Using LaTeX

In some fields, especially mathematical and physical sciences, the LaTeX document preparation system is very common. It is not widely used outside these fields.

LaTeX is a tool for writing documents. LaTeX files are plain text files. A LaTeX file does not look like the final text – it is not ‘what you see is what you get’ like a word processor. Instead, you tag each bit of content, and the LaTeX program reads them in, formats them according to rules stored in a class file, and puts out a formatted document. Custom-built editors mean that you do not have to directly edit the code if you do not want to.

Here is an example of LaTeX code:

The quantity $p_i$ is the `magnetic scattering amplitude' of the $i$th atom~\cite{bacon}, and is written
   p=\left( \frac{e^2\gamma}{2mc^2} \right) gJf.
   Here, $g$ is the Land\'e splitting factor, $J$ is the angular momentum of the ion, such that $gJ$ is its moment, and $f$ is the form factor for magnetic scattering\ldots

Here is an extract from the PDF that this gives:

The same text, including inline and displayed equations and hyperlinks to references

Before trying LaTeX think about your needs and whether they are best met by LaTeX or another type of software (eg you word processor’s built-in equation editor or MathType).

Why use LaTeX?

Why not use LaTeX?

  • It handles mathematics better than anything else (it was designed to!).
  • It can automatically number, label and style your citations, footnotes, endnotes, figure captions, table captions, equations, index entries, etc.
  • LaTeX input files are plain text, which means they are completely cross-platform and work equally well on Mac, Linux, Windows, ChromeOS and Android.
  • It is completely free and open source.
  • In some fields in mathematical and physical sciences, it is very common and much infrastructure (eg templates and styles, bibliographic databases) already exists.
  • It can be installed locally (on your computer) or in the cloud (running in a browser).
  • It has a steep and daunting learning curve.
  • It is not common outside academia.
  • It lacks the built-in grammar, spelling and accessibility checkers that come with modern word processors.
  • Tracking changes is not as easy as when using a word processor.
  • For most people, the idea of having to write a document using markup language and then process it to get the final result seems alien and difficult.
  • Its basic aim is to design document pages, so it is not ideal for production to HTML and other reflowable formats.
  • Making an accessible PDF from a LaTeX file is not simple (see Making PDFs accessible).

Use LaTeX if ...

Do not use LaTeX if ...

  • you need to present a lot of mathematics
  • the journal you want to publish in requires it (and provides a style file and template to make it easier)
  • your final output will be a print or PDF document
  • you like working with computers, and like the results that LaTeX produces
  • your collaborators use it
  • the project is a big one (such as a thesis) and the time spent learning LaTeX will be a good investment.
  • you work with simple (or no) mathematics
  • you are already a ‘power user’ of another program and know how to automatically number equations, figures, citations, footnotes and so on, and how to insert mathematics effectively
  • you already have established workflows and collaborations that use other tools, such as Word (with track changes) and PerfectIt
  • you have a single, small project to do and the time spent learning LaTeX would not be a wise investment
  • accessibility (see Making PDFs accessible) and production to HTML are high priorities.

You can install LaTeX on your computer or use it from the cloud. There are many online communities; one of the largest is the TeX page at StackExchange. The Mathematics writing resources section lists some useful places to start learning about LaTeX.

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