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Disclaimer: I never used overleaf, nor have I the faintest motivation to ever use it. And this post is related to this post.

However, I am getting increasingly concerned by the fact that overleaf has their own installation, which produces error messages that are, well, let's say not as clear as they could be, and errors on codes that run fine on standard TeX installations. This means you can write a perfectly working answer that you tested and then get told

your code produces errors!

Not on my standard TeX installation. What errors?

I don't know, I am using overleaf.

Meanwhile this has lead to very ingenious solutions to find out which version of, say, tikzmark one is using. This would not be necessary if overleaf

  • kept their installation relatively up-to-date,
  • provided their users with obvious means to get the information which version of what they are using, and
  • provided meaningful error messages (instead of just swallowing some errors).

The current state of affairs can make it somewhat cumbersome to answer questions by overleaf users. Even worse, when they post answers, these answers may have errors that overleaf just suppressed and thus went unnoticed. What is more, if you answer a question by overleaf users you just cannot use more recent packages that may provide a much more elegant solution to the problem. One way one may think about this that there is a company which is making profit with LaTeX, a freely available tool which is maintained by a very enthusiastic team, and the packages of which are written by enthusiastic users. However, due to their policy the quality of the posts on this site run by volunteers gets affected in a negative way.

Question: How should we deal with that?

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    To mix up the black and white: An overleaf user still has to know basic LaTeX and know how to use it. It doesn't matter if a user is using overleaf or the newest MikTeX or whatever if they don't know how to deal with an error message. – Johannes_B May 8 at 4:55
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    I agree with Johannes. The real problem is not the outdated TeX installation of Overleaf. The real problem is, that a lot of users are not able to deal with error messages. Users of several TeX editors often only read, what the editor shows (if they even read the error message). And this is often only a short part of the message in the log file and sometimes even the wrong part. And users of TeX Live and MiKTeX also do not know how to keep their installation up-to-date. And they do not know how to install files locally (as an emergency workaround to real updates) … – Schweinebacke May 8 at 6:53
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    … And user even do not know how to ask proper questions, e.g., that it is important to tell if someone uses an outdated TeX installation and is not able to update it, because of using overleaf or other restrictions like company politics. So all we can (and should) do is, to explain users these things. And IMHO this already happens. Yes, it is annoying to do so more than once, but this is part of the nature of such platforms with new beginners every day. – Schweinebacke May 8 at 6:57
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    On the other hand, it's not like TeX is known for informative and useful error messages. – Teepeemm May 11 at 18:33
  • @Teepeemm But this is a site on TeX, LaTeX and friends. Regardless of how informative LaTeX error messages are, they are something I can make sense of without creating an account at some commercial web site since I can reproduce the error. – user121799 May 11 at 18:36
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The problem is not specific to overleaf: There are (and always have been) enough users without any clues what tex system (or even OS) they are actually using ("I use texstudio" is a frequent answer), or where they can find log-files and how to read them.

overleaf is actually easier to handle than some private TeX-installation in this respect as much more is known or can easily be found out about the system and there are a number of answers already providing the needed screenshots to teach the new users.

There are also (and always have been) enough other users with outdated tex system. Here your options are

  • tell the user "sorry it will work only in a current system".
  • adapt your answer so that it works in the older system (you can install older texlive for tests).

For overleaf users the first option is difficult. But I don't see why it should be technically difficult for overleaf to provide two tex systems, one stable, one current so imho if this gets implemented depends on if they see some gain in it and if enough of their customer requests it.

  • I partly agree with what you wrote but would like to argue that it is specific to overleaf in that from the question you cannot tell that the OP is using overleaf. If someone asks something on, say, xelatex, I am not going to delve in their problem because it is on something I have no clue about. However, if some question is on, say, TikZ I still may fail to be able providing a reasonable solution, not because of a lack of TikZ knowledge but because there is that black box, overleaf, which, from my perspective, produces random results. – user121799 May 9 at 3:23
  • Currently Overleaf has 5 different LaTeX installations in the background, the latest being TL2017 the oldest from 2014. The TL2017 version is not the frozen state but more in the beginning of the TL2017 release cycle. I advocated for adding a recent TL version (as did other members of their support team), and the developers have that on their todo-list. – Skillmon May 9 at 8:53
  • User always "forget" to mention vital information because they don't know or didn't really try to consider what could matter. They don't say that they actually use bidi, or lyx, or xelatex, or texlive 2013... It is part of the support job to check for such missing parts. I e.g. always request a log file. – Ulrike Fischer May 9 at 8:53
  • When you say you request a log file, do you do this also in case the OP uses overleaf? If so, did you ever got the reply "What is a log file?" ?;-) – user121799 May 15 at 17:02
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    I always request log-files, and I often get back "what is this" or "I don't have one". Lately one customer didn't find the log, because windows showed "txt-file" and I had to force him to open every single file in the folder, and a special system on the mac puts the log in a hidden folder and there I had to hunt down in the docu the setting to unhide it. – Ulrike Fischer May 15 at 17:10
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I'm afraid we can't.

Overleaf is an independent company, independent of TUG or similar.
They can do whatever they like.

However, I use Overleaf to write the answers I post on TeX.SE and, in my opinion, they have much more merits than flaws.
For example, their help desk is very efficient (even to free-account users), and their templates are convenient.
I also think they have improved after merging with ShareLaTeX.

