The LaTeX Newbie’s Guide to Using Overleaf for Conference Paper Submissions

Conference paper submissions in LaTeX are becoming increasingly popular in fields outside the technical disciplines (which have embraced them a long time ago already). Be that the Digital Humanities or historians wanting to contribute to events such as HistoCrypt, LaTeX templates for submission are getting more widely adopted. That’s why I wanted to dedicate this first post of 2022 to this important topic, so you are ready for LaTeX conference paper/abstract submissions in 2022!

How to get started quickly and what to be aware of

  1. Find the template to use. The conference will have probably prepared a template you’re supposed to do. Since a principle behind TeX/LaTeX is the separation of form and content, you really only need to focus on writing your text. The layout will be provided by the conference organizers in said template. If this template isn’t on Overleaf yet, download it and upload it as a new project in the online LaTeX editor Overleaf. This will reduce hassle as well as the risk of installation problems (those can be an issue with LaTeX on Windows computers especially).
  2. Compile the document in Overleaf. The online editor has a column to the left where you can see your files (like the main .tex file where your stuff needs to go, a .bib file where structured ‘bibitems’ organize your bibliography and possibly a config file with the template which can take the form of a .sty file – which you should ignore unless the need arises to modify it. Although that normally shouldn’t happen.) The second big column in the middle / center-left is the ‘code editor’ where the LaTeX code goes. To the right, you have a field where a PDF preview appears once you click the green ‘(re-)compile’ button. This is also automatically triggered by pressing CRTL+S to save your progress. If there are no problems, a PDF should be compiled from the source code. If there are problems, you can see error messages here. If the editor is too small, you can download the PDF and look at it outside of the editor. Or print it out. Or whatever it is you normally do with PDFs.
  3. Write your text: all you really need to know is that formatting instructions are written in this format: \commandname{content}. There are also so-called environments which looks something like \begin{environmentname} content \end{environmentname}.
  4. Cite stuff: As mentioned before, structured bibliography items are in the .bib file and can be ‘called’ by their “citekey “ in the .tex file like this: \cite{Rampling2020} where ‘Rampling2020’ would be the citekey I gave to an example book citation. The provided template will probably have some examples of how such items look. Best copy one of those and fill in your own data (and a new citekey, of course) into the available fields. \cite{Rampling2020} is essentially the same command format as above but instead of ‘content’ inside the curly braces, you have the citekey. The citation is then automatically created in the pdf in the citation format defined in the document preamble (before \begin{document}).
  5. General important advice: Be careful not to accidentally remove curly braces. LaTeX, and the Overleaf editor especially, will go beserk if braces are getting opened but not closed again. In the .bib, also take care not to change the commas (thus my advice of just copying provided bib items and filling them in with your own data).
  6. Special characters: Because certain characters have special meanings in LaTeX, you can’t use them as they are but need to “escape” them. Like so: \& gives you an ampersand (&) character. Here’s a list of such characters for later reference. You might want to know that a hyphen is achieved by typing -- and that you can get a non-breaking whitespace using ~. You might want to do that, for example, to avoid a line break between ‘figure’ and ‘1’. LaTeX also allows you to automatically number in-text image references but maybe that’s not for today if this is your first time using LaTeX. Also, I almost forgot to say, but % is a marker of a comment in LaTeX, i.e. anything following it until the next linebreak/newline is ‘commented out’ (displayed in a different colour in LaTeX editors and not included in the final PDF). Accidentally forgetting to escape the percent symbol like \% can lead to mismatched curly braces and thus errors, so be on the lookout for that. Also, being able to comment something out (i.e. not have it in the final PDF but being able to keep it still) can be incredibly useful – for example to anonymize your paper by commenting out self-references for the initial submission. Or use comments to mark % TODO s.
  7. Dealing with error messages: Hopefully you won’t get a lot of errors but if you do, don’t panic. Mostly, actually reading the messages helps 😉 It does take a little experience to get better intuition for fixing errors (called “debugging”) but I think most people freeze before they even read the message (embarassingly, I often do! 😉 ). Mostly, you will get a sensible indication of what went wrong and in which line. I have written how to learn debugging in Learning to program: Failing fast and error messages and Learning to program: Debugging – Where to start? In case of stubborn, hard-to-solve errors, try websearching “latex + your problem / error message from the editor” and you’ll probably find a useful answer. Otherwise, you can ask for help (and here’s how to do that).
  8. Getting started and finding things: That’s really all you need to know but most importantly, you can just write normally. All the extra formatting stuff is optional really and you don’t need to worry about that just now. Learn new commands gradually as you need them. For now, just start typing someting and press compile. You’ll see it’s not witchcraft! If you want to find something in the code, just use ctrl+f to search for it. That’s where the provided template comes in: It usually has usage example of all the elements you might want to use or are allowed to use. That way, you can just search for what you want to do in the PDF, then CTRL+f some nearby text in the code editor and it should take you right to an example of how this is achieved in the LaTeX code. Then copy and paste your way to the finished paper. That’s how we all started: By modifying a provided template until we were ready to write our own documents.
  9. When submitting you’ll probably be asked to send both the resulting PDF as well as the LaTeX code. That way, editors can make their edits right in there. For initial submission, the PDF is usually enough but for the final version of your paper, editors will want to have your source code so they can correct mistakes or inconsistencies if necessary.
  10. Never be afraid to ask for help. That can be here, on Twitter (using #TeXLaTeX) or on StackExchange. Also, there are lots of great resources, both physical books and online to help you learn LaTeX if you want to.

If the conference hasn’t provided a template for you to use that would be weird/unusual. But even then, I got you covered! Read the blogpost A Humanities’ seminar paper with LaTeX – in 10 minutes and follow along with this template I prepared for you (including the basics of citation management!).

