Comparing LaTeX conversion tools

Posted on 25 November 2013

One of the great joys of working in an EU consortium is that members will enforce their standards on others. This means using Google Docs for collaborative document editing, which is painful: the result will look abysmal, and LaTeX users will not rejoice -- this category includes myself. Using LaTeX and Git on a server hosted by a consortium member would solve all problems, but if this was an option, Europe would not be descending to oblivion and irrelevance. So I find myself with the age-old problem of LaTeX to word processor format conversion.

Playing around with some tools, I soon figured that the problem is still unsolved. I created a small test case for the features I need, and checked which tool would fit the bill. This post is about the results.


For the past thirteen years since I have been facing this problem, the range of tools does not seem to expanding much. The usual suspects are latex2rtf and latex2html -- the latter was not updated in recent times.

Texlive's tex4ht has been around for a while; updates are sporadic. It splits into mk4ht, a script that generates OpenDocument format, and htlatex, which produces HTML.

Pandoc is a newcomer that promises to convert from any markup format to any other. With Pandoc, the theoretical possibility is there to convert directly from LaTeX to everybody's favourite ISO standard Office Open XML, otherwise known as docx -- a format untouched by controversy. Its Office Math Markup Language (OMML) allows embedding mathematical formulae; fortunately OMML is incompatible with W3C's MathML.

Here is a summary of the versions of the tools tested:

Tool Version
latex2html 2008-2 (1.71)
latex2rtf 2.3.3
Pandoc 1.12.1
tex4ht 2013.31548

The environment for testing was Arch Linux, up to date with packages as of 2013-11-22. The word processors were LibreOffice 4.1.3 and OpenOffice 4.0.0.

Test case

The test case involves common LaTeX features that I frequently use. Crucial packages include amsmath, amssymb, graphicx, subfigure, url. Less crucial packages are times, latexsym, microtype, todonotes, natbib, hyperref, and multirow. Nagging and warnings are enabled to force me to write crispy clean LaTeX code. By default, PDF version 1.4 is enforced.

Inline formulae should display fractions, subscripts and superscripts, and mathematical symbols. The same applies to equations. Arrays should also work in math environment.

Citations and cross-references should work without a hitch. External Bibtex bibliography should be handled.

Figures and subfigures should work with both PNG and PDF images. The vector graphic image in the test case was created with Inkscape, and it was saved as PDF 1.4. Imagemagick generated the raster image without specifying any option.

Basic tables should convert flawlessly. If multirow or multicolumn tables convert, that is a great advantage.

Ridiculous as it is, I would expect file names to be arbitrary. Unfortunately, on a 21st Unix system, several LaTeX-related tools will complain if a file name contains multiple '.' characters. Accordingly, the file names in the test case were kept simple.

The test case is available on GitHub. Tex4ht will not work with the default LaTeX file, so a modified file is also included. A script is added to generate the output with all the tools outlined.


Before the tools were tested, LaTeX and Bibtex ran on the source files to generate the auxiliary files. Several parameters were tested for each tool. Only the best setting was included in the comparison.

Latex2html ran indefinitely: it did not terminate even after an hour. Its output cannot be evaluated.

For Pandoc, OpenDocument, RTF, Office Open XML, and HTML outputs were produced. They looked almost identical. Pandoc cannot include PDF figures. Its mathematical formulae are mixed -- basic ones translate, more or less. There is no sign of OMML support -- blank spaces are inserted where OMML should be in the docx file. Complicated tables and cross-references do not work.

With latex2rtf, all figures are correct, cross-references work. Citations show only the Bibtex key. Only the simplest equations are inlined. Multicolumn tables work.

As for mk4ht, explicit specification of PDF output confuses the parser. The amsmath pmatrix and the basic array in math mode are out by default, but adding an extra line in the preamble partially solves the problem:


Opening and closing brackets will be the wrong size. Cross-references work, the formulae are all there, they can even be edited. References are also there. Neither the PNG nor the PDF figures show.

Htlatex has similar limitations to mk4ht, but pmatrix and array in math mode work. PDF images are processed with ImageMagick if an extra configuration file is supplied. By default, ugly horizontal bars surround tables and figures; this needs further configuration. Theoretically, MathML and MathJax would be a better option for HTML -- adding a few more lines to the configuration file should do this. Yet, since the final target is a certain proprietary word processor, you are better off converting everything to PNG.

The results are compared in the following table:

Tool PDF figs. Inline math Eqs. Ams- symb Ams- math Cites X-refs. Multi table
latex2html ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
latex2rtf Yes Yes Yes Ugly No Yes Yes Yes
Pandoc No Partial Basic Ugly No Yes No No
mk4ht No Yes (editable) Yes (editable) Ugly Ugly Yes Yes Yes
htlatex Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

LibreOffice could not open the RTF and ODT files. The flaw is probably with this version of LibreOffice, and not with the tools, as all files opened in OpenOffice.


Htlatex won out, but tinkering is still necessary. You must convert all your vector images to a raster format. Then generate HTML, and open it in a word processor. Theoretically this last conversion could be done on the command line with unoconv, but I had no luck. Ensure the images are embedded, and not referenced when you save the file in a word processor format.

The damage done by word processors is irreversible. They will cripple workflows for centuries to come. Smooth translation between the two worlds will remain a dream. So long simplicity.

Tags: Academic publishing

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