Daniel Lemire's blog

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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.