Compatibility of Tracked Changes and Comments between Microsoft Word and LibreOffice Writer 4.4

I’ve looked at tracked changes and comments in LibreOffice Writer and MS Word before but thought it might be worth another closer look now with the release of LibreOffice 4.4. As I’ve said before, tracking changes and inserting comments are important features of MS Word for authors and editors in the publishing field and any progress towards a more seamless exchange of changes and comments between MS Word and LibreOffice Writer (shortened to LO Writer from here onwards) may help to encourage use of open source rather than commercial software in that particular field.

If you just want a summary of what I’ve found, just jump down to the Conclusions and read on there, otherwise if you’re interested in the details of exchanging comments and changes between Word and LO Writer please read on.

As an editor, I usually receive files from authors and publishers in Word doc format and have to return them in the same format after editing. So I’m going to start with a simple doc format file created in MS Word 2007 with changes tracked and comments added, I’ll open that in LO Writer 4.4 and make some more comments and changes there, then save the file in doc format and open that in MS Word again to see the final state. Obviously, my eventual intention is to be able to receive documents from authors, edit them in LO Writer and return the file in Word doc format. I’ve managed to make some progress with changes and comments in a very simple file which I’ll go through here. However, I’ve no doubt that files with other complex formatting will show some incompatibilities. I’m only looking at tracked changes and comments in this post.

For compatibility of changes and comments between the two programs, the first thing that has to be considered is the labelling of comments and changes as they pass between the programs. In MS Word, this means setting the user name (or author name) and user initials. In Word 2007, this is done by clicking the Office button at the top left of the screen and choosing the Word Options button at the bottom of the menu that opens. Under Popular you can enter your User name and Initials.

User name and initials in MS Word

If you’ve used tracked changes and comments in MS Word, you’ll know that, when changes are visible, if you hover your mouse over changes or comments, information bubbles will appear explaining when the change was made and starting with the user name or author name you’ve chosen. Comments will be labelled with the initials you’ve chosen followed by a number in ascending order through the document. The simple example below shows the Reviewing Pane on the left with ‘User name’ for the user name and INITS for the initials. The first comment is labelled INITS1.

Reviewing pane in Word

So now here’s a Word document with change tracking turned on and showing Markup. This time I’ve used T&L for the initials. As you can see, to the original document I’ve added a sentence, deleted a sentence, inserted bold and italic in places and added three comments labelled T&L1, T&L2 and T&L3.

Lorem ipsum with changes added in MS Word

After much trial and error with user names in Word and LO Writer, what I’ve found is that, to achieve compatibility of labelling when adding comments and tracked changes in both Word and LO Writer 4.4, you must have the same user name/initials in Word and again the exact same Company/last name in LO Writer. The problem seems to start in LO Writer which won’t use the Word initials field for labelling comments inserted in Word but uses the Word user name field instead. But when you add new comments in LO Writer, it will label them using information in the last name field in LO Writer. Interestingly, when you save your work as a doc file in LO Writer and reopen the file back in Word, the original Word comments reappear labelled from the Word initials field but new comments added in LO Writer have all labelling dropped and are just numbered consecutively.

So to avoid these labelling problems, open LO Writer and add your Company name and last name by clicking Tools>Options>User Data. Company name in LO Writer appears to be the equivalent of User name in Word while last name in LO Writer appears to be the equivalent of initials in Word. As I’ve said, to maintain compatibility between the programs, these should be the same as entered in Word.

User name and initials in LO Writer

Now we can open the Word doc file in LO Writer, turn on tracked change and add more changes and comments. The old and new comments are all added with the correct label T&L but aren’t numbered.

Lorem ipsum with changes added in MS Word and LibreOffice

All the old and new comments are highlighted correctly in the text as shaded boxes. They weren’t last time I tried this with the older version of LO Writer. All additional comments and changes made in LO Writer occur in the same colour as the older Word changes as they are done by the same user.

So far so good, but after adding the new changes and comments in LO Writer, we now have to save the file in doc format then reopen it in MS Word to see how the original changes and the new changes made in LO Writer are displayed.

Lorem ipsum with changes added in MS Word and LibreOffice and viewed again in Word

Everything looks file. The old and new comments have been integrated into one consecutive list labelled T&L1 to T&L5, and all tracked changes have been made by the same user.

Of course, you may not want to pass files from Word to LO Writer and back to Word, but instead just create the file in LO Writer and save it as a doc file so that someone else can open it in Word. After much trial and error with Company name/first name/last name/initials in LO Writer, I was unable to produce labelled comments when the doc file was opened in Word. The comments just appeared numbered 1, 2, 3, etc. That’s disappointing. I hope someone can sort this out in LibreOffice in a future release for the sake of seamless transfer of doc files to MS Word.

Conclusion

If you want to ensure compatibility of tracked changes and comments when moving documents between MS Word and LO Writer 4.4, you must have the same label in all four of these fields: User name in Word, initials in Word, Company in LO Writer, last name in LO Writer.

I’ve also found that that this only works for the older doc format. Try using the newer docx format and compatibility breaks down – new comments added in LO Writer are not labelled when viewed back in MS Word, they just have consecutive numbering and aren’t integrated with the older comments as happens when using doc format. A good reason to stick with the older doc format, something which publishers seem quite happy to do when you look through author guidelines for manuscript submission.

I also couldn’t produce labelled comments in MS Word when a doc file created in LO Writer and with comments added in Writer was later opened in Word. That’s disappointing and I hope it can be fixed in LibreOffice.

But all in all, quite encouraging. If developers working on LibreOffice could fix the user name/initials/company/last name labelling issue of changes and comments so there was no need to use my workaround, then that would be one more reason to drop MS Word in favour of LO Writer.

I have recently discovered that an overseas author client of mine does in fact use LibreOffice Writer, then saves his file in Word doc format for me to edit. As we exchanged files for revision, it was only the comment labelling that gave away the fact he wasn’t using MS Word! In fact he’d been using LibreOffice to prepare doc format manuscripts for some time and I hadn’t noticed! That’s very encouraging and hopefully we’re not far away from a viable open source solution for authors and publishers.

So if you’re still using an old version of MS Word and don’t want to upgrade to the latest version, if you can’t afford to upgrade or if you’re using a pirated copy of MS Word, have a look at LibreOffice. It may just be an adequate replacement for MS Word for the things that you do.

Do you use LibreOffice and exchange documents with someone using MS Word or vice versa? What’s your experiences?

One Response

  1. Joe Morris Says:

    I’m a lawyer that mostly edits contracts, so Word comments and track-changes are my stock in trade. I’ve been mulling over switching to LO for a while — and probably Linux also — but one of the main things holding me back is I want total comment/track-changes compatibility. I appreciate you taking the time to write this up, and hope you keep it updated. If you could post a comment here if you do a follow-up post for later versions, to notify, that’d be excellent also. Thanks!

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