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In today's technology-driven world, we leave so many things to our electronic gadgets. Surprisingly, many life scientists try manically to control the appearance of their documents by hand with programs like MS Word. LaTeX takes this task off your hands by providing highly efficient algorithms to properly format your texts. The results are almost always superior to everything you could have done with a "What you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG) editor like MS Word, openOffice, etc.
Now, what exactly is LaTeX? It is a typesetting engine. Unlike Word, which is controlled by mouse, various menus and buttons, LaTeX uses text commands to define the way your document is typeset. These commands look a bit like a programming language, which seems to scare many people off. But often it is much more complicated to find one of Word's sub-submenus than it is to remember a simple text command.
Here are 5 reasons, why you should seriously consider writing your thesis (and most other scientific documents) with LaTeX.
Many 'life science' dissertations look plain ugly: inconsistent typesetting, bad justification, worse hyphenation. Take a look at those dissertations covering math, physics and computer science topics. Most of them look much better. While the amount of dissertations I have seen may not be statistically relevant, I still see a pattern there. Many life scientists use WYSIWYG-editors, while LaTeX is widely used by dry-lab scientists. The algorithms used by LaTeX to justify text and control hyphenation work much better than those used by Word. This is why a document written in LaTeX will have a much more professional typesetting. Even though your research is the key aspect of your thesis, you want to present it in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and professional. You don't wear pajamas to a job interview…or do you?
Have you ever handled a Word document with many graphics? No? You're lucky! Most WYSIWYG-editors become very sluggish when you insert many (high quality) pictures. LaTeX won't. Since the document is displayed as a pdf and you write in a separate text editor, it simply does not matter if you have embedded 10 or 1000 of your beautiful immunostain photographs.
You created that important graph, exported it to pdf, imported it into Word and carefully adjusted size and position. Finally done! Then you see a typo. Start over. In LaTeX, you just "link" to the file that contains your graph or picture. You can still alter the file afterwards in any way you want without having to re-embed it.
Writing your thesis is hard enough. You have to think about what your experiments mean, think about a proper way to describe them, and all in a manner that is easily understandable. With WYSIWYG-editors it is very hard to focus on the writing and not constantly work on the formatting of your document. In LaTeX, you write the text first, let LaTeX handle the rest and check what it looks like later. It may take some time getting used to, but you will soon realize that you're much more productive this way.
Whether you change the appearance of your headings, the style of your legends or the way you refer to your equations, changes will affect your whole document, thus the appearance will be consistent. While it may take some time to get into LaTeX, you are rewarded with the security that there are no unintentional leftovers of your last-minute reformatting session. This will spare you time and nerves. In the end, we need those to troubleshoot our experiments – not our documents.
These are some of the advantages that I think make LaTeX an outstanding resource. Of course, there are many more. For example, I haven’t talked about the amazing way LaTeX handles complex equations. Have you worked with LaTeX yet? Tell us about your experiences with LaTeX as a tool for biological science!