The tyrannical hegemony of MS Word

Today is the day when I say it bluntly: it is high time for the humanities to catch up with certain scholarly practices that have been established in the sciences for a while now. I am talking about platforms for producing knowledge, such as document preparation systems, and platforms for the circulation of that knowledge, such as repositories. I think there is no doubt that these practices are of benefit for both the development of the areas themselves –be it mathematics or anthropology– and for the researchers working in those areas. There are, however, certain domains of knowledge for which these issues should occupy a top spot in their rank of priorities. I am talking about those areas in the humanities where theoretical concerns include the question of the imbalance of power between, for instance, the global North and the global South, and how such imbalance impinges upon the question of the production and the circulation of knowledge.

I decided to write about this now because I have just been confronted to a particular situation where there is clearly no overlap between the scholarly topic I am engaging with and the technical practice the journal I am submitting to encourages to engage in. Part of the argument I made in the article I wanted to submit to the journal in question relates to English as the language one must master for being granted scholarly legitimacy –even existence– in mainstream academia. Yet this journal, which uses the ScholarOne Manuscripts system,* has a very restricted range of file types it accepts: it restricts almost everything but MS Word documents. This means that not only one as a scholar has to have a premium command of English, the dominant scholarly language, but one also is compelled to use MS Word, the dominant typesetting tool.

While it will take probably forever to challenge the dominance of English as the academic lingua franca, challenging the dominance of technological tools is a real possibility. Yet as long as journals don’t open up to that possibility this situation will remain uncontested.

So, what is the problem with MS Word?

A straightforward answer to this question would be “everything”, ranging from technical issues up to political ones. Charlie Stross summarises MS Word ills in these lines:

Microsoft Word is a tyrant of the imagination, a petty, unimaginative, inconsistent dictator that is ill-suited to any creative writer’s use. Worse: it is a near-monopolist, dominating the word processing field. Its pervasive near-monopoly status has brainwashed software developers to such an extent that few can imagine a word processing tool that exists as anything other than as a shallow imitation of the Redmond Behemoth.

Stross, as he says in the text where I am taking this quote from, has a long experience in working with word processors and text editors. My own experience is far more limited. Although I work now in the humanities, I was initially trained in Computer Engineering. There were only two good things that came out my getting a degree in that field: first, I got a scholarship to move abroad, which allowed me to change my career orientation; second, I learned to use LaTeX.

LaTeX is everything MS Word is not, that is, a free and open source document preparation system designed to handle medium to large documents with high quality results. MS Word, on the other hand, is a paying WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) word processor that is simply incapable of handling medium documents, such as articles, let alone long documents, such as theses or books. Worse: it cannot make optimal use of automatic referencing systems, which, I believe, is an essential tool when it comes to academic writing.

I stopped using MS Word 15 years ago after the nightmarish experience of having to write my 100 pages long Master’s Thesis in Engineering. Some people keep telling me that surely MS Word must have improved in fifteen long years. Sure, MS Word has improved. And yet, it still manages to remain rotten. As recently as a year ago, a colleague of mine was finishing her Doctoral dissertation. I had been trying to convince this person to move out of amateurish MS Word to something professional, but she didn’t really have the time to do it. By the time she had to organise her nearly 300 pages document for submission she was banging her head on the wall. She had a file for each chapter and trying to put them together proved impossible. The solution she had to retort to was to do the pagination manually, compile her references for each chapter individually (apparently if you do it as you write the programme slows down to the extent you cannot use it), generate a PDF for each chapter, and find a program that will integrate those PDFs in a single document. On top of that, you need to buy a licence in order to use this Marvel of Technology. I mean, this had to be a JOKE, unfunny, but a joke nonetheless. The weird thing, however, is that it isn’t. MS Word is by far the world’s dominant typesetting tool.

Thus scholars keep paying for a product that makes their lives difficult. We could recite neoliberal mantras here: “everyone is free to buy what they want”, “we are autonomous individuals that have choices”. Fair enough. Yet, one thing is for the majority “to choose” a useless dominant tool, and another very different one is for journals to force scholars to use dominant typesetting tools that are both expensive and rubbish. And this falls indeed in the realm of responsibility of each journal, especially those journals which capitalise on academic work that is asking questions about imagining the world otherwise.

Free and open source software is indeed a real possibility for contesting technological monopolies. The fact that it is free –although if you use it you should somehow contribute to the system– implies that you don’t need to have money in order to have access to good products. The fact that it is open source implies anyone in the community can contribute to make it better for the good of the products themselves and for the benefit of the community as a whole.

Hence, I think we need to bring this discussion to the table within the humanities. It is really for the benefit of all.

 
* The ScholarOne Manuscripts system is also used in science, so they have the technological capabilities to deal with LaTeX (.tex) files (also PDFs). So, if a journal does not have that option it is because of the journal not because of the system.

Postscript

A few months ago I started a blog where I tried to introduce LaTeX for the uninitiated. If you are interested you can access it here. I would recommend to start by post 1.

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