Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Collaborations of Latex and Word users

The two popular text editors used by researchers in academia are LaTex and Microsoft Word. Or, put differently: Microsoft Word and LaTex. In more technical fields, LaTex is king, while in less technical fields, it is Word. In the business school worlds collide. Coming from a technical background, I am a heavy user of LaTex, for research papers and even for book writing. However, many of my business school collaborators (e.g., from fields of Information Systems and Marketing) are Word users.

While collaboration platforms such as Google Drive and Dropbox have greatly enhanced collaborative possibilities, including co-editing a document, the Word-or-Latex schism still poses a serious challenge. I've had to migrate to Word (and suffer) in some collaborations, while in others I convinced my co-authors to move the document to LaTex, but then I was the one receiving text bits to incorporate back into the document and share the compiled PDF (via Dropbox that's easy).

For someone used to LaTex, Word is quite awkward: handling different document components such as bibliography and sectioning is cumbersome; journal templates are easier to use in LaTex; writing formulas is much easier. For Word-users, LaTex usually seems intimidating, as it is not WYSIWYG (you must click a button to compile the text and then see the resulting PDF in a separate PDF viewer).

One solution is the open-source Lyx package, which has a graphical interface with LaTex "under the hood". I personally found it unsatisfactory, as it is "not here nor there"...

So what to do if you're a LaTex junky and want to move a project from Word into LaTex? Let's start with the initial migration. Here are a few useful tools that I discovered:
  • Tables: To convert a table from Word into a LaTex table, copy-paste into Excel and then use the Excel2Latex tool. Simply download the xla file and open it in Excel. It will add an add-in menu. Choose the table, click the convert button, and you can choose either to copy the LaTex code or to export it to a .tex file.
  • Bibliography: To convert a Word Bibliography file into a LaTex bib file, use the neat Word2Bibtex tool. Download the bibtex.xsl file and follow the directions. Note: the tool will only work if you have administrator privileges on the computer, as it requires copying a file into an "admin only" folder.
  • Figures: unlike Word, where you copy-paste images, in LaTex you'll need them as separate image files (png, jpg, eps, etc.). If you only have a few, right-click each figure in Word, then "Save as image" and choose png or jpg. If you already have a bunch of figures in the Word doc, save the doc as "filtered HTML". This will create a separate folder with all the image files (if they are saved as gif, you'll have to convert them to png or jpg).
Now, to the co-editing of the tex file. I have still not completely resolved the problem of the non-LaTex collaborators editing the file. I always get the question: "can you send me a Word version so that I can edit it?". Here are some options:
  • They can annotate the PDF file using highlighting and sticky notes.
  • They can copy-paste from the PDF file into Word. Figures can be copied using Acrobat Reader's Edit > Take a Snapshot, but they are usually not needed for editing.
  • They can open the .tex file with Wordpad for editing the text.
  • It's also possible to convert back to Word: The Latex2rtf tool should do that (it actually clashed with my TexStudio editor and erased my tex file!)
But then, even if you do convert to Word, what to do with the Word file once the collaborator has done his/her editing?
Another solution is to use a cloud LaTex platform, such as The advantage is that there's no need to install software and the editor + viewer are nicely set side-by-side with a big green "recompile" button. The free version allows collaborating with one free user. The paid versions are more generous (I like the "coming soon" integrations with Google Drive and Dropbox!). 
  • Catch #1: you must be online to compile. 
  • Catch #2: long documents such as books can take substantially longer to compile online compared to locally. 
  • Catch #3: if the non-LaTex collaborator uses some tex-unfriendly text (such as a $ sign to denote USD), the compilation will fail. So, basic tex knowledge is needed - or babysitting by the LaTex-head collaborator.
Would love to hear from others tackling these collaborative issues and have found good solutions.

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