Tips from the blog XI: Overleaf

I was recently an external examiner for a PhD viva in Cambridge. As we were wrapping up, I asked “if you were to do it all again, what would you do differently?”. It’s one of my stock questions and normally the candidate says “oh I’d do it so much quicker!” or something similar. However, this time I got a surprise. “I would write my thesis in LaTeX!”, was the reply.

As a recent convert to LaTeX I could see where she was coming from. The last couple of manuscripts I have written were done in Overleaf and have been a breeze. This post is my summary of the site.

overleaf-greygreen-410

I have written ~40 manuscripts and countless other documents using Microsoft Word for Mac, with EndNote as a reference manager (although I have had some failed attempts to break free of that). I’d tried and failed to start using TeX last year, motivated by seeing nicely formatted preprints appearing online. A few months ago I had a new manuscript to write with a significant mathematical modelling component and I realised that now was the chance to make the switch. Not least because my collaborator said “if we are going to write this paper in Word, I wouldn’t know where to start”.

screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-07-39-13I signed up for an Overleaf account. For those that don’t know, Overleaf is an online TeX writing tool on one half of the screen and a rendered version of your manuscript on the other. The learning curve is quite shallow if you are used to any kind of programming or markup. There are many examples on the site and finding out how to do stuff is quick thanks to LaTeX wikibooks and stackexchange.

Beyond the TeX, the experience of writing a manuscript in Overleaf is very similar to editing a blog post in WordPress.

Collaboration

The best thing about Overleaf is the ability to collaborate easily. You can send a link to a collaborator and then work on it together. Using Word in this way can be done with DropBox, but versioning and track changes often cause more problems than it’s worth and most people still email Word versions to each other, which is a nightmare. Overleaf changes this by having a simple interface that can be accessed by multiple people. I have never used Google docs for writing papers, but this does offer the same functionality.

All projects are private by default, but you can put your document up on the site if you want to. You might want to do this if you have developed an example document in a certain style.

screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-07-38-36

Versioning

Depending on the type of account you have, you can roll back changes. It is possible to ‘save’ versions, so if you get to a first draft and want to send it round for comment, you can save a version and then use this to go back to, if required. This is a handy insurance in case somebody comes in to edit the document and breaks something.

You can download a PDF at any point, or for that matter take all the files away as a zip. No more finalfinalpaper3final.docx…

If you’re keeping score, that’s Overleaf 2, Word nil.

Figures

Placing figures in the text is easy and all major formats are supported. What is particularly nice is that I can generate figures in an Igor layout and output directly to PDF and put that into Overleaf. In Word, the placement of figures can be fiddly. Everyone knows the sensation of moving a picture slightly and it disappears inexplicably onto another page. LaTeX will put the figure in where you want it or the next best place. It just works.

screen-shot-2016-12-11-at-07-44-33Equations

This is what LaTeX excels at. Microsoft Word has an equation editor which has varied over the years from terrible to just-about-usable. The current version actually uses elements of TeX (I think). The support for mathematical text in LaTeX is amazing, not surprising since this is the way that most papers in maths are written. Any biologist will find their needs met here.

Templates and formatting

There are lots of templates available on Overleaf and many more on the web. For example, there are nice PNAS and PLoS formats as well as others for theses and for CVs and other documents. The typesetting is beautiful. Setting out sections/subsections and table of contents is easy. To be fair to Word, if you know how to use it properly, this is easy too, but the problem is that most people don’t, and also styles can get messed up too easily.

Referencing

This works by adding a bibtex file to your project. You can do this with any reference manager. Because I have a huge EndNote database, I used this initially. Another manuscript I’ve been working on, my student started out with a Mendeley library and we’ve used that. It’s very flexible. Slightly more fiddly than with Word and EndNote. However, I’ve had so many problems (and crashes) with that combination over the years that any alternative is a relief.

Compiling

You can set the view on the right to compile automatically or you can force updates manually. Either way the document must compile. If you have made a mistake, it will complain and try to guess what you have done wrong and tell you. Errors that prevent the document from being compiled are red. Less serious errors are yellow and allow compilation to go ahead. This can be slow going at first, but I found that I was soon up to speed with editing.

Preamble

This is the name of the stuff at the header of a TeX document. You can add in all kinds of packages to cover proper usage of units (siunitx) or chemical notation (mhchem). They all have great documentation. All the basics, e.g. referencing, are included in Overleaf by default.

Offline

The entire concept of Overleaf is to work online. Otherwise you could just use TeXshop or some other program. But how about times when you don’t have internet access? I was concerned about this at the start, but I found that in practice, these days, times when you don’t have a connection are very few and far between. However, I was recently travelling and wanted to work on an Overleaf manuscript on the aeroplane. Of course, with Word, this is straightforward.

With Overleaf it is possible. You can do two things. The first is to download your files ahead of your period of internet outage. You can edit your main.tex document in an editor of your choice. The second option is more sophisticated. You can clone your project with git and then work on that local clone. The instructions of how to do that are here (the instructions, from 2015, say it’s in beta, but it’s fully working). You can work on your document locally and then push changes back to Overleaf when you have access once more.

Downsides

OK. Nothing is perfect and I noticed that typos and grammatical errors are more difficult for me to detect in Overleaf. I think this is because I am conditioned with years of Word use. The dictionary is smaller than in Word and it doesn’t try to correct your grammar like word does (although this is probably a good thing!). Maybe I should try the rich text view and see if that helps. I guess the other downside is that the other authors need to know TeX rather than Word. As described above if you are writing with a mathematician, this is not a problem. For biologists though this could be a challenge.

Back to the PhD exam

I actually think that writing a thesis is probably a once-in-a-lifetime chance to understand how Microsoft Word (and EndNote) really works. The candidate explained that she didn’t trust Word enough to do everything right, so her thesis was made of several different documents that were fudged to look like one long thesis. I don’t think this is that unusual. She explained that she had used Word because her supervisor could only use Word and she had wanted to take advantage of the Review tools. Her heart had sunk when her supervisor simply printed out drafts and commented using a red pen, meaning that she could have done it all in LaTeX and it would have been fine.

Conclusion

I have been totally won over by Overleaf. It beats Microsoft Word in so many ways… I’ll stick to Word for grant applications and other non-manuscript documents, but I’m going to keep using it for manuscripts, with the exception of papers written with people who will only use Word.

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