It's true that they make money "taking advantage" of the work of volunteers, but we should also consider that they contribute to spreading the LaTeX culture all over the world.
It's straightforward to use Overleaf by a beginner: nothing to install, no complicate compiling steps to learn, easy way to collaborate with others on the same document.
Imagine you're a poor student and you can only use the computer of your University of which you're not the admin, how could you write your thesis in LaTeX if it is not installed on the machine you're using?
I don't know if we can share a Twitter message here, but this is the reason why we should love Overleaf: https://twitter.com/agodemar/status/1171353926618288128.

I use Overleaf with a free account, I have never paid them, nonetheless, I have always received a quick and correct help by their customer service every time I wrote to them.

Of course, if I was solving the Riemann hypothesis, I wouldn't use Overleaf to write my document, but that is another topic.
After all, privacy/secrecy problems would arise in any case if you're on the Internet, even if you're simply using your e-mail.

I think they can't often update because it may create some problems for their users (and they have more than 4,000,000 users).
As Barbara Beeton says: "never update when you're close to a due date," but in such a huge number of users there will be a huge number of due dates!
As Skillmon pointed out in their comment, it is not a problem for the existing projects. Overleaf manages the different TL installations they have in such a way that the time the project was created determines which version is used. So even if they add the new TL version, it will not break any existing project.
However, I think that to install a new TL in a complex environment is not so easy as to do it on your computer.

What we can do is to teach users how to find out and read the log of their documents on Overleaf or other tricks if that is not enough.

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    The good thing about how Overleaf manages the different TL installations they have is, that the time the project was created determines which version is used. So even if they add the new TL version, it will not break any existing project. – Skillmon May 9 at 8:56
  • @Skillmon I didn't know that, very good! – CarLaTeX May 9 at 9:59
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    I am completely agree with your answer. Moreover, sometimes I used Overleaf in my phone to complete a document, and it was awesome!! – manooooh May 15 at 16:48
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    @manooooh Yay! Even if they haven't an app yet (but they are working on, it will come, even if not soon). – CarLaTeX May 15 at 17:35
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Disclaimer: I use Overleaf quite often, but I am not in the Overleaf team (of course)

Here are my thoughts about the points above:

  • kept their installation relatively up-to-date,

    IMHO it is not easy. In order to update, Overleaf has to turn down the whole system, or make the system inaccessible. You should not compile any document during a TeX installation, should you? But Overleaf is being used in every seconds all over the world (well or nearly so), and a 5-minute break can cause great trouble.

    For example, I was compiling a short "check" document (well I never use Overleaf for my actual documents, I only use it for some check.tex to test TikZ pictures for example...) and got the annoying "Server Error". I knew the Twitter account of Overleaf in advance, so I went to see, and yes,

    https://twitter.com/overleaf/status/1115621564563841026?s=20

    After about 5–10 minutes or so, Overleaf came back. However, that is a great interval to me at that time.

    But TeX distributions never take short time to update/install (yes it only takes minutes to update if we do it often, but Overleaf has not been updated for a very long time). Overleaf has only one way to update/install the TeX distributions: make a new version of Overleaf (Overleaf v3?). You may see that the TeX distribution of Overleaf v1 is much older than that of Overleaf v2, which is the current version.

  • provided their users with obvious means to get the information which version of what they are using, and

    Users can always view the raw log anytime they want. The problem is whether the user is willing to know the version, not whether Overleaf has given some information.

    enter image description here

    Open the image on a new tab to avoid blurry image due to rescale

  • provided meaningful error messages (instead of just swallowing some errors).

    The problem is not that Overleaf swallow error messages. It is that Overleaf doesn't prevent the PDF file to be produced if there are no fatal errors:

    enter image description here

    Open the image on a new tab to avoid blurry image due to rescale

    \mathbb is undefined so Overleaf just ignores it instead of terminating the compilation.

    While this is a major drawback of Overleaf, I think the user has a more responsibility here. They know that there are errors (the big enter image description here and enter image description here are there), but they don't understand the importance of fixing the errors. It is like me when I first used LaTeX: I just attempted to fix fatal errors. So the user must be aware that they must not ignore error messages (I don't even allow myself to ignore warning messages now).

    So, if the user don't ignore the message, he/she can click on the button and see a more detailed error message than the error message on my main editor.

    enter image description here

    Open the image on a new tab to avoid blurry image due to rescale

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    Switching from one TeX Live installation to another one can be done in microseconds (e.g. changing one link or activating a new container). So at least one upgrade per year would be possible without long downtime. The downtime after a kernel update (for security reasons) is much longer. Theoretically it would even be possible to have several TeX Live installations in parallel so the user could decide which one to use (and when to switch over to a newer one). But this is indeed nothing we can really influence. It's their decision how they can and like to provide their services. – Schweinebacke May 8 at 6:47
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    @Schweinebacke like I commented under Ulrike's answer, OL currently has 5 installations in use in parallel. And the production of the PDF even if there were errors was requested by many users back in OLv1. But I agree that the current error display is not dominant enough. – Skillmon May 9 at 9:04
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    scrolling past errors is far from an issue just with overleaf, almost all the tex editors default to that mode, so they get a log file that they can then parse to scroll to editors. – David Carlisle May 11 at 19:49

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