Does it still make sense to learn Latex?
July 20, 2016 12:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm just starting graduate school and am researching different tools. One that appeals to me is Latex, but I'm wondering if it's seen as archaic or anti-social/collaborative these days. I'll be learning/writing about social/information science.
posted by 10ch to Education (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a planetary scientist. In physical sciences and computer science, LaTeX is still big. There are collaborative flavors of LaTeX such as Overleaf (formerly WriteLaTeX).
posted by lukemeister at 12:29 PM on July 20, 2016

My understanding is that it varies greatly by field. You sound like your degree program sits somewhere in the social sciences? My understanding is that LaTeX isn't used much in those fields, though someone should correct me if I'm wrong. My understanding (again, correct me if I'm wrong) is that LaTeX isn't used much in the sciences outside of physics and chemistry.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:33 PM on July 20, 2016

"Information science" sounds like it might be in the realm of math/CS, but I would say that if the papers you read regularly contain equations, you should learn it. That's probably a good sign of what people in your field are doing. (Based on personal experience, it's the standard in at least NLP, CS, physics-heavy neuroscience, and mathematical psychology.)

Do you have an advisor yet? That's really the best indicator. If they use it and you don't, there's the risk of coming off less technically adept than you are. If you use it and they don't, they'll think you're wasting your time.
posted by supercres at 12:46 PM on July 20, 2016

My understanding (again, correct me if I'm wrong) is that LaTeX isn't used much in the sciences outside of physics and chemistry.

And computer science. Its killer feature is rendering of mathematical notation, so it has prevalence in fields that use that notation. Never saw it in anthropology, used it all the time in CS.
posted by Special Agent Dale Cooper at 12:47 PM on July 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

ShareLaTeX and Authorea are two other collaborative editors.
posted by supercres at 12:49 PM on July 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you're weighing costs and benefits, consider that you don't have learn very much to be useful in Latex. Once you've built or otherwise obtained a template you like, you're free to focus on content.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 1:07 PM on July 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

LaTeX is ubiquitous in economics.

If you only need to insert the occasional mathematical notation, 1- MS Word is perfectly adequate for this, and 2- learning LaTeX to this level will take all of a few hours, if that.
posted by deadweightloss at 1:09 PM on July 20, 2016

LaTex is definitely used in mathematics.

I'm a science librarian. A math professor at my institution teaches math majors to use LaTeX via Overleaf. I teach them how to build bibliographies and cite using BibTeX.

That professor tells me that math journals primarily accept submissions in LaTeX.
posted by Boxenmacher at 1:09 PM on July 20, 2016

Best answer: This is going to depend on what your colleagues/collaborators/co-authors/advisors are using. If everyone else is using Word but you're using LaTeX, it's going to be a big pain in the ass for whoever winds up porting between the two document types.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:19 PM on July 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

Definitely widely used (although I would not call it necessary) in political science. Most older professors don't use it unless they are very stats-focused, but it's expected among grad students/new hires. But, it's also very easy to learn -- any top grad program will offer a workshop to teach you the basics, and after that Google is your friend. :)
posted by rainbowbrite at 1:38 PM on July 20, 2016

Best answer: Learn latex, love latex, get annoyed when coauthors ask for .doc, quietly enjoy your subtle sense of superiority.

More seriously, it is very easy to learn the basics, and you won't have wasted much time if you don't end up using it extensively.
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:53 PM on July 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Many of our undergrads at Michigan Engineering need it to complete coursework. It's still taught and used on our campus by a lot of people from undergrad students to staff to seasoned faculty. It's also a conversation starter when I look at someone's résumé and I see LaTeX proficiency listed.

Some people who need to collaborate with others on our campus will set up complicated document pipelines to support the variety of idiosyncratic authoring practices on campus. This allows one person to write in LaTeX, Word, XML/Docbook, HTML, markdown, etc. and still collaborate effectively with others. Learning to write technically using a well defined structure is a good skill to hone regardless of the technology.
posted by tempestuoso at 2:15 PM on July 20, 2016

I had a PhD student who insisted on using Latex for all his submissions, despite them being equation free. I works straight bar another one from doing it without good reason.
posted by biffa at 3:12 PM on July 20, 2016

Best answer: I'm a professor in information science; welcome to the field! If you are going to be a Master's student, your professors will likely want your papers submitted as Word documents or PDFs. Personally, although I have long wanted to learn LaTex, I have not yet gotten around to it; as such, I ask my students to submit things in Word and will grudgingly accept PDFs if necessary. If I had a PhD student who wanted to use LaTex, I might - might - learn the system for them, but only because I already have a desire to learn it. This will not be true for most professors. Most faculty that I know do not use LaTex. In fact, I only know three researchers that use it regularly; most of us use Word; or, if we are collaborating, Google Docs or another cloud-based system. But: I study information behavior, and conduct heavily qualitative research. I use paper and pencil for most of my data analysis, and then type it up in Word when I'm ready to write. This is due to the particularities of my preferred method, which is very compatible with index cards and legal pads and lots of sharpie markers.

As my personal example may illustrate, the answer to your question depends on what type of information science you're going to be engaging in: are you interested in the part of our field aligned closely with computer science, like interactive information retrieval? Or are you on the naturalistic, human information behavior (needs/seeking/use) side of things? Data sharing, archives and records management, organization of information, information services, scholarly communication... these are major areas of interest within our field, which is a meta-discipline, and as such has a huge variety of norms/rules regarding things like "what software should I use?" Archives researchers are not going to be using LaTex, for the most part (although some certainly will)!

