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« January 6, 2006 | Main | January 10, 2006 »

9 January 2006

Tools for Research (A Biased Review)

Sebastian Bauhoff and Jens Hainmueller

A perfect method for adding drama to life is to wait until a paper deadline looms large. So you're finding yourself at the eve of a deadline, "about to finish" for the last 4 hours, and not having formatted any of the tables yet? Still copying STATA tables into MS Word? Or just received the departmental brainwash regarding statistical software and research best practice? Here are some interesting tools you could use to make life easier and your research more effective. On the Big Picture level, which tools to use is as much a question of philosophy as of your needs: open-source or commercial package? At Harvard, students often use one of the two combos: MS Word and Stata (low tech) or LaTeX and R (high tech). What type are you?

If you're doing a lot of data-based research, need to type formulas and often change your tables, you might want to consider learning LaTeX. Basically, LaTeX is a highly versatile type-setting environment to produce technical and scientific documents with the highest standards of typesetting quality. It's for free and LaTeX implementations are available for all platforms (Linux, Mac, Windows, etc). Bibliographies are easily managed with Bibtex. And you can also produce cool slides using ppower4. At the Government Department, LaTeX is taught to all incoming graduate students and many of them hate it at the beginning (it's a bit tricky to learn), but after a while many of them grew true LaTeX fetishists (in the metaphorical sense, of course).

Ever wondered why some papers look nicer than Word files? They're done in LaTex. A drawback is that they all look the same, of course. But then, some say having your papers in LaTeX-look is a signal that you're part of the academic community...

LaTeX goes well with R, an open-source statistical package modeled on S. R is both a language and an environment for statistical computing. It's very powerful and flexible; some say the graphical capabilities are unparalleled. The nice thing is that R can output LaTeX tables which you can paste directly into your document. There are many ways to do this, one easy way is to use the "LaTeX" function in the design library. A mouse-click later, your paper shines in pdf format, all tables looking professional. As with LaTeX, many incoming graduate students at the Government Department suffer learning it, but eventually most of them never go back to their previous statistical software.

But you are actually looking for a more user friendly modus vivid? Don't feel like wasting your nights writing code and chasing bugs like a stats addict? Rather, you like canned functions, and an easy-to-use working environment. Then consider the MS Word and STATA combo. Getting STATA output to look nice in Word is rather painful unless you use a little tool called outreg or alternatively estout (the latter also produces copy and paste-able LaTeX tables). Outreg is an ado-file that produces a table in Word format, and you can simply apply the normal formatting functions in Word. The problem is that outreg outputs only some of the tables that STATA produces, and so you're stuck having to format at least some. But of course there are many formatting tools available in Word.

So you make your choice depending on how user-friendly and or flexible you like it. But whether you're using Word/STATA or LaTeX/R, one tool comes in handy anyway: WinEdt is a shareware that can be used to write plain text, html, LaTeX etc. (WinEdt automatically comes with a LaTeX engine, so you won't need to install that.) The software can also serve as do-file editor for STATA and R. You can download configuration files that will highlight your commands in WinEdt, do auto-saves whenever you like (ever lost your STATA do-file??) and send your code to STATA or R just like the built-in editors would do. Alternative are other powerful word editors like Emacs, etc.

Confused? Can't decide? Well, your're certainly not the only one. In the web, people fight fervent LaTeX vs Word wars (google it!). We (the authors) recommend using LaTeX and R. This is the way we work, because, as Gary uses to say "if we knew a better way of working we would use it" -- is that what's called a tautology?! :-).

Posted by Sebastian Bauhoff at 2:44 AM