Approaching the Fork: Part 3. LibreOffice or OpenOffice instead of MS Word?

In this series of posts, I’m discussing whether I can move completely from Windows to Linux. In the last post in the series, I discussed why I’m sticking with Windows 7 for the moment rather than moving to Windows 8. It’s time now to look at some open source word processors and whether they can take the place of MS Word if I move completely to Linux. I’m sure many Linux users would say this is no problem but unfortunately it’s just not as simple as that for many of us.

I’m a freelance editor and spend a lot of time correcting the language of research papers for authors and publishers. The plain fact is that Microsoft Word has been around for a very long time (1983 to be precise) and is the established word processor. Kids, including my own, learn MS Office at school and go on to use it in business, academia and at home.  Although Google Drive is becoming more popular with some authors and publishers,  MS Word is the well entrenched standard in the publishing industry. Most publishers insist that documents are submitted in Word doc format (many publishers still can’t/won’t handle docx format). We have a situation now where authors worldwide have to fork out for a commercial product, or pirate it, because it’s the publishing standard. Many of these authors just can’t afford MS Office with its costly upgrades. And because they have to stick with MS Word and need a platform to use it, that makes it more difficult for them to move to a Linux OS. Or does it? There are several options to work with Word documents in Linux. The first would be to use open source, free software such as OpenOffice Writer or LibreOffice Writer to write or edit the article then save the file in Word doc format to send the document off to the publishers. But there may well be compatibility issues in the process. The second option would be to run MS Word in Wine on the Linux OS. I’ll look at OpenOffice and LibreOffice in this post and at Wine in a later post.

LibreOffice is gaining traction as a good alternative to MS Office. A recent article on Lifehacker compared LibreOffice and MS Office and LibreOffice Writer came out very well. Tracking changes in a document is a key feature for most copy editors as authors like to see what changes an editor has made. Lifehacker wrote:

For years, Word’s killer feature was a variety of editing options and change tracking. Now, though, Writer comes with all that as well. You can track changes, show edits, and everything else. In fact, I prefer Writer’s simpler layout of tracked changes over Word’s because it’s a bit easier to use and understand.

But what about interoperability with MS Word? How do the tracked changes and comments show in a doc file converted from OpenOffice and LibreOffice? And what if someone sends me a doc format file with tracked changes and comments. Can I open it in OpenOffice or LibreOffice, edit it with tracked changes and add further comments then convert it back to doc format retaining all the tracking and comments? Let’s have a look.

Word to LibreOffice Writer to Word

I’m using LibreOffice here, the latest version available at the time of writing. I took the first paragraph of this post and added it to a new document in Word 2010. I turned on Track Changes then deleted some text, inserted a sentence, added bold font to one word and italic font to another and added two comments. I saved it in Word 2007 doc format (the publishers’ standard), then opened it in LibreOffice Writer where I deleted more text, inserted another sentence and added a further comment. I saved it in doc format, then opened it again in Word. Here is the result showing tracked changes.


It looks a little messy when changes are showing but on the whole, a good conversion from Word to LibreOffice and back to Word. Added and deleted text is clearly shown and bold, italic, superscript, and subscript formatting have survived each edit.  As you can see, the LibreOffice comment I added has even been integrated into the earlier Word comments. The two problems I can see are that text highlights for comments are not showing clearly enough and the final character in the comment text is now in a smaller font size.

Word to OpenOffice Writer to Word

OpenOffice used to be the number 1 open source office suite but in the last few years it has been overtaken by LibreOffice. However, I’ve heard Apache has made great efforts to get OpenOffice back on track. I’m using the latest version Apache OpenOffice Writer 4.0.0 here. The layout and commands are very similar to LibreOffice Writer but regrettably, I found that some of the keyboard combinations differ between LibreOffice/OpenOffice and Word. I followed the same procedure I used above with LibreOffice Writer: Word document to OpenOffice Writer and back to Word. Here’s the result showing tracked changes:


Perhaps not surprisingly given the similar origins and code base of these two office suites, the result with OpenOffice was very similar to that with LibreOffice. Again, text highlights for comments could be clearer but there were no font size changes with OpenOffice Writer. All the other changes in the OpenOffice edit integrated well into the Word document.

So there’s a quick look at just one aspect of using open source word processors to edit with changes tracked and save as a Word doc format file. Unfortunately, if you have amassed a suite of macros and paid for Add-Ins and Templates such as MegaReplacer and ReferenceChecker to speed up editing in MS Word as I have, these will all be left behind in the move to open source software. However LibreOffice and OpenOffice do have extensions which may help replace these. And doubtless there will still be some interoperability issues when a really complex Word doc file with footnotes, tables, equations and embedded figures is opened and edited in say LibreOffice Writer and the file converted back to doc format. However, for shorter less complex files, it should be possible to use open source format software rather than Word, and this may in fact be sufficient for many authors. I’ll have a more complete look at interoperability issues in a later post.

I believe the time has come for writers everywhere to give open source word processing software a chance but I think it will still be a struggle to persuade publishers to change their ways and accept open source odt format files. We can but try. Are you an author using open source software? What are your experiences with the software and with publishers?

The next post in this series Approaching the Fork will look at Wine and just how successful it is at running MS Word on a Linux OS.

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