Is it worth it to learn LaTeX

The beauty of LaTeX

Why you should use LaTeX

Which program do you actually use to write scientific texts?

Many may now think:

I write everything with Word. My texts, my diary, my recipes, my posters and letters. I also do my graphics in Word. Since when have there been alternatives?

In addition to Microsoft Word, there are numerous other word processing programs that can be used for the above tasks: Libre Office Writer, Apple Pages, even text editors such as Sublime are suitable for this. But even if these programs can be used to write scientific papers, that does not mean that they are really suitable for it.

The bad program for writing and formatting scientific texts is LaTeX. While LaTeX has become indispensable in the natural and technical sciences (which has to do with the simple integration of formulas in the text, among other things), the social and human sciences still fluctuate between open rejection and ignorance with regard to LaTeX.

The advantages ...

LaTeX has four outstanding advantages over conventional typesetting (e.g. Indesign) and word processing programs (e.g. Word):

  1. LaTeX is open source and platform independent. That means, LaTeX is available free of charge and can be used on Microsoft Windows, Apple Max OSX and a wide variety of Linux distributions.
  2. LaTeX is extremely stable and, thanks to its architecture, can also process extremely long texts with many sources.
  3. Writing with LaTeX forces authors to think carefully about the structure of a text. By using LaTeX, texts become automatic more structured and readable.
  4. Since LaTeX has designed the graphic templates for different types of text according to the principles of professional typesetting, authors do not have to worry too much about formatting issues, but can focus entirely on the content and not the form of their text. LaTeX is therefore not only a professional word processing but also text setting program. The result of texts written in LaTeX is therefore a highly professionally designed and beautiful to look at PDF. This PDF is also characterized by its small file size and can be opened on all stationary and mobile devices.

A very nice example of such a document written in LaTeX is the highly recommended book by Gareth James, Daniela Witten, Trevor Hastie and Robert Tibshirani (2013), An Introduction to Statistical Learning: with Applications in R, New York: Springer.

Both the table of contents,

as well as a classic page including graphics and cross-references give an idea of ​​the potential in LaTeX.

... and the disadvantages of LaTeX

However, I do not want to hide the fact that LaTeX also has its disadvantages.

  1. To write a document in LaTeX, you need at least one rudimentary understanding of programming languages. That scares many users off at the beginning. However, the fact is that with a maximum of two dozen commands and a template you can write a wide variety of texts without major problems.
  2. Should you be dependent on it Text together with others to compose, LaTeX can be a challenge. If these colleagues do not use LaTeX but, for example, Word, it is almost impossible to write a text in a document. The output of LaTeX is a PDFthat cannot be easily converted into a Word document. The opposite way, namely to turn a Word document into a LaTeX document, is just as complex and time-consuming.
  3. This problem also arises when journals or clients are used as Final product a Word document demand. In this case, one has to look for solutions to convert the finished PDF into a Word document. There are programs for this (e.g. from Adobe). In certain Microsoft Word versions it is also possible to save PDFs as Word documents.

It is worth it

Even if the disadvantages just mentioned should not go unmentioned and become an exclusion criterion for LaTeX for one or the other, I am still convinced that authors of scientific texts benefit enormously from LaTeX. Especially when it comes to long and complex documents with many graphics, tables and references, in my opinion there is no getting around LaTeX, as this graphic shows.

If I have now aroused your curiosity about LaTeX, I recommend reading the following article. Here I show how to install LaTeX and how to get started.