Morally Superior File Formats

What does a publisher contribute to a journal? We academics supply the content, and we do the curating too, as referees and editors. Does the publisher supply the website, the editorial software, and the storage of published papers? Even that’s all free now, thanks to libraries like the University of Toronto’s and the University of Michigan’s, and thanks to the Public Knowledge Project’s Open Journal System.

So what’s a publisher good for? Converting the ragged miscellany of files submitted by authors into professional, publishable PDFs. Oh, and in the process they establish the official page-numbers later authors will refer to.

It’s a surprisingly trivial contribution, but if you want your journal taken seriously, you had better produce a uniform and minimally stylish product. So unless the editors have time to convert each file by hand (!), or they can recruit someone else to do it ($), a computer must do the job. The catch is: computers can’t do this job unless they can read each author’s chosen file format and identify all the sections, headings, citations, numbered lists, tables, diagrams, etc. For reasons I won’t go into here, popular software like Microsoft Word makes this impossible to do reliably.

This problem was actually solved by computer scientists at Stanford way back in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The solution wasn’t some fancy program that parses the messy files produced by Word and converts them into polished journal pages. It was instead to get people to write in a standard file format that already identifies headings as headings, citations as citations, lists as lists, etc. Leslie Lamport created the format that is now standard in math and many sciences: LaTeX. It generates beautiful, finished products, of even higher quality than those produced by professional typesetters, thanks to free software created single-handedly by Donald Knuth. (If you’re not familiar with Knuth, he’s a fascinating character with an amusingly idiosyncratic home page.)

LaTeX is now standard in fields where mathematical formulae are common, because typing math in Word is excruciating and slow with unlovely results, while LaTeX makes math easy, fast, and beautiful. But philosophers have been slow to adopt the format. It has just enough of a learning curve to make Word preferable in the short run, if you don’t need to type any math. So few philosophers bother to learn the system that every mathematician learns as a student.

This leaves us philosophers dependent on publishers in a way mathematicians are not. Editors of math journals can count on authors to use LaTeX, and they can use Knuth’s free software to typeset papers without any help from a publisher. But in philosophy, file formats pose a final, petty barrier to open access publication.

So are we doomed by our ludditism to eternal dependence on publishers? No. Simple, user-friendly options are now available. And thanks to a large and supportive community of programmers, free software for working with these simpler formats is plentiful. One promising such format is Markdown, created by John Gruber with help from the late Aaron Swartz (yes, that Aaron Swartz). This post was written in Markdown and published using the wonderful pandoc program created by philosopher John MacFarlane. To see just how simple Markdown is, you can read the source-text for this post here. For more on the scholarly use of Markdown, go here.

There are other moral reasons to prefer a format like Markdown. The software isn’t just free, it’s also open-source, meaning the code is publicly available for anyone to copy or modify. Software that "nobody owns" is essential to a public forum like the web. In fact, most of the web is open-source. (Most web servers are open-source and over 70% of web browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, and Safari, are open-source under the hood.)

When we write in Microsoft Word, we defect in a collective action problem. We make ourselves dependent on commercial publishers and software companies, lining their pockets at the expense of students, taxpayers, and universities. Were we to cooperate instead like the mathematicians, this outcome could be easily avoided.

Though we don’t ordinarily think it, some file formats are morally superior to others.


9 thoughts on “Morally Superior File Formats

  1. Sara L. Uckelman

    I started using Lyx, a wysiwyg editor for LaTeX in grad school in the early 00’s, and by 2005 had switched over to composing LaTeX in a text editor almost completely. (It helped that my philosophical training has always been heavily oriented towards logic, and thus has the same need for good formula typesetting as math.) I’m so used to writing my papers in LaTeX that I have occasionally refrained from submitting to a journal which required submissions in Word. I also once had an amusing experience of submitting a paper to a relatively mainstream philosophical journal, typeset in LaTeX per my normal, and had one of the referee reports comment that the paper looked like it was “already published”, with a distinct implicit implication that the way the paper looked counted towards his favorable report on the paper. It’s a lesson I won’t forget, and one that I’ve told to students in the early stages of struggling to learn LaTeX.

  2. jdjacobs

    Res Philosophica uses LaTeX, too. It sure would make our job easier if authors used it! It would be great to have other standards surrounding the production of papers, as well, that would save both authors and editors time and energy. I can think of one off the top of my head relevant to LaTeX: A universal bibliography. Philpapers comes close to this, but last I checked its usage agreement seems to prevent journals from using the export function. Wouldn’t it be great if the journals that used LaTeX, for example, collaborated on a joint bibtex file?

