Using Overleaf in our LaTeX-based workflow at Language Science Press
A recent blog post from Language Science Press on their LaTeX-based workflow caught our eye towards the end of last year, as they talked about how they were using Overleaf as an integral part of this process.
We followed up with their coordinator Sebastian Nordhoff to find out more, and here's what he had to say...
How are you currently working with Overleaf?
Our main use of overleaf is currently for the finalization of books. We publish rather long books, which can go up to 600 pages or so. The authors write their books on their own computers. They are responsible for the actual content (which then undergoes peer review). The final typesetting is done by experts at Language Science Press. It is usually during this phase that we upload the books to Overleaf.
This allows the authors to see what the publishers/typesetters are doing without the need to send pdfs back and forth. We can discuss the best arrangement of tables etc, and the authors can still correct typos or do some minor rewording.
In your blog post, you mention using Trello to manage typesetting tasks – could you tell us who pulls together the trello cards for the typesetters, and how you manage that process?
At that point in time, each chapter had a different overleaf/writelatex document shared on a need-to-know basis so as to minimize version conflicts and as a safeguard against bad faith typesetters (more based on general principles of minimizing risk than a real perceived threat). These chapters were later merged into a global document. I believe this was done locally with git, but I might be wrong.
This book is the longest one we have had on overleaf with 516 pages, but it has only one author. We are currently working on an edited volume with 21 chapters, about 30 authors and three editors, which has 370 pages.
The most valuable features for us are the Rich Text interface so that authors don't have to install LaTeX locally, and the git bridge, so that I myself can use my own local LaTeX installation ;)
A feature I would really like to see would be a chat function in order to discuss certain aspects of a document with the collaborators.
What made you decide to use Overleaf - what problems were you trying to solve?
We use a Latex-based workflow because of the superior typesetting LaTeX provides as compared to WYSIWYG word processors like LibreOffice or MS Word. Depending on the sub-community, linguists are more or less acquainted with LaTeX, and manuscripts are often written in Word. We accommodate this by providing Word templates for later conversion to LaTeX. The problem we had is that installing LaTeX on user computers is not always straightforward, and sometimes impossible since the users might not have admin rights on their university computers.
We are a publishing house and not a LaTeX installation troubleshooting helpdesk. Therefore, we were very happy to see that WriteLaTeX (as Overleaf was called back then), provided online editing facilities for LaTeX documents. This meant that the authors could concentrate on what they can do best (provide scientific content) and do not have to do something they are less suited for, namely becoming sysadmins.
Why did you choose Overleaf for this initiative?
We tried other online editing services, but back on 2014, they did not provide the full LaTeX support we needed. Some of the other services used markdown, which is a sensible choice for many projects, but not an option for us.
Did it make a difference in your workflow?
Since we established the workflow with Overleaf right away, we cannot really make a before-after comparison. One thing which really changed our lives is the git bridge. This means that the computer-savvy people can use their own Latex installations on their own computers, with all the additional tools they cherish, while the newbies can work in their browser, which is also an environment familiar to them.
Another nice improvement was the possibility to use zip_url as a parameter to include large projects. In the beginning, our doc2tex conversion would use the standard Overleaf setup. With zip_url, we convert from Word, build the whole package on our servers, and then import it into Overleaf in one go with our own required packages and custom fonts.
This also means that users gain more autonomy. It actually happened that for one project (The future of dialects, http://langsci-press.org/catalog/book/81), I was wondering why I had not heard anything from them for a long time. It turned out that they finished the conversion of 21 chapters more or less alone and did not require assistance since the integration of docx into the production process was that seamless. (I am not advocating the use of docx as an input format here, but we have to acknowledge that it is a format many people are using).
One thing which is currently still a little bit cumbersome is the creation of custom indexes. We have a Subject Index, a Name Index and a Language Index, with the file extensions *snd, *and and *lnd, respectively. Unfortunately, the current OL setup does not allow us to upload these files, and I believe that multiindex will be a problem in general. In a similar vein, generating multiple reference sections for edited volumes requires running bibtex on more than one file (and not the master file). This is an issue which currently still requires the use of a local computer with a full Latex installation. When contributors to edited volumes want to see corrections and updates to their bib-files, or when they are working on the index, they have to wait for the LangSci office to compile the project locally and push the results.
Did it solve the problem(s) you were trying to solve?
Would you recommend Overleaf to other organizations for similar projects?
Any other facts or stories you think would be interesting to other publishers looking to do something similar?
Any sane person these days should be using versioning control. There is github, there is gitbooks, and there are other technologies. Integrating the different stakeholders (authors, proofreaders, typesetters) in a clearly defined workflow connected to a versioning system is definitely a thing I would recommend. I realize that the git bridge is only a minor aspect of Overleaf, but for us, it is really central. Furthermore, running diff's on Latex files is something which provides sensible output, which is not the case for docx or odt files.