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Three common problems of academic writing – the greenhorn guide

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Problems of Academic Writing

So, you do not know LaTeX? You’re afraid of artificial syntax? You get scared when you only see something similar to “<script>blabla</script>”? Well, I think you should work it out. Regardless of the discipline you are working in, you should not be uncomfortable with using tools like LaTeX or Markdown. They might even make your life easier. Even if you are a humanist and if you never had anything to do with coding.

I think almost everyone knows that academic work is not a piece of cake. There are thousands of well known anecdotes about the obstacles faced by PhD students, postdocs and faculties in their everyday work. There are Facebook and Twitter accounts dedicated to these anecdotes and of course PhD Comics, which are enjoyed all over the world.

The lion’s share of hardships faced by scholarly staff is linked to writing. Authoring an academic article (or book) is an arduous and laborious process, which sometimes (as far as I know, especially in case of writing a thesis) can result in despair.

Well, of course there is no easy way to get through it, although in my opinion, some of the most common difficulties are the result of choosing the wrong writing tools. Let me run through them quickly.

1) Managing references

This is horrible, especially when you do it manually. Looking for sources, checking all the bibliographic data and formatting proper citations and references styles, which vary from one publisher to another, is really time consuming and I used to hate it, and saw it as the most annoying part of writing. That is, I used to, until I started working with BibTeX.

BibTeX is a tool used for creating lists of references that treats each part of  the bibliographic data (like the name of an author, year of publication, or title) as a separate variable, which allows automated citation, in a desired style. Data is stored in the .bib file. Usually, researchers use one or several .bib files throughout their entire career, adding new entries to them gradually. These files can be used as a source of data for automated citation when writing in LaTeX. Also, some on-line collaborative writing tools, like Authorea, operate smoothly with .bib files. There are even some plugins for office writing programs, like Libre Office or Microsoft Word that support .bib file usage, although I have not used any of them. Anyway, thanks to BibTeX you do not need to spend tens of hours adjusting your bibliography to the publisher’s requirements. It can be done automatically.

How to compose a .bib file? I usually do it with the help of Google Scholar. I search for the article that I want to add to my list of references and click “cite” on the Google Scholar record. Then, after clicking on the “BibTeX” link I get a full BibTeX entry, that can be copied to my .bib file. There are of course reference managers, like Mendeley and Zotero, but I do not like these as much – they are too complicated and overloaded with useless features.

Google Scholar and BibTex help to manage references
Google Scholar and BibTex help to manage references

2) Version control

Have you ever written a thesis? And did you ever add v1, v2, v3, etc to the name of the document? After several months of working with a text, you usually end up with a horrible mess, and you actually do not know what is the proper version of your text (oh, there is a PhD Comics about that!). Some passages of text can also get lost in this endless process.

This is why some clever people invented a system of version control. The most common one now is Git, which was designed by the Linux creator, to support his work with the Linux kernel code. Git is therefore dedicated mostly to programming, and it’s usage requires some technical skills. Actually, some people do use Git for versioning the text documents, but this is not an ideal solution. On the other hand, understanding Git might be helpful with some other activities, so if you have some extra time to learn how to use it, it would be a good idea.

There are plenty of easier ways to control the changes you have made in your work. Some people use DropBox or Google Docs for this purpose, although they are far from being good enough for me to use. There is a simple on-line collaboration tool called TitanPad, which might work well for this purpose, but it offers poor editing options and I cannot imagine using it for longer or more data heavy texts. ShareLaTeX and Overleaf are collaborative LaTeX writing tools, that support full version control (integrated with GitHub, with an easy graphical interface). And I have chosen Authorea because I am not always able to write in LaTeX (I will explain to you later why), and Authorea allows me to write in Markdown, which is quite an easy markup language, that can be quickly learnt by anyone.

If you already know LaTeX, then you are probably a great fan of this tool. But if you have never used it, and it seems like a complicated coding, try using Markdown instead. Are you afraid of artificial syntax? Hmm, Markdown syntax is easy and is similar to normal writing. Anyway, I think that if you get scared when you only see something similar to “<script>blabla</script>” you should work it out. Anyway you will face a lot of hardships in your lifetime.

3) Cooperative writing

Sending around the same document in multiple versions via email cannot work for a long time. It is hardly possible in the case of a short document written by two people, but in situations where 3, 4, 5, 6 or more people collaborate, this is impossible, unless you are working on a very short and simple text (like a Christmas Party invitation, or something like that). But do not be afraid. There are good collaborative writing tools.

Some people use LaTeX and Git for collaboration purposes. This is possible. ShareLaTeX and Overleaf, that were mentioned above, seem to be good also. You can use Titanpad for simple texts. So please do not use the .doc circulation method!

I like Authorea because it has a good system for commenting, that allows everyone to join the discussion about a paper, and that is why it might be considered as a tool fostering open peer review. Additionally, Authorea provides document-based chat for real time discussion with your co-workers. And finally it supports Markdown.

Why I do not recommend LaTeX to everyone

Why do I say LaTeX is not good for everyone? Because some reputable journals in the field of Humanities and Social Sciences require submissions in a .doc or .odt file format. For example, De Gruyter Open accepts manuscript submissions in LaTeX format for all journals, but some other publishers (especially smaller ones) do not. LaTeX works can only be easily exported to pdf (which is sometimes not accepted), which might generate unnecessary problems for authors. Writing your article in Authera, using Markdown, solves all the problems mentioned above (.bib support, version control and collaborative writing), and in addition it allows you to export your article to .rtf file, which can be easily converted to .odt or .doc.

Image: Painting of Russian writer Evgeny Chirikov by Ivan Kulikov, 1904. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

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