Libre Office: The better alternative to MS Word?

I’ve been a Microsoft Word user for a long time, and overall it’s a really great piece of software in many respects. However, there are a few small issues that are starting to bug me more and more as time goes on.

  • Doesn’t work natively on Linux
  • Equation editor is a pain – I would prefer to use Latex commands
  • Equations often turn into non-editable pictures

The MS equation editor actually does recognize Latex-like commands, but the 3rd bullet point makes this a moot point. Maybe the bug will be fixed in the 2016 version of MS word, but I have yet to investigate this.

There’s also the open source philosophy that I tend to like. There are a couple options I’m considering to help transition away from Microsoft:

  • LibreOffice – standard office suite on most Linux distros (formerly known as OpenOffice)
  • Overleaf – cloud based Latex system – storage / sharing / editor (many advantages)

Overleaf works amazingly well and produces much nicer looking documents than a traditional word processor. However, the thought of going back to writing in Latex is daunting. Also, I worry about those times when I find myself stranded without internet, and I didn’t have any automatic syncing going on in the background, so I’m stuck without a way to work on anything.

LibreOffice has its own list of Pros and Cons that I’ve been mulling over

  • Pros
    • Field codes can be used for things like figure and section numbers
    • changes can be tracked by multiple authors
    • Styles can be defined so they are consistent throughout and can be changed in bulk
    • It has a “document map” feature called “Navigator”
    • Latex extensions are available
    • plays well with Mendeley for citation management
    • equations can be typed is a similar way to Latex
    • referencing equations, sections, and figures is much more explcit (and harder to screw up) compared to MS Word

The interface for all these things is a bit different, so there’s a bit of a learning curve, especially for the field codes. But overall, I find LibreOffice to allow much more control. MS Word often tries a little too hard to do things for you, and this can lead to frustration when all of a sudden your chapters have the wrong numbers.

The con list is short, but no less significant:

  • Cons
    • Has issues rendering PNG images
    • Not in widespread use (-1 for collaboration)
    • Equation editor is still a bit clunky and has it’s own commands to learn

The issues with LibreOffice seem easy to overcome; but until it is in widespread use, who wants to feel like the sole torch bearer trying to get people behind a movement? Many scientists don’t have time to try out a new work flow, which, ironically, can make them inefficient overall. Asking someone to install LibreOffice is not a huge task though, so maybe it is worth the switch?

Sadly, I do not have an answer, even for myself in the short term! Currently I’m collaborating with someone who uses Overleaf, so I suppose I should give this an honest try before ruling it out.


UPDATE  –  I used LibreOffice for awhile, but I found the clunkiness to be too much for me to handle. It seems to slow down any computer I use it on, and the image rendering problem is extremely frustrating. Instead, I’ve opted to dive head first back into Latex! Overleaf makes it so easy to debug things, and the journal templates are very convenient. I love the amount of control you have with Latex. And the cloud-based approach of editing through a browser has really changed the way I work. There have been a few times where I’ve been unpredictably stranded without internet where I couldn’t get any work done, but maybe that’s not the worst thing to worry about.


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