Josh Parsons (Oxford) has written a widely discussed post on “The LaTeX cargo cult,” explaining why he discourages philosophy students from using LaTeX. He makes some interesting points. But what he has left out is the overarching principle that you should simply always use the best tool for the purpose at hand – and “best” should take into account lots of things: cost (in money and time you need to invest to become proficient in the use of the tool), ease of use, functionality, and the needs of the prospective audience.
For a long time, LaTeX had the upper hand over available alternatives (i.e., Microsoft Word). It produced high quality output (Word didn’t), it was free (Word wasn’t), it could do lots of things Word couldn’t do (like bibliographies), it was an open format (Word wasn’t). Well, times have changed. There are more alternatives, and the alternatives now can do lots of things they didn’t use to be able to. The latest Word document format is open, and based on open standards like XML. There are free, open source alternatives to Microsoft, such as LibreOffice. The alternatives have gotten better at typesetting, and you can now do most of the things in which LaTeX had the upper hand for a long time, e.g., bibliographies and reference management, through plug ins and add-ons (both non-free like Endnote, and free, open, cross-platform like Zotero or JabRef).
So while at one point “well, I use bibliographies and references a lot, and I want to have a nice-looking hardcopy” were sufficient reason to use LaTeX and spurn Word, that’s no longer the case.
Given this fact, other considerations should probably play a more important role now when deciding whether to learn LaTeX and when to use it.
- LaTeX still has a steep learning curve and you can run into complex issues (and simple issues that are hard to solve). If you have limited amounts of time – say if you’re a grad student writing a dissertation – then becoming proficient at and writing everything in LaTeX will probably be a distraction.
- LaTeX on its own is very bad at revision control and commenting, but Word and LibreOffice are very good at it. If your piece of writing requires others to read, comment on, and make revisions to it – say, if you’re a grad student writing a dissertation with an advisor who doesn’t use LaTeX and would like to easily comment on your drafts – then don’t use LaTeX. (The same goes for writing any kind of administrative document that anyone else in your institution has to open, comment on, reformat, reuse, or revise!)
- LaTeX is very good at producing print-based output, but pretty bad at producing output that can easily be reused in other formats – say, on a web page or in a form – so if you need to use your piece of writing in settings where formatted or unformatted text is needed – say, if you’re a grad student preparing funding applications via web-based forms – think twice about using LaTeX.
- LaTeX is very good at making your writing conform to a given format (e.g., a thesis or journal layout), but it can be very time consuming to make LaTeX output conform to a format for which no class or style package exists. So if there’s an Word (or PowerPoint or whatever) template for what you need but no LaTeX style file – then it’ll probably be easier to just use that. (E.g., I wouldn’t dream of writing letters of recommendation in LaTeX given that there’s an institutional letterhead template.)
Of course all this doesn’t mean that you should never use LaTeX, and I think it also doesn’t mean that we should discourage students from learning (about) it. In fact, I think it would be a mistake to do so. There are lots of scenarios in which LaTeX is the best option. And there are good reasons grad students should at least have a passing familiarity with LaTeX.
- Do you work in a (sub)field where LaTeX use is prevalent (logic, physics, math)? Then you should probably learn and use LaTeX. (Parsons acknowledges this! But even if all you do is TA intro to formal logic once, learning and using LaTeX can pay off immensely!)
- Does the thing you’re writing need any of the powerful features that LaTeX has but, say, LibreOffice doesn’t? Use LaTeX.
- Does your advisor use LaTeX and invite you to co-author a paper with her? Learn LaTeX.
There are other reasons to use LaTeX. There are other reasons to not use LaTeX (and scenarios where other tools are better). But don’t not use or learn LaTeX because it’s a cargo cult – it isn’t – or because it’s a proprietary format – it isn’t – or because it’s not a “declarative language.” It’s a powerful tool that’s useful in certain contexts. If you find yourself in such a context, learn it, and use it. And given that it is relatively widely used, at least learn what it is so you can make an informed decision. And perhaps encourage your students to do so, too.