Monday, July 1, 2019

Latex: a heavy duty publishing tool for serious academic publishing

Last week I was finishing a paper for a computer education conference. This was using the Libre Office open source word processor. Suddenly I realized I was using the wrong tool, and changed to LaTex. This was not an easy change, even for some who had used Latex before (decades ago), but it was worthwhile.

The problem was that every time I made a small edit to my document, I had to tinker with the layout. Each time I added a reference I had to change the referencing list. In the past I made do with things by hand for APA references, but IEEE style references required renumbering each time. Over the years I had tried various bibliographic plugins, but none worked well with Libre Office.

In 1999 and 2000, I used Latex to produce two books: Net Traveler, and Universal service? (by Michael Bourk). LaTex is a tool developed for complex academic works. While Latex worked well for the books, it was cumbersome to use for small projects. Latex works a bit like writing web pages with HTML, or writing a computer program. You include commands in your text for the formatting and images. You then have to have this rendered to see what it looks like.

After a computer upgrade in the late 2000s, I did not bother reinstalling Latex. The next time I was preparing a book, this was done as a byproduct of a website. It was easier to import the HTML files into Open Office, and use that for the typesetting (Open Office, and its successor Libre Office can work directly with HTML files). There were not many references, so I did them manually.

I then spent about seven years as a graduate student. I had to write a lot of assignments, and a large e-portfolio. However, as this was in the social sciences (teaching), the APA format was used, which is easy enough to do with a word processor. My Masters capstone was a web based e-portfolio, so a conventional publishing system was not needed (although I did produce a book from this with Libre Office).

Decades years later, I was sitting in a tedious academic meeting, fiddling with my draft of a paper for a conference. I decided I should give Latex another go (my colleagues had been telling me this for decades). I looked at versions of Latex for Linux, but there were so many to choose from, this was too hard. So instead I tried a few of the web hosed implementations, and settled on Overleaf, which is free for casual users.

Overleaf, like many Latex systems, presents a text editor on one side of the screen, and shows your formatted document on the other. You edit the text, then push a button to see what it will look like. Learning Latex is a major undertaking, and it took me some hours to remember how to do it. However, once that was done, there were the delights of entering a reference in a bibliography file, and having it correctly formatted automatically, and entering a code to say put the figure at the top or bottom of the nearest column of text. Also it was a great relief to have my document pass the conference submission system's automated format checks at the first attempt.

Using Latex is as much about unlearning things, as learning them.  You need to forget about the fonts and where things go on the page, and let the software worry about that. This especially the case when preparing a paper for a conference. You load the conference template and fill in your text, letting the system do the details.

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