Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Templates, Because MS Word Makes it Hard Enough (Part 1)

Yesterday, Cherish the Scientist (@mareserinitatis) was kind enough to indulge my twitter (@profgears) rant about how I hate MS Word. It all started when I had to review a paper for a conference proceedings and the only template they offered was either *.doc or *.docx. NewPhD, just starting out, has a brand new laptop with Office 2007 on it. Meanwhile, I have the 4 year old tank laptop with lowly 2003 on it.

And MS, in their infinite wisdom, decided to change their proprietary format, so converting back between *.docx and *.doc destroys any formatting you thought you might have done. Now, I'm not going to keep ranting about this (at least for this post), but rather, I'm going to spell out how students writing their first publication should approach things like pictures, figures, and graphs.

A few days ago, I post about Advisor-Advisee Expectations, which included things like making sure to communicate, to respond rapidly to emails, etc etc. One of the things I forgot to add for students to do is Learn Compatible Software and one of the things I will teach them is How to Make Templates. I'll tackle the software stuff first.

One of the best things I've learned during my PhD studies is "if it looks professional, people will treat it professionally". This is very important for two aspects, namely written work (thesis and papers) and for presentations. If you want to make professional documents, the best way to go IMHO is with LaTeX. Latex is an open source typesetting system for preparing professional documents. I use the MiKTeX distribution. It has a high learning curve but once you get the hang of it, it makes everything easier. LaTeX is something that I would strongly advise any student starting out to learn. I know it seems crazy with all the other stuff you have to do, but once you start, and your peers start, you'll be able to help each other and rapidly climb the learning curve.

For large documents, the content and the format are largely independent. For instance, once you make your thesis template, you'll never have to change it. If you add more content, you just recompile the document and it's done. And, most journals and universities have LaTeX templates for their publications. In those cases, you don't even have to make the template, you just add content. I watched DrWife bitch and moan about MSWord changing fonts, section headings, chapter spacings, you name it while she was writing her thesis. Everything in MSWord is linked and you have no control over that. In LaTeX, everything is still linked, but you have full control over it. Fonts and Sections headings don't change because of the moon rise. Also, the files are a lot smaller, so you don't have to worry about it crashing.

Another reason why LaTeX is great is because it gets you making *.EPS (encapsulated postscript) pictures. Just google vector graphics or check out the wikipedia page. This is the real reason why I wanted to use Latex. I wanted my figures to look professional and be resizable with issues. That's really useful for transferring journal figures into presentations, which need to be scaled larger.

Over the next few days, I'll talk about how I set up templates and what programs I work with to make figures and drawings for publications.


  1. Another Latex enthusiast here (I am also partial to Miktex). I hear you plight regarding Word...

  2. I've just spoke with a potential student and have pre-warned that I would expect them to write papers in LaTeX.

  3. You know, I didn't learn LaTeX because the learning curve scared me when I was writing my MS thesis. However, given the amount of time I spent correcting the fact that Word kept moving my pictures around (and the final draft had one move, leaving the last third of my thesis to not correspond to the table of contents), I think it would've ended up being a wash.

    I've learned it now, at least at a rudimentary level. And if I do need something quick, I use open office instead.

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