David A. Wheeler's Blog

Wed, 18 Apr 2007

George Mason University (GMU) Thesis/Dissertation Sample Document in OpenDocument Format

I’ve released a “sample document” that implements all the requirements of George Mason University (GMU)’s Thesis/Dissertation format in the OpenDocument format. You can get it in OpenDocument or PDF formats.

If you’re a student at GMU who needs it, you really need this.. but even if you’re not, there’s lots that can be shown from this template.

First, if you’re a student at GMU who needs it, let me explain why you really need it. Most universities have their own formats that have many detailed requirements, so by using a pre-created format, you immediately comply with lots of the details that are meaningless, yet you can’t graduate without meeting them. GMU requires page numbers to be on the top right, except at chapter headings (where they are centered on the bottom)… except that appendix chapter headings aren’t considered chapter headings. Got all that? GMU requires that there be a horizontal line between any footnotes and the main text, and it must be exactly 2” long. Oh, and there are lots of margin requirements, which you must get exactly right. Every university has its own oddnesses; this format, for example, is explicitly single-sided, uses U.S. customary measurement units everywhere, and has its own odd placement rules (e.g., appendixes must be placed after, not before, the bibliography). Headings are 2” from the top.. except that level 1 appendix headings aren’t considered headings. It took me a long time of back-and-forth discussions with the GMU dissertation and thesis coordinator to get all the details right. (The problem wasn’t that OpenDocument couldn’t do it; the problem was understanding what the GMU requirements actually were.) You can spend many, many hours to redo these details… or just grab this sample document and have the problems solved for you.

But whether you’re a GMU student or not, there’s lots that can be shown from this template. It certainly shows that OpenDocument is fully capable of representing fairly complicated (and odd!) formats, for large documents, completely automatically. That shouldn’t be surprising; one of the OpenDocument developers was Boeing, who develop so many large documents to build an airplane that the documents (when printed) outweigh the plane.

In particular, this document shows that an OpenDocument document can automate all sorts of things, easing development:

  1. Just create a “Heading 1” (control-1 in OpenOffice.org) and the page format automatically switches to first chapter format (with page numbering in a different place).
  2. The spacing and text flow all happen automatically, without weird artifacts like undesired “extra” vertical space on the top of a page. In fact, nearly everything is very automatic - you can concentrate on writing a paper, instead of fixing formats. The entire document is based on “paragraph styles” - just make sure each paragraph has the right style (which is nearly always correct), and the document will look right.
  3. Tables of Contents, of tables, and figures can all be automatically regenerated.
  4. Even the bibliography can be regenerated automatically, so that only documents actually cited in the paper are listed. You can even determine what order is appropriate (e.g., alphabetically or in citation order).

What’s particularly amusing is to compare the OpenDocument template to the GMU Word templates, because their Word templates are horrible to use. GMU’s Word templates are a bunch of individual files, completely inappropriate for actual use by a writer. Even the first page of a chapter and the rest of a chapter are in separate documents, and the table of contents has to be regenerated by hand. But even merging these files together won’t completely solve the problem; Word sometimes fails to correctly generate tables of contents (it’s happened to me!), which is one reason why so many people hand-create tables of contents. And Word certainly doesn’t match other OpenDocument capabilities, such as automated bibliography management. What’s worse, even though Word does have paragraph styles, Word seems to work especially hard to subvert and make their use difficult. Word seems to love redefining all your carefully-crafted styles, making Word painful to use as the document gets long. In contrast, OpenDocument is a breeze to use (at least in OpenOffice.org, and probably other OpenDocument-based systems as well) - setting paragraph styles is trivial (and for the most part completely automatic), once set they stay set, and they can make all the other formatting decisions automatic. Creating useful sample documents in Word is also painful; I started and completed one in OpenDocument quite easily, while GMU is still struggling to create a Word template.

You don’t have to use OpenOffice.org to use OpenDocument, which is great - choice and competition are good things. But OpenOffice.org is a reasonable choice. Bruce Byfield’s articles Replacing FrameMaker with OOo Writer and OpenOffice.org Writer vs. Microsoft Word showed that OpenOffice.org is remarkably capable, especially in its word processor. Byfield’s comparison of OpenOffice.org with the widely-lionized FrameMaker is especially enlightening: “I began comparing FrameMaker and Writer when a regular on the OpenOffice.org User’s list asked what it would take to give Writer the power of FrameMaker. When I started, I mentally pictured a scale with Microsoft Word on one end and FrameMaker on another, with Writer in the middle, but closer to Microsoft Word. As I proceeded, I found Writer was a much stronger contender than I had expected. At the end of the comparison, I had to conclude that the two products compare quite closely, depending on what features are more important to a given user… [OpenOffice.org users] can be in little doubt that they are using software that competes with FrameMaker on its own terms, and wins as often it loses. Even ignoring the cost and philosophical differences, OpenOffice.org is clearly an acceptable alternative to FrameMaker.”

In short, if you’re creating a thesis at GMU, use OpenDocument. I’ve used Word, Word Perfect, OpenOffice.org, and FrameMaker to write large documents. FrameMaker is nice but hideously overpriced, and because it’s overpriced, non-standard, and poorly supported, it’s mostly disappearing from the marketplace. Word works well for 1-2 page documents, but its weaknesses become apparant as your documents get larger, and it’s based on proprietary formats that lock you into a single product. It’s painful to use for larger documents; GMU has yet to create a Word template that is even slightly non-painful. In contrast, in short order I created an OpenDocument format that did everything they wanted, with lots of automation. OpenDocument is an ISO standard, with nice products to support it, and specifically designed for large documents. If you need to make large documents, use the right tool for the job.

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