  3. Shawn A. Miller

    Hooray for openness, but I can’t follow the argument. MS Word, which is proprietary, is lousy at typesetting, which is why it isn’t used for that purpose. Typically even publishers who only use/accept Word documents do their typesetting in a different program, e.g., InDesign or QuarkXpress. There are, of course, exceptions, and if by “publishing” we mean creating pdfs and posting them online, that is a rather modest bit of publishing, and, yes, LaTeX-produced pdfs work well for that purpose.

    The default MS Word format–docx–is an open file format, so I don’t see why that is immoral. Also, LaTeX and Markdown aren’t file formats, they are markup languages–like HTML–that typically take plain text files as input. The range of tools that operate on plain text is vast, which is why writing in markup frees one from the need to use complicated wordprocessing software, which, as everyone knows, is buggy. However, most people I know don’t write LaTeX in, say, vim or emacs and then compile in a terminal; they use sophisticated, specialized LaTeX editors with drop-down menus and preview features, etc. And some of these programs are indeed proprietary, though the formats obviously aren’t. And that’s fine. It’s impossible not to use proprietary software of some kind, no matter how ardent and hard-core an open-source evangelist one might be (e.g., your bios is almost certainly closed).

    So MS Word is proprietary, big deal. That doesn’t make it immoral, and it has nothing to do with file formats. (And we better hope that the fact of a file format being closed doesn’t make it immoral, b/c we’ll all have to stop visiting YouTube [Flash] and streaming NetFlix [Silverlight].) MS Word butchers mathematical typography and I take it that docx formats are faulty for the purpose, too. So by all means LaTeX True Believers use the tool better suited to your needs. But realize that doing so doesn’t make you morally superior; it makes you aesthetes.

  4. Shane Wilkins

    I wholeheartedly support LaTeX evangelization amongst the philosophical public. There used to be an excellent website run by Charlie Tanksley on the topic which was a helpful point of departure, especially for philosophers whose interests were generally more humanistic. Unfortunately, it appears he has left philosophy and taken down his old site. Does anyone know of a similar resource similarly targeted specifically towards philosophers to which I direct dubious colleagues?

  5. jason

    The traditional argument is that using MS Word (and saving files encoded with their standard) is immoral because by using it you contribute to Microsoft’s monopoly, forcing others to use it as well for which privilege they must pay Microsoft. Shawn, you respond to the traditional argument with the claim that docx is an open standard and so the traditional argument has a false premise. It’s unclear how open docx really is at this point. But I took Jon to be hinting at a different argument: submitting papers to editors that are written and encoded with word processioning software (whether MS Office or Open Office) rather than markup is immoral because by using it we contribute to the monopoly of publishing houses. The main cost of electronic publishing is in the typesetting, and most journals need to be backed by publisher money to absorb those costs. If we all learned to write in markup we could essentially distribute the bulk of typesetting costs across the profession, paving the way for free-of-charge journals. And .docx’s openness or lack thereof just isn’t relevant to that argument.

    (To be fair, I’m not entirely convinced yet by the second argument. My understanding is that publishers don’t just typeset; they also do indexing and archiving of the sort that make papers show up in google searches and so on. I don’t have a good feel for how important these features are, and how bad it would be to try to run a journal without them; until I have a better sense of that I won’t know whether the sort of homespun open-access system Jon envisions is a viable replacement for the current Springers of the world.)

  6. SurprisedPhilosopher

    Brill Academic Publishers recently put out a cheeky video that could be seen as an answer to the question that begins the post (“What does a publisher contribute to a journal?”):

  7. Shawn A. Miller

    Jason, I appreciate the points you make. However, I don’t understand the stuff about monopolies. What exactly do publishing houses have a monopoly on? And what counts as a publishing house such that they collectively monopolize something? Certainly at this point Microsoft does not have anything like a monopoly when it comes wordprocessing software. There are plenty of office clones–OpenOffice, LibreOffice, etc.–so the simple fact of using doc/docx formats doesn’t compel us to pay Microsoft anything, and software lock-in isn’t unique to Microsoft. Also, I don’t think monopolies are necessarily immoral. They are often undesirable or unfair or inefficient, etc., but they aren’t automatically ethically degenerate. For example, in some auto racing, e.g., NASCAR, only one company is permitted to provide tires for all the various makes of car, and this is basically a safety measure; the thinking behind this is that if tire companies were in a fight to provide a competitive edge via cutting edge tire design, then safety is very likely to be compromised when tires start coming apart at high speeds. So giving Goodyear a monopoly on NASCAR tires isn’t morally bad; it’s a decision that is sensitive to a variety of factors and values.


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