So that was it – you should be ready to go. What follows now is just a reflexion.

Reflexion: Should we embrace conference submissions in LaTeX?

I have already discussed many times how LaTeX never really got established in the Digital Humanities and that there can sometimes even be an outright dislike for the technology in the field (which I personally don’t understand). In DH discourses, I often find the argument of LaTeX being exclusionary. However, being open access and a bastion against commercial proprietary software, it’s not all that clear to me why that would be the case. As I have discussed in the above linked blog post, I don’t really see how LaTeX is techie (LaTeX is for everybody – which is the main message I’m trying to get across with this blog since 2018), especially in a field where we’re required to keep up with new technologies all the time.

The blog criticizing LaTeX as a possibly exclusionary trend in the Computational Humanities itself uses both Python and R. That means the authors were ready to learn two whole programming languages – the effort involved in this is much, much greater than taking the afternoon you need to make your first steps in LaTeX – which on the surface, i.e. in the perspective of novice user – isn’t more than a markup language with only very few commands truly relevant for beginners to learn. It’s funny, really, how the Digital Humanities both make a mockery of LaTeX because “it’s not actually programming” and then also complaining how we shouldn’t be expected to learn yet another technology (more on how it isn’t just a markup language here).

Little appreciated benefit: LaTeX submissions allow for accelerated publication workflows

An argument in favour of using LaTeX for conference submissions – which in my opinion is very important to the question but hasn’t been brought up yet – is that these submissions often lead to very much reduced timespans between submission and publication. This is extremely important for the less privileged corners of academia, i.e. early career scholars who need their publications to be out as soon as possible. With traditional publishing workflows in the Humanities sometimes taking up to three years (or anything around and above that), I personally don’t get how more people don’t embrace LaTeX submissions like they’re being required in the CHR conference. Also, given the already quite technical theme of the Computational Humanities conference, I frankly am a little doubtful whether you have chances of being accepted there in the first place if filling out a provided LaTeX template is an insurmountable obstacle for you. (Not meant to offend anyone but an honest question.)

Of course this excludes some people – but let’s face it, Academia is an extremely exclusionary place! In other journals you can’t get accepted if you don’t know the right people. At least taking an afternoon to understand how to work this LaTeX template is within your control.

Furthermore, I have had the pleasure to have two papers out in 2021 which were based on LaTeX submissions. The whole process for peer-reviewed publications was between 4-5 months! That’s lightning fast for the Humanities. And just what you need as an early career scholar – a publication which is actually out that you can list on your CV when you’re applying for the next job. Or just to make sure that nobody steals your unpublished research or is able to publish it before you.

There are so many benefits to LaTeX submissions (in my opinion) which have not yet been taken into account in this discussion! And that, I personally consider to be a problem because it shows a distorted picture of LaTeX as this exclusionary, techie thing which is a hassle and has no benefits for the Humanities. None of those things are true, if you ask me, and I’ve dedicated a whole blog to trying to get the point across.

LaTeX is easier and has more benefits, even for non-techies, than you think!

So yeah, I think there are a lot of hidden benefits to learning LaTeX for Humanities scholars and it’s not all that difficult as people make it out to be. It’s an extra skill you can add to your CV once you’re sufficiently comfortable with it. It’s actually enjoyable for a lot of people and can be extremely helpful for writing long academic works (like PhD theses or books).

In my opinion, you can learn how to write a Humanities paper using LaTeX in just around 10 minutes and I prepared a template to follow along (including the basics of citation management!).

Established MS Word-based publication workflows aren’t all that great either

No shade, but I think I’m not the only one in despair year and year again over the MS Word stylesheet submission for the Digital Humanities im deutschsprachigen Raum (DHd, German DH association) conference. It never really works. I would prefer to write the TEI markup by hand rather than labouring for unnecessary amounts of time over these stylesheets which end up not working anyway. Be that on a Windows computer or on my Linux machine. Every year I make a point of doing the submission from a Windows computer at the office, i.e. specifically locating somebody else’s computer I can use just to make this submission. The hassle is enormous. And all the proprietary, non-open access, commerical software involved.

Of course, my university pays for those Windows machines and the Office software – but what about independent scholars? They have to pay for this software themselves. It’s proprietary software. Of course I could use Libre Office – but in my opinion, this whole stylesheet submission thing doesn’t work either way. It even works bad on a Windows machine using MS Word. I don’t get how that isn’t exclusionary?

Of course, learning basic LaTeX usage might take you an afternoon – but it’s free and there are lots of free resources online teaching you how to use it (like this blog). If you don’t use complicated elements (the conference should be providing the template anyway), there isn’t too much that can go wrong. There should be a sort of help-desk but that could easily be accomplished using StackExchange or a Discord server. Given only the amount of help I have required with my non-working template, I cannot imagine how this could be more work than the current workflow, to be honest.

More to come…

In the recent discussion regarding the Data Sitters Club blog post (see the edited footnote 1 which contains a reaction to this discussion), I promised to follow up with a much more in-depth discussion of the Computational Humanities and LaTeX possibly being a medium of exclusion. Also, the relation of this discussion to the ‘hack vs. yack’ discourse should be reflected upon at some point. Due to time constraints on my part (I enjoyed my vacation but lots of work has piled up in the meantime), I will have to defer you to another time for this – sorry! But I guess this little reflection is already a first step. If you have thoughts on this, please get in touch via the comments or let’s discuss on Twitter!

That’s it for now. See you soon!

PS: Excuse the hiatus but my New Years’ Resolution is to take free time more seriously and not fill up every minute I have available with work. We’ll see just how well that goes along the course of 2022 😉

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