LaTeX was not built for the web

One of the questions we get more often from our users at Authorea is:

Why is my LaTeX command not working?

The short answer to that is:

Because that LaTeX command was not intended for a webpage; it was intended for the printer. :(

The longer answer.

Authorea understands and renders markup languages such as Markdown, and LaTeX. But it does not rely on a compiler which takes TeX and spits out PDF. All the content created on Authorea is web-native. As we create more and more content on the web, we think that scholarly articles, too, should live on the web.

That said, we do enjoy and use LaTeX frequently at Authorea. This post for example, was written in LaTeX! Want to see? Let’s grab a pre-baked equation, for example this Fourier transform and render it below:

a \Leftrightarrow 2\pi a\sum\limits_{k = - \infty }^\infty

{\delta (\omega + 2\pi k)} ,( - \infty < n < \infty )

\[a \Leftrightarrow 2\pi a\sum\limits_{k = - \infty }^\infty {\delta (\omega + 2\pi k)} ,( - \infty < n < \infty )\]

We decided to support LaTeX from the very beginning, as it is the document preparation toolkit of choice for many (most?) researchers in the hard sciences. We think LaTeX is still the best programming language to tell a computer how to place text on a page. But the TeX project started pre-web, in 1978, and its scope and function are tightly linked to the printed page, not the webpage. Take, as an example a table definiton that begins with \begin{table}[ht] . This table command instructs TeX to put the table in the page, here, where the table is declared (h ) AND at the top of the page (t ). The list of examples could go on and on — think of minipage environments, page margins, text width parameters... all LaTeX notation that does really not make sense for a webpage.

Is CSS the next LaTeX?.

What does the future hold for academic writing? We like to think that a few years from now we will format our research papers with the web version in mind, rather than the printed PDF. And we are not alone! LaTeX will very likely be used many years from now, but, we think, in a much more stripped-down, web-friendly incarnation, like the subset that Authorea currently supports. (We use some amazing tools like Pandoc and MathJax to convert between formats and render equations). Or maybe someday we will just format papers using CSS stylesheets?

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