On editing snippets of research: Authorea vs. plain LaTeX vs. Sphinx

A friend mentioned Authorea to me: it’s an environment for collaborative paper writing. In the past I’ve mostly used LaTeX or LyX, but I semi-recently switched to Sphinx to compile to HTML, with MathJax, the bibtex extension, and some custom scripts for rendering extra LaTeX documents to images for things like diagrams and for auto-reloading the browser window.

Here are some pros and cons that I see in Authorea, compared to plain LaTeX:

  • Documents are written in a restricted subset (“web-friendly”) of LaTeX. They use Pandoc to convert to HTML, it seems; it should be a small matter to convert from Authorea to a paper suitable for submission.
  • Macros are possible, though only using \newcommand.
  • Like the nLab and Math Overflow and most other sites, they use MathJax to display mathematics in LaTeX notation in the browser.
  • You will not be able to use many LaTeX packages, nor write your own HTML. However, you can embed pictures, for instance hand renderings of LaTeX mathematics using your computer, or drawings.
  • Collaboration seems really easy, including comments.
  • All previous versions are stored in version control (Git), without having to think about it or learn it. Co-authors can collaborate with you on the LaTeX documents using Git without having to use the Authorea interface; version merges can usually be done automatically.
  • It’s freemium: you get one private article for free, but above that you have to pay.
  • I expect the error messages to be nicer than LaTeX.

Some (dis)advantages to my approach (Sphinx):

+ Free forever

+ More flexibility: I can add MathJax mathematics (which have infinitely sharp text), as well as easily render maths to images using any LaTeX package (but it’s a tad blurry). I can add new text styles using HTML, or create syntax using a handwritten Python parser. Displaying code with highlighting is trivial for known languages, and supposedly not too hard to integrate new languages using BNF.

+ More lightweight syntax
– Less familiar syntax if you’re used to LaTeX

– More complex to use

+ I can use my favourite editor for it, Sublime Text, which has efficient features like bookmarks, multiple selections, snippets, and word autocompletion.

– Rather than seeing most paragraphs rendered and one in its source form, I have a source window and a rendered window side-by-side.

+ Sphinx is structured around 1 source file = 1 browser page within a hyperlinked bunch, which I’m a fan of, rather than 1 source file = 1 part of a massive document. You can also easily ask for the concatenation of all pages, in the order/hierarchy specified in the table-of-contents file. On first sight this seems not possible with Authorea.

– It’s not backed by a well-funded company

– Minor rough edges

= Same version control

= Easy to convert to LaTeX

In conclusion: There’s advantages and drawbacks to either of the 3 approaches. I’m happy with Sphinx.