I’ve been warning people about the many problems with Microsoft Word (and all of Office, really) for years (I gave a talk entitled “Is Microsoft Word Inherently evil?” five years ago), with about as much success as Don Quixote. The problem, ultimately, isn’t that Microsoft is evil or their software sucks (although arguments could be made…), but that they continue to build their empire on closed document formats that they change quite arbitrarily from version to version, and without reliable support for converting between versions. This leaves everyone who lives in this bizarre world where Word is assumed to be some sort of “standard” scrambling to keep up with these changes. The scramble that M$ would obviously prefer is that we would all keep buying newer versions of Office on their whim. Those who can’t or (like me) won’t go down that road use cool things like OpenOffice, but the people that (mostly) donate their time to develop that sofware then have to reverse engineer (i.e., guess intelligently and test a lot) the format so that we can open everyone else’s Word/Excel/Office documents. Oh, joy.
Government and public entities who have some bizarre notion that their documents need to be readable into the foreseeable future have been growing increasingly concerned about this for several years now, and in several cases no longer allow documents of record to be stored in Word format for fear that they will be unreadable at some point in the future. Well, it would appear that some of the biggest guns in scientific publishing have also put their feet down in this mess, as the mega-journals Science and Nature are officially asking authors to not use Word 2007 formats for submissions. As reported by Rob Weir:
It appears that Science, the journal of the America Association for the Advancement of Science, itself the largest scientific society in the world, has updated its authoring guidelines to include advice for Office 2007 users. The news is not good.
“Because of changes Microsoft has made in its recent Word release that are incompatible with our internal workflow, which was built around previous versions of the software, Science cannot at present accept any files in the new .docx format produced through Microsoft Word 2007, either for initial submission or for revision. Users of this release of Word should convert these files to a format compatible with Word 2003 or Word for Macintosh 2004 (or, for initial submission, to a PDF file) before submitting to Science.”
That’s annoying and stupid, but not devastating. If I was silly enough to write serious technical work (complete with those crazy formulas and graphs that are at the core of most good science) in Word, I could always save in an older Word format or the much more sensible choice of PDF and submit that way. Presumably Science will get their workflow updated at some point, further enabling my Microsoft addiction.
Ah, but here’s the kicker:
“Users of Word 2007 should also be aware that equations created with the default equation editor included in Microsoft Word 2007 will be unacceptable in revision, even if the file is converted to a format compatible with earlier versions of Word; this is because conversion will render equations as graphics and prevent electronic printing of equations, and because the default equation editor packaged with Word 2007 — for reasons that, quite frankly, utterly baffle us — was not designed to be compatible with MathML. Regrettably, we will be forced to return any revised manuscript created with the Word 2007 default equation editor to authors for re-editing. To get around this, please use the Math Type equation editor or the equation editor included in previous versions of Microsoft Word.”
You gotta love it when serious academic journals use phrases like “for reasons that, quite frankly, utterly baffle us”. Sounds like Microsoft really stepped in something this time, as good equation editing and formatting is crucial to a major part of scientific research publishing, and damned important to much of the rest! No one’s ever argued that LaTeX was particularly easy to use (although practice and good tools like TeXShop do make it pretty straightforward), but it still dominates large parts of the scientific publishing universe because it supports open, standard formats, and generates gorgeous results. I can tell you that when I’m reviewing conference submissions, it’s almost always immediately obvious when a submission was written in Word instead of LaTeX, and the difference never makes Word look good…
Weir’s piece continues with quotes regarding a similar position being taken at Nature, and one of the comments on Weir’s post indicates Wiley is disallowing Word 2007 for all of their journals.
Oh, but wait! Microsoft does (sort of) support open formats! They’ve had lots of opportunities to incorporate support for existing standards like the Open Document Format and, uh…, didn’t. They instead invented their own open format, while totally failing to support the reading of or writing to the existing standards. But you can get a plug-in for Office that will allow you to convert between their open format and a slightly out-of-date version of the standard. If that’s the best that a giant like M$ can do, we’re all in serious trouble!
Now if we can get some entities with similar levels of clout to disallow PowerPoint the world would truly be a better place…