Department of Psychology
Department of Psychology

What is Overleaf?

Overleaf is a website for writing and publishing documents that provides an online collaboration platform. Kind of like Google Docs or MS Word Online (offering simultaneous editing with track-changes and commenting from multiple authors), but geared specifically toward scientific-journal publishing (though it can be used for far more, including making posters).

Why learn Overleaf?

Like many productivity tools, a somewhat large time investment is required up front in order to yield time saving over the long term. Here are some of the ways that Overleaf can help:

  1. Many journal submission portals integrate with Overleaf (and it seems on track to become universal and even required for some journals). Meaning, once you learn the Overleaf standards you may never again need to spend time adapting your manuscript to a journal’s specific formatting requirements. Instead, the journal provides a LaTeX template and automated pre-submission checks that ensure the manuscript is compiled in the correct format. (UT Austin also provides a template for student theses and dissertations.) An increasing number of journals, such as Scientific Reports, even offer a “1 click” submission link in Overleaf, which will pass files directly from Overleaf to the journal’s submission system.
  2. Automated figure and table numbering. Do you follow the algorithm of using “Table X” and “Figure X” as a placeholder until you have a final version of the manuscript, at which point you go back through and manually insert the correct numbers? What if you then decide to insert or delete an extra table? You then need to go back through and manually update the numbers. In Overleaf, these numbers are automatically numbered and updated whenever you add or remove a table or figure.
  3. Integration with R Markdown notebooks to automatically transfer statistical copy from a data analysis to your manuscript. This of course requires that you conduct your data analysis and construct your tables in R, but this perhaps offers the biggest payoff of all: every time you manually copy a number from the output of a statistical analysis to the text or table of a manuscript is an opportunity for human error that may be quite difficult to detect after the fact. Moreover, we often think we have a final version of a data analysis only later to find a mistake or to have a reviewer or supervisor insist on changes. Rerunning an analysis then requires a manual check and update of all the corresponding numbers in the manuscript. Imagine instead that each number that appears in the manuscript is directly linked to the statistical program that generates it. Integration of Overleaf with R Markdown not only guarantees that the numbers in your manuscript match your statistical output, but it can also save you an immense amount of time if you later need to modify and rerun your analysis.

What’s the catch?

You need to be at least somewhat familiar with LATEX. It’s a typesetting system that’s been around a while (since 1978) where content is written in plain text and annotated with “commands” that describe how elements should be displayed. It has been especially popular with mathematicians, engineers, and other scientists who need to include a lot of mathematical notation in their manuscripts. However, you only need a very basic grasp to get started and make use of Overleaf, which is very helpful in highlighting errors and suggesting fixes.

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