Sunday, December 13, 2009

LaTeX or MS Word?

Many, many people have rave reviews about LaTeX, a document preparation system. Take the political scientist Jeff Gill, who writes that LaTeX is a "wonderful and addicting tool," noting that he hasn't used a word processor in over a decade. So should sociologists use LaTeX? Certainly mathematicians, computer scientists, and physicists should use LaTeX, given the LaTeX format is often the default for journal articles, which are frequently short, highly structured, and filled with mathematical expressions. (Almost the opposite of sociology articles!) However, I have difficulty discerning the advantages of learning LaTeX compared to MS Word, for several reasons:

(1) Time management: LaTeX undeniably has a much steeper learning curve than MS Word. This is time that could be spent on other activities, such as learning more advanced statistical methodologies, perusing historical monographs, or even writing more papers! Of course some LaTeX users would probably claim that LaTeX saves time over the long run, but this is of course an empirical question (and likely varies by the skills, goals, and mindset of the individual).

(2) Interdisciplinary work: Sociologists tend to be quite interdisciplinary, often working with scholars who are less likely to be statisticians and more likely to be historians, anthropologists, or humanists. It doesn't make much sense to learn LaTeX if your co-authors don't use LaTeX, and never will learn LaTeX. The advantage of MS Word is that it is widely used by people from many different disciplines, applied fields, and methodological orientations, from cultural anthropologists to business consultants to computational neuroscientists.

(3) MS equation editor: One of the putative advantages of LaTeX is that it is useful for mathematical typesetting (hence the widespread use by mathematicians, economists, and physicists); however, for most sociologists MS equation editor is likely to be sufficiently useful for inserting a wide variety of equations into word documents. In fact, from my experience I've tended to put in too many equations rather than not enough! This likely reflects that sociologists need to write papers so that intelligent people from a variety of different backgrounds can understand the arguments.

(4) Other minor issues: There are some some minor but nonetheless possibly problematic features of LaTeX: the text in LaTeX is not very good at "flowing" around graphs and pictures; LaTeX encourages a type of structured writing and form of document organization that is extremely rare in the humanities and many subfields of sociology, anthropology, and psychology; finally, font selection is much more difficult in LaTeX than in MS Word and other word processors.

(5) LaTeX-based word processors: Even if you want to create documents in LaTeX but are not inclined to learn the details of type setting, Scientific WorkPlace offers a very useful WYSIWYG LaTeX-based word processor. It's not currently available for the Mac OS, but I called the manufacturer and they plan on shipping out a version for Macs sometime in late 2010. However, there is also Lyx, a WYSIWYG word document processor, which is currently available for Macs.