem here is that there is no better table handling in some of the popular editors like TexStudio. Also — in case it wasn’t obvious; it does make sense to separate the structure and content of manuscripts from their presentational style in much the same way web authors do with HTML and CSS. Most academics want to get their work published in a context where its formatting will be standardised. LaTeX and git is a really powerful way of collaborating and managing revisions on manuscripts — would you trust Word to do that? I didn’t think so.
It also misses out another important point, vital in maths and computer science, but also increasingly in other fields: how easy is it to use macros and/or construct parts of your document by script? I had lots of tables for my PhD (computer science + linguistics), so I constructed macros to help me write them in a meaningful way. I’ve also used PERL (in the past) and PYTHON (more recently) to transform data straight into LaTeX tables.
I’m a bit surprised, as Word has a formula editor since Office 2007 which is nearly identical to LaTeX, that the latter has such a profound advantage.
When last I visited this comparison, the issue we had with Word had nothing to do with user mistakes or relative ease of use. The core problem we encountered was more sinister and debilitating. As our manuscripts grew, the likelihood increased that Word would drop portions of the text, lose or change formatting, crash, or in some cases refuse to open a working document. As you can imagine, a lost manuscript was a substantial defeat for Word. Some chose to break their manuscripts into chapter documents to reduce their risk of outright loss, but this tended to make the inter-document references more complex. Our conclusion, was that if you wanted to graduate on time, better to depend on LaTeX.
I wrote my MSc and Phd (Physics) in LaTeX (ca. 90′) . Also convinced my girlfriend to do the same.
What did I gain? Peace of mind. I just did not care anymore about formatting, numbering, fonts, etc. because I did not know LaTeX enough to modify them. The numbering was always right, even if inserting a picture was a nightmare.
I now work in a company which uses Word and when thing go well, they go well. When things go wrong, they go terribly wrong. But what the heck, the tracking mode is fantastic. (please do not tell me about diff for LaTeX – I am an uber-geek and administred unix for many years, I would not even remotely approach tracking with LaTeX.
But this is not very much relevant anymore, the future is with Web publishing in a collaborative mode.
I would also suggest to add lyx (www.lyx.org) to this trial… it is more intuitive than latex but still has most of its advantages!
Does Word papers result in overall accuracy?
I have written many ISI papers in MS Word. Yes the writing part and formatting were easy, but during revisions I always came up with hundreds of mistakes and headaches:
– Wrong equation numbering
– Missing headers
– addition of new sections –> required entire document modification!
– addition of new images would deform most pages, –>required entire document modification!
– adding footnotes was odd
– writing simple inline math required many clicks
– adhering to ISI formatting standards was difficult
– choosing proper fonts was subjective
Each technology targets specific audiences. Latex targets academic and researchers while Word targets the rest of the society.
If you write a lot, LaTex is definitely worth the effort. Clicking in Word requires to know the menu. Certainly knowing the menu is considerably less effort than knowing the commands in LaTex. Hence, it is clearly a question of proficiency. If you suck in LaTex, LaTex is horrible.
After I reached a certain skill level in LaTex I started to use it for plotting and drawing figures as well. MATLAB and other math plot programs just cant hold up to the standards LaTex produces – Word does play in this league at all.
In fact LaTex is the most complete solution.
[…] Word or LaTeX typesetting: which one is more productive? Finally, scientifically assessed […]
[…] Luis Blanco discusses a scientific experiment determining which typesetting tool is more productive. Turns out that Word is unbeatable – when it comes to long blocks of continuous text and […]
SIMPLY: Word rules
LaTex produces good looking quality documents especially with Math.
However, in the real world you do not work alone—You work with almost ~90% MS Word user!
You need to collaborate, share comments with people who do not use LaTex and this quickly becomes a problem. You cant force people to start using LaTex…In the end it’s useless to use LaTex when in the end someone else (e.g. colleague) will need an editable Word document not PDF to work with.
Most people dont know Word!
Just let me repeat; most people have no idea how MS Word works.
There is no great tutorial for learning Word as an expert while for Latex there are numerous books and most users are forced to learn Latex.
What are Word options rarely people use?
How can we make Word act logically?
1- You can easily typeset Latex-style mathematical equations in Word. Just enter your equation like Latex and press space. There it is!
(You can also use Asana Math font in Word)
2- Use styles. Styles make everything coherent and easyto manage.