If you are a PhD student and you plan to conduct original research and submit your findings to conferences and journals, you might want to learn LaTex. If you are into the quantitative, computer science type side of things, you'll find that LaTex is helpful. Conferences like SIGIR will accept your documents in that format. If you're more into qualitative work, the conferences/journals will want you to submit Word documents or PDFs. I do not think that ASIS&T, the annual information science conference that most people in the field attend, accepts LaTex at this time. The Journal of Documentation does, but only with an accompanying PDF. The Journal of the Association of Information Science and Technology (JASIST) might take LaTex, but their submission instructions are unclear and ask for Word documents only but then also contain instructions for LaTex files. You will likely find yourself fighting with submissions more if you use LaTex, especially if you aren't really living in the more quantitative part of our discipline.

It might be a case of "why not learn it, learning is fun," especially if you can hammer it out and learn it before you start the program. I hear the learning curve is not too steep, and it wouldn't hurt to know it, but you may find yourself using Word much more often unless you're really in the interactive information retrieval space. Best of luck!
posted by k8lin at 3:31 PM on July 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Econ people use LaTeX, too. Ditto computer science, of course.
posted by stoneandstar at 4:19 PM on July 20, 2016

As another data point, it's pretty widely used in linguistics. I wrote my (recent) dissertation in LaTeX, and many though not all of my cohort were using it.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 4:52 PM on July 20, 2016

Best answer: I would download pandoc (or install the docker container if the installation proves troublesome - -it does depend on Haskell, after all), and then write a small proof-of-concept Markdown file, and see how well pandoc targets LaTeX.

If that works, I would stick with either Markdown, a similar lightweight format, or pick a simple XML format (like a subset of docbook), and use pandoc to transform it to either Word or LaTeX (and pandoc generates PDFs from LaTeX).

It goes without saying that the more generic your doc format and tools, the more flexibility you have. At some point you need to make a choice, but these tools can give you some more time before you have to commit.
posted by morspin at 5:54 PM on July 20, 2016

I used LaTeX for my dissertation and although I enjoyed it much more than MS Word, and constructed a much nicer document using it, it is a lot to deal with. It takes some dedication and a bit of a programming bent to debug issues.

I will echo using Markdown (through pandoc) to produce documents. You can convert from markdown to word documents for sharing with colleagues for review and convert from markdown to latex code or pdf for publication. You can integrate programs like zotero without too much difficulty to keep track of your citations. Dealing with images and references is much easier in markdown than word. Start with markdown, and if you find it too limiting, you can always put some extra LaTeX commands in there.
posted by demiurge at 9:10 PM on July 20, 2016

Response by poster: Everyone, I really appreciate your answers. Here's what I'm taking from them:
  • There's no harm in spending an afternoon learning it
  • Whatever my advisor and collaborators use will likely inform my tech choices
  • Given that my research will probably be qual or at least mixed methods, I can expect WYSIWYG editors to be the dominant choice of potential co-authors in info science
  • A markdown + pandoc approach may be a collaborator-friendly alternative

posted by 10ch at 11:50 AM on July 22, 2016

Best answer: A markdown + pandoc approach may be a collaborator-friendly alternative
This does not compute for me. Making a markdown doc for yourself and then pandocing to Word for a coauthor to comment, then editing/revising the Word doc, then trying to pandoc back markdown then to LaTeX for publication? This seems challenging to me, and perhaps more difficult than doing all your porting manually, but maybe I'm misunderstanding the proposed workflow, and it does depend a bit on how complicated your document is.

The thing is, coauthors don't have to know LaTeX if they want to work with you and you want to use it. So I'm a little confused by k8lin's comment. If she (?) will accept PDF, then she'll presumably accept any PDF, regardless of how it was generated.

To collaborate with (or grade) a LaTeX user, a person only has to be willing and able to comment on a PDF using the rather good editing/markup tools provided by Adobe and many other PDF viewers. In my opinion, every grad student/ professor/computer novice should be able to do that, and if they're not, then they're being disingenuous or not playing nice.

There may be some problems in the real world if you end up preferring LaTeX. At the moment, I have most of a paper in a Word doc for my coauthor's convenience, but I have my methods and math and figures in LaTeX, and I'll use some mix of pandoc and manual merging to get the final publication-quality document together at the end. It's a pain but I'm willing to suffer a bit to minimize my exposure to Word (which just crashed on me for the third time today %)#@(&$@).

But honestly, don't let peer pressure push you into using shitty tools. MS word is a shitty tool, at least with respect to scientific publishing a task for which it is entirely unfit. This would be fine in principle, because it was never intended to be used for scientific publication. Unfortunately, an entire generation of academics got swindled into using it because it seemed easy and was already on their computers. The fact that people use Word for scientific publication despite all its obvious deficiencies just perpetuates a cycle of pain, misery, and monopoly IMO.

So just learn LaTeX. It's great. There are no bugs, and it never crashes. It is free and works on any platform. It has great support for most any natural language, music, math, diagrams, all kinds of things. Check out the Not So Short Introduction, and remember that learning LaTeX (with a bit of pandoc/markdown too, as needed) will in no way prevent you from making/editing/sharing Word docs with the unenlightened ;)
posted by SaltySalticid at 1:22 PM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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