Wednesday, February 12, 2014

What exactly counts as open?

I'm currently writing a paper for a journal that accepts submissions only in .doc format. That doesn't sound like a problem – everyone uses Microsoft office anyway, right? Well, no, I don't. Because MS Office doesn't run under Linux, which I'm using. And even if it did, there are places I'd prefer to throw my resources, given a choice. But aren't there open source alternatives that can produce those files? Well – kind of. LibreOffice will produce a .doc file alright. And if it contains straightforwardly formatted text with the occasional picture, MS Word would handle that file fine. However. I need equations. And while both LibreOffice and MS Word have equation editor functions, they're not entirely compatible. Nor are they particularly fun to use. Why can't I just use LaTeX?

Well, okay, I know why I can't. It's a general science journal, and unless you're doing fairly mathematical science, the LaTeX learning curve may not seem or be worth the (relative) ease of use. (And, I suppose, not allowing LaTeX forces me to consider if I really need to include that obscure equation in the paper.) LaTeX documents are not, for most people, as easy to read and edit as is a .doc file. It is free, though. Which MS Word is not.

It raises an interesting question about which method is really more "open". Requiring Microsoft formats means I need to buy – or, more realistically, borrow – an expensive piece of software to contribute to the journal. Requiring LaTeX formats forces contributors to pick up a non-trivial skill set before submitting. Neither of these is really entirely open. Perhaps simply offering a choice of format would be a reasonable workaround, although it does still feel like a workaround. Improving the compatibility of LibreOffice (or other open source office suites) with MS Office, while far beyond the reach of the journal, might be a slightly better fix. I think that will happen, but not until long after I've written this paper!

In the meantime, I'll be sulking in the corner because a side effect of using an office suite format is that I can't work in vi.

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