The Toilet Paper

Should scientific papers be written using Word or LaTeX?

Most papers are written using Microsoft Word or the LaTeX document preparation system. Is one better than the other?

Visitors look at various works at an art gallery, which includes a framed paper.
No one needs to know that this is Word art.

Virtually all researchers use Microsoft Word or LaTeX to write their papers, and so do students who are taught how to… well, write. Most computer science and software engineering graduates prefer the latter (and so do I), but is LaTeX really the best tool for the job? Let’s find out!

Word and LaTeX, for laymen


Microsoft Word is a graphical word processor that’s based on the “What you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG) paradigm, which means that users see their document on the screen as it will appear on printed pages. This makes Word relatively easy to learn.

is based on a very different paradigm that’s called “What you get is what you mean” (WYGIWYM). In other words, the final result isn’t visible until the user compiles their document. Documents are written in that has a fairly steep learning curve. In return it gives users virtually limitless control over the output.

Word is popular among many disciplines, including medicine, law, business, and life sciences, while researchers in STEM fields, like mathematics, physics, computer science, and engineering tend to prefer LaTeX.

There are practical reasons why Word and LaTeX are the two most popular tools. Word likely owes part of its popularity to its use at schools and companies, while LaTeX (or rather its underlying engine, TeX) is very good at rendering mathematical equations. Moreover, many publishers require that papers are submitted in one of these two formats, which further limits the options that researchers can choose from.

Another reason why this duopoly exists is that researchers keep convincing students and junior researchers that their tool of choice is “better”, “more elegant”, “simpler” or “more flexible” than the other, based largely on limited personal experiences, preconceived opinions, biases, and traditions.

What if someone would conduct an empirical study that shows which system is actually more efficient?

Let’s battle it out


The authors of this paper conducted an experiment with 40 participants, in which they compared the usability of Word and LaTeX under realistic working conditions. Most participants were tested in their personal office setting and were free to use their own computers, along with any other editors and plug-ins they’d normally use to prepare documents.

Each participant was assigned to one of four groups (Word novice, Word expert, LaTeX novice, or LaTeX expert) and asked to reproduce three types of text within 30 minutes:

  • a simple continuous text;

  • text with tables; and

  • mathematical text with several equations.

The researchers measured the performance of each participant using three variables:

  1. the number of orthographic and grammatical mistakes;

  2. the number of formatting errors and typos; and

  3. the amount of written text.

Afterwards, each participant completed a standardised usability questionnaire about their tool of choice.

Do we have a winner?


Word users managed to create the best reproductions for the continuous text:

  • Word users (both novices and experts) made fewer formatting mistakes and wrote more text. Interestingly, Word novices also made fewer formatting mistakes than LaTeX experts.

  • The number of orthographical and grammatical errors did not differ significantly between Word and LaTeX users.

Word users also did a better job on text with tables:

  • Word users (both novices and experts) made fewer formatting mistakes and again wrote more text.

  • Word novices made fewer formatting mistakes and also produced more text than LaTeX experts.

Conversely, LaTeX users were slightly better at reproducing the mathematical text:

  • LaTeX users (both novices and experts) made fewer formatting mistakes and wrote more text than Word users.

  • LaTeX users made significantly more orthographic and grammatical errors than Word users.

  • LaTeX novices did a better job than Word novices, but the difference in performance between Word experts and LaTeX experts was negligible.

The usability questionnaire showed that Word users were less positive about the efficiency of their tool of choice than LaTeX users, but more positive about learnability. Surprisingly, LaTeX users found their work to be less tiresome and less frustrating, and enjoyed using their software more often than Word users!

Overall, this study shows that there is no “best” tool, although in most cases Word is a better choice than LaTeX: there are basically no good reasons to use LaTeX for documents that do not contain complex mathematical formula.

Okay, but what about…


Typesetting quality

LaTeX users often argue that LaTeX can produce higher-quality text than Word. Although this may be true, it’s also a strange argument to make: the quality of a paper is determined by its contents, not by its appearance.

Moreover, perceivable difference in typesetting quality between the two tools is small. In my personal experience it’s incredibly easy to fool LaTeX users into thinking that a Word document was typeset using LaTeX: all you need to do is swap out Calibri for (La)TeX’s Computer Modern font!

This brings us to another commonly heard argument…

How good it feels

LaTeX users are highly satisfied despite reduced usability and productivity. A possible explanation for this finding is that humans try to avoid cognitive dissonance, which is when their beliefs don’t line up with their behaviour. It’s usually easier to change one’s belief (“no other tool can be as good as LaTeX”) than to change one’s behaviour (making the switch from LaTeX to Word).


  1. Word is more efficient than LaTeX for pretty much any text that does not contain complex mathematical formula

  2. LaTeX users tend to be more content with their tool than Word users (albeit unjustified)