3- Use citations and cross-references. They are dynamically updated and easy to manage in Word.
4- Use Bilbliography. It is so easy to manage citations and Bibliography in word. You can apply numerous styles to them easily.
5- Use Headings for sectioning. Table of contents are easily generated based on the headings.
**6- Use page breaks and section breaks to avoid formatting an entire document because you have inserted a new content somewhere in Word.
**7- Use “keep text together” as a style in paragraph to keep all paragraph text, image captions and heading together and not distributed across two pages.
Tell me how many of people know the mentioned options in Word and then lament Word for what it can’t do.
Hamzed, your comment is absolutely perfect. The comments above lamenting Word are from people who seem to have no idea about styles, headings, references, breaks, the Math functionality, fields, etc.
I’m an attorney spending most of my time in Word and Adobe. Sure, I don’t write equations. But I can instantly transform a several-hundred page contract using styles correctly. I can update my table of contents easily. Headers and footers, sections, images, these are a breeze. It took some learning, but reading a couple of blog posts about the nuances of Word is far less of a headache then learning a new markup language.
OK ! it’s right for a simple document. But try this for a thesis or even for a paper. Don’t need to speak about changing the format from a journal to another.
I’m a word user for more than 20 years and I actually still using it but only for docs no more than 3 to 5 pages. I happely discovered LaTeX and I’m using it for about 10 years. My feeling is that Word can beat you at any moment, I d’ont trust it at all. Just make attention for long documents
I have tried both of them, basically most of the LaTeX function are available in MS Word but people don’t know how to use it. Basically it has every shortcut right from heading, numbering figure or table or equation, referring them in text (cross references), citation, automatic list of table , figure and table of content, bibliography, typing equation like LaTeX. If you are interested you should look a video See this youtube video and you will never use LaTeX instead of word
I used LaTex to write my Mathematics PhD thesis and a few papers, and the beauty of equations and the automation of references etc is clearly very very impressive. But the steep learning curve (which, on a light note almost got vertical with tables) almost made me late to complete.
With time, and with the recent versions of Word upping their game, I have found no real incentive to constrain myself to the lonely world of LaTex. I am lately using Word, so easily available and effortless to use, much more often.
Latex is great. So is a beautiful wife (gender protocols observed!). But is the beauty the only criterion for a lifelong union? Just a metaphor.
On a second thought, the very idea that any program can be compared with Latex at all is enough proof that the gap is closing and the technical demarcations are getting blurred. Very soon, Word will be able to do all (or most) of what LaTex can do.
If you write math professionally, or want to use it professionally, there are two requirements for your software that most people are not aware, and that were not tested in this ‘experiment’.
1. Inline math. You need to be able to use little chunks of math in your normal text. Word does not do this well – for one, math is treated like an image, and it’s baseline is treated like an image, and is often not the same as the normal text, in particular when you use certain fonts. It often looks ugly, misaligned etc.
2. Number and cross-reference equations. LaTeX just does it. It’s in its DNA. No fuss, no hang-ups. Word… not so much. Try it. I’ll wait. It’s an experiment in frustration. Alone formatting the equation number correctly can be difficult, and if the index for the numbers fails (and it does if you actually work with your document), you need to do what LaTeX does, and what you chose Word for because you do not wanna do it: Re-Compile! And if you start twitching at that step, you should. Frequently, Word does … weird … things when you need to do that that can result in complete formatting change of your document. Not to mention the needlessly complex workflow to pick cryptic labels from a pop-up/down list etc. Did I say LaTeX just does it with no fuss whatsoever?
It’s not enough to be able to typeset formulae if you want to use math and not come off as a buffoon.
This study was a fundamental mistake and fluffy. The author might have never worked on a project that requires to produce dozen of reports which could be over 100 pages and a lot of repetition.
MS word is suck when coming to this point. Users of MS Words have to manually edit table, figure, and format whenever there is smt changed in hundred of pages. With Latex, you dont even need to care about it. It saves incredible amount of time to prepare reports for both academia and business. This is regardless of whether the content is heavily math or just plain word. Latex is always far more better and productive.
I find all your comments highly entertaining. In the real world (outside academia and writing fancy lab reports) no-one uses Latex, except for gloves and condoms. MS Word is the standard. It can do everything your Latex language can do, and more, with a few quick mouse clicks. Plus change tracking and collaboration.