Got a chance to read a nice article in plos one entitled “An Efficiency Comparison of Document Preparation Systems Used in Academic Research and Development” by Markus Knauff and Jelica Nejasmic from the University of Giessen, Germany (DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0115069).
It is one of the top 25 articles of 2015 listed by Scientific American (Oct, 16 Issue). The one line is LaTeX vs MS Word. Which one is the best for academic writing? The study was conducted using volunteers, specialized or well versed either in Word or LaTeX. The participants were requested to typeset three different kinds of a journal page and at the end they were requested to answer an questionnaire.
A complete text page with different size of headings and paragraphs were given for the first typesetting experiment. A page consists of tables and texts were given as the second experiment and a page with complex mathematical equation was given for the third. All the pages were extracted from a German journal Kognitionswissenschaft. Parameters such as number of words typesetted in a given time, formating errors, typos and grammatical errors were considered to estimate the typesetting efficiency. They conclude, LaTeX users are slower than MS Word users (MSWU) and they have more typos than MSWU. Their productivity largely affects with usage and even the tables produced by LaTeX users are not as good as MSWU. But the LaTeX user’s excelled in producing mathematical equations and they’re the most satisfied ones with their final output and they feel less tensed and less frustrated while using their package than the MSWU. So, even though the overall quality of the LaTeX document is good, since its affects the productivity of the user and considering the typos it could be considered only for the texts heavily loaded with mathematical equations. Since the researchers are mostly funded by federal agencies, which obviously means the money of the people, wasting time in a less productive software like LaTeX should be avoided.
They explained the high satisfactory feeling of LaTeX users in terms of cognitive dissonance (Each individual has a motivational drive to seek consonance between their beliefs and their actual actions. If a belief set does not concur with the individual’s actual behavior, then it is usually easier to change the belief rather than the behavior). Which means that since LaTeX users believe their software is perfect, they tends to be more satisfied than the MSWU.
The results are really surprising me. I’m using both the packages for a while and my personal experiences are exactly opposite to this one (In case if you ask me to rate the WYSIWYG editors I would place Word only after LibreOffice and WPS office). So, I hope the authors really missed something while judging the results. First of all, they use single papers rather than a complex texts like articles for the experiment. Even Though I’m good with LaTeX, I always consider Word for typesetting letters because it is not necessary to define all the parameters, margins, fonts for just a simple letter. LaTeX is for a Big Match not for the street cricket. Anyone who typeset their thesis in Word know its limitations, if you alter a word or line, it is possible to affect the entire document. Secondly, the LaTeX users of the experiment are not using any style files. I know somebody who can write their own styles files (that includes myself!). Those people also (like any LaTeX user) copy the preamble from an old file. This applies to tables and figures. So when you blankly typing the preamble and table texts I’m sure even the experienced user should also struggle and this might be understood as large formatting errors and slower typesetting speed. Typos are agreeable because Word processor has an well built Spell and Grammatical checker and the open source editors are not so as elite as word. But the point is that they are evolving. Anyone who used LibreOffice and Word during the XP era may understands what I mean. Current LibreOffice 5 package is much more sophisticated than current Word.
Finally, considering cognitive dissonance, I wonder don’t the Word users have the same feeling? Why are they less satisfied? May be the results are very obvious, that the MSWU are using Word since they don’t have choices or alternatively since in LaTeX the output is something different from the authors input, it may makes them happy (Like getting salary for the work). One great missing part that the authors didn’t discussed is handling bibliography. I bet, no word processor can match that with LaTeX. Formatting to different journal requirements are much easier in LaTeX, just by changing the few lines at the top and bottom, you’re ready for your next submission which is not possible with Word. So, much more clear investigation is required to properly address the LaTeX vs MS Word issue rather than concluding it from few page experiment. Upto that long live LaTeX!