Zotero is great, TeX should be better

If you’re an academic, you should consider using Zotero, a piece of software that manages your library of papers (including PDFs with comments), pulls papers automatically from journal websites, syncs across devices, generates bibtex files, and other cool stuff. (More here.)


Get Zotero

Interestingly, Zotero is evidence that custom built academic software funded by charitable foundations can provide a tremendously positive service to the academic community.

Zotero is a production of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University and the Corporation for Digital Scholarship. It has been generously funded by the United States Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

I have long said that the single most effective useI wish I had a good econ-market-failure story to tell about why a better version of TeX hasn’t arisen on its own, but I only have a mediocre one: I suspect that in general software is under supplied because of the difficulty of getting people pay for it. First because it’s difficult to prevent people from copying it, and second because online payments are friction-ful, especially without a reputation system in place. (The success of the various App stores is good evidence here.) Academics are a small market, so they can’t rely on the zero marginal cost of software to make up for these problems, even in the most important areas. And academics probably have an unusually high desire for open source software, or at least software that’s not entangled with a single company. a   of ~$1 million for advancing math and physics research would be to hire some software developers for a couple of years and make an enterprise-quality successor to TeX. It should

  • Keep the math syntax,
  • consolidate the explosion of packages needed for basic tasks,You need a package for three columns! b  
  • greatly improve the compilation speed,
  • come with a dead-simple editor that works on all platforms without having to manage a TeX installation, or set up the PDF-viewer syncing
  • reduce the propensity for errors,
  • make error messages less cryptic,
  • handle infinite pages for the Web, and
  • fix all the other awful bits that waste hundreds of thousands of grad-student-hours each year.

LyX is a valiant attempt along many of these directions, but it’s got a ways to go.

Footnotes

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  1. I wish I had a good econ-market-failure story to tell about why a better version of TeX hasn’t arisen on its own, but I only have a mediocre one: I suspect that in general software is under supplied because of the difficulty of getting people pay for it. First because it’s difficult to prevent people from copying it, and second because online payments are friction-ful, especially without a reputation system in place. (The success of the various App stores is good evidence here.) Academics are a small market, so they can’t rely on the zero marginal cost of software to make up for these problems, even in the most important areas. And academics probably have an unusually high desire for open source software, or at least software that’s not entangled with a single company.
  2. You need a package for three columns!
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7 Comments

  1. I have to say that LyX is pretty amazing. It’s really only a pain when you have to collaborate with TeX users who don’t use LyX.

  2. Love Lyx. Also worth mentioning: Docear.

    • Thanks for the tip. Off the cuff: I think my biggest worry about Docear is that it will be buggy and unpolished. The problem with the TeX ecosystem and with many other volunteer software projects are the small, death-by-a-thousand-cuts imperfections that sap hours from their users. I’m also skeptical of the usefulness of this web/graph visual system (and the accompanying outline creator) they have screenshots of, which appears to be their big differentiater from Zotero.

      That said, these posts by the Docear team are very sensible, and I’m curious to see how the project goes. Would love to hear about your experience with it.

  3. W00t Zotero. Unfortunately, the TeX installation on my redhat workstation is ineffably messed up somehow, and it won’t compile anything. pdftex seems to work though. Go figure.

  4. What about Texts — http://www.texts.io — as alternative to TeX? It stores documents in Markdown, supports TeX syntax for math, exports to many formats.

    • I very much like this direction. Kudos.

      I think one should resist mission creep to keep things simple (which will be harder than you might think since physicists have now been trained to spend too much time on their documents). However, at the moment Texts looks to be missing features that are critical for academic documents:

      1) Labels and cross-referencing for equation, figures, and sections.

      2) Easy to create bibliography (esp. integration with Zotero, or an encompassing open standard).

      3) More levels of nested sectioning

      The questions of how much expandability to build in (e.g., aliases for big mathematical objects you use frequently) is a difficult one. Too little, and people will waste time (or never switch). Too much, and we end up with TeX in a different syntax.

      Some interesting discussion is here (although I don’t think something like Texts needs to accomplish 100% of the what TeX can in terms of professional typesetting).

      But honestly, I really like what you’ve got so far. I’ll have more to write about this topic in the future. In particular, I’ve got crazy ideas about how a TeX replacement should do more to exploit the digital page, such as expandable text (example).

      • Thanks for the response! Basic support of bibliography is coming in the next release. Additional levels of headings can be created via keyboard shortcuts (e.g. Command+4 on OS X or Control+4 on Windows) — we wanted to keep menu as short as possible. Cross-referencing is in the plans.

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