Making LaTeX easier with Authorea and writeLaTeX

When I’m curious about exploring a new technical skill (such as a new programming language, a software tool, a development framework, etc), I typically try to integrate its use into my normal work schedule. I select several tasks that I have to do anyway, and force myself to use this new skill to solve the task. It ends up taking more time than it would have if I had just stuck with skills I was already comfortable with, but in the end I’m usually better for it. Sometimes, I love my new-found skill so much that I begin using it every day in my research. Often, however, it just becomes another addition to my technical “toolkit”, increasing my productivity and really enabling me to choose The Best Tool for the Job for my future work.

This was my experience with \LaTeX. As an undergraduate, I had seen several colleagues use it and had fiddled with it a bit myself. It wasn’t until later though, as a first year grad student, that I really buckled down and forced myself to learn it while writing a paper for a computational statistics class. Yielding control of text and image placement to the LaTeX typsetting system took some getting used to, but I soon came to appreciate the quality of documents I could produce with it. Focusing on the concerns of content and presentation separately, as I had previously learned to do in web development, was another big bonus I recognized early on. The fact that LaTeX source documents are plain text made it easy to maintain a revision history with tools like svn and git, which I had also come to appreciate early on in my graduate career. And, of course, there is absolutely no comparison to typesetting mathematical formulae on LaTeX versus on Microsoft Word. See this thread for a great discussion on the benefits of LaTeX over Word.

I strongly encourage all of my colleagues to consider using LaTeX for their next publication. That being said, I understand that there is a bit of a learning curve with LaTeX, and setup/installation isn’t trivial for a beginner (unless you’re running Linux). However, I’ve seen a couple of web applications recently that should make the jump from Word to LaTeX much easier. Authorea and writeLaTeX are both web-based systems for authoring documents using LaTeX markup. While editing, Authorea renders the markup in HTML and only shows plain text for the section you are currently editing (of course, the final document is downloaded in PDF format). writeLaTeX uses a different approach: a window for editing the LaTeX markup, and another window for previewing the typeset PDF file.

Both of these applications are very easy to use. Both enable you to collaboratively edit with colleagues. And both are free to use. If you’re still using Microsoft Word to write your research manuscripts, consider learning LaTeX and getting your feet wet with one of these new tools!

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