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Failed to load latest commit information. stupid spellchecker Nov 7, 2015 update Oct 9, 2016 shed light on license Nov 4, 2015

Template Confusion

Many beginners are searching for a good template to help them start using LaTeX. But the internet is a strange place and a lot of stuff is going on.

There are many templates around, many different templates for different use cases. The word template can't even be pinned to one special meaning, there are lots of instances that are called a template.

Everyday, LaTeX helpers all over the world get questions based on a bad template. Bad in this case means unmaintained, no license statement, obsolete packages and practices, in parts even completely wrong input that leads to warnings or errors from the very beginning. Most of the templates have something in common: they want somebody else to save some time, time that they invested in the past while googling for problems they had themselves. Bad code and bad practices are distributed that way, from one generation to the next.

As we can't get in touch with every maintainer of a web-page providing template-like stuff, does that mean the helpers should team up and start provide templates themselves? Team-maintained and up to date? Sean Allred started a github repository called texample a while back with the idea of providing templates, or rather examples.

Clemens Niederberger expressed some thoughts on templates in The Template Story and pinged services like Overleaf and LaTeX Templates for opinions.

Dmitry from Papeeria said "Many templates are quick and dirty hacks, but very often they don’t need to be polished, because they are just fine for their job." If i understand him correctly, he is talking about document classes there.

Vel from LaTeX templates on the other hands states his motives for setting up the web page: Getting new users started by providing easy usable commented tex-files where the user can input his/her own content. Every template is commented, i.e. a short note what a package does and why it is loaded.

The last comment by Clemens is the following:

It came to me that this discussion seems to miss one thing: there are templates on CTAN like classicthesis, tufte-book or even my cnltx-doc. Seems like a natural place: a genuine LaTeX template is a document class. In a way every document class is a LaTeX template. Maybe what we are talking about are not so much templates but examples for LaTeX usage…

It seems, there are two general categories of templates.

Fixed Output

LaTeX classes and packages have a special license, most important to keep names unique. There are multiple university thesis packages on CTAN, each setting up a titlepage (hopefully using variables), setting the page layout in general, i.e. margins, fonts, chapter/section headings. The layout is fixed and hidden to keep the end-user from changing anything.

classicthesis sets very specific design ideas. The author explains those ideas, what they are based on and asks the user not to change the margins. In my experience, changing the margins is quite the first thing a classicthesis-user is changing. So ... no fixed output at all. classicthesis (the package) is licensed (good thing) and every change to the original code has to be done by redefining or patching, which i think is quite scary and outputting for a new user. I think my point here is: Actually using a template might be easy, customizing it for own needs can be harder comparing to not using a template.

One more thing to consider are package incompatibilities. If some package like subfigure or hyperref are loaded early in a class file, trouble is to be expected.

Those fixed templates usually come with own documentation on how to use it. Additionally introducing new commands if necessary.

One of those fixed templates is the Thesis Template by Sunil Patel which i think we all are familiar with to some extend. From the FAQ section of the web site

Why do I need to use this LaTeX Thesis Template?

It is not compulsory to use the LaTeX Thesis Template or any other LaTeX template, but here is one, ready, tested and documented for you to use. It is a template and structured framework and written to keep you organized and let you start writing your thesis straight away without spending time worrying about the formatting and layout.

Of course, you can do all of this yourself manually, but why re-invent the wheel?

That very template made it to LaTeX Templates as well and is the most used of the three thesis templates available. Later, some modifications were made to our famous thesis template. Somehow, it isn't that fixed anymore.

Non-fixed Output

No layout decisions are hidden in a class or package file, maybe put in a file called config.tex or structure.tex. The user sees the whole bunch of stuff, comments behind. There might be packages loaded to suit almost all users. Three for table stuff, tikz for TikZ, pgfplots for diagrams, additional loading of package color, 4 different packages that set the font of the document, and finally package xcolor with some option. To top it off, several independent blocks of redefining internal commands using the \makeatletter/\makeatother combo Actually, that was made up, but that doesn't mean there is no template out there doing this.

Merely a small fraction here would be actually useful for a beginner. And that wall of code is scary once more.

Either fixed or non-fixed layout, a template seems to be a prepacked bunch of files (at least one), something like a black box for a starter, you cannot judge what's inside.

A LaTeX template is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're gonna get.

Does the life of a template end?

When does a template stop being a template? Consider the most minimal template you can think of:

% report template
This is a very basic setup for writing a report, for example a
PhD thesis.

I can use that basic template and i can make changes, for example define new commands and i can even do this:

% report template
This is a very basic setup for writing a report, for example a
PhD thesis. Use \texttt{\textbackslash\textbackslash} to get a new paragraph.\\\\%Nonsense
New paragraph

Sadly, the internet is full of that non-truth and i could distribute that by uploading it to a prominent place and give it to friends. A newcomer looking for a template to get started sees it and believes that to be true. Every template is correct, right?
Is the above a template, or rather a (bad) example. Should i (the user working based on the initial template) remove the comment line before starting to work?

Best before end?

LaTeX moves on every day. Does code have a best before end life span? What happens to unmaintained code? How can a community assure that code is up to date?

Who supports a template? Who maintains it?

Overleaf and ShareLaTeX have a little comments section, where some support is done. Many users drop in to TeX.Stackexchange. The support for LaTeX-templates is done in collaboration with LaTeX-community, though not everybody finds the right button and many users seek help at TeX.SX. Some templates do development and support on gitHub, some may know cleanthesis. A few thoughts about maintainership and support (along with license issues) can be found in the Deedy Das CV template example.

As part of one of the best communities of the world ;-) i think we can work together to establish some common standards of best practice (What does that even mean?) to improve the initial state of future templates and improve the current situation.

What do you think? It this worth the effort and something can be done? Can the questions above be answered? Are there more questions concerning templates? What is a template? Can a template have a license, should a template have a license? What effect does a license have to the user?

The good news is, we have the guys from ShareLaTeX, Overleaf and LaTeX Templates on board willing to make at least some improvements. Those improvements will (hopefully) improve the overall image, accessibility and user experience of LaTeX. Thousands of people are using the online compilers and LaTeX Templates gets about 5000 visitors each day as well. Looking at those digits there really is a quite high interest from the user side to use LaTeX for their typesetting and publication needs.

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