Against Notebooks

This title might be a bit more provocative than intended, but hear me out: after a year of using Jupyter notebooks weekly for coding, thinking, and teaching, I like them less and less. Joel Gru et al. gave a bunch of arguments against notebooks, which while technically true, are a little bit nitpicky and not that relevant when interacting with beginners. My own complaints are a little bit different: notebooks fall short on two elements, text editing and portability.

Text editing is the part of notebooks that frustrate me the most; for something designed to convey technical information, the text editor is hostile. Markdown is supported, but there is no way to add references (besides plugins who will work, or won’t). There is no way to cite anything, and so the text part of the notebook is either context free, or just a pain of manually curating the literature cited.

This makes notebooks a very poor format for lessons. There are clunky workarounds, of course. One can write the document as a markdown with code, then compile this with pandoc to get the references formatted, then convert again to a notebook format. This works, but results in a read-only notebook. That’s bad.

For a format built on JSON, it is baffling not to see citation support. Citeproc-json is a perfectly fine citation format, which can even be embedded in the notebook itself. As far as I’m concerned, lack of support for citations is the number one hindrance to adopting notebooks for teaching seriously.

Coming back to the issue of plugins: it’s bad. Plugins are installed on the server, and so sharing a notebook to someone with different plugins will not work. We use JuliaBox in the classroom, and they ship packages that are not supported on Binder, or not available on our own server, and so there is a loss of functionality associated to using the same document across different locations.

In short, doing anything more advanced with a notebook than a bit of code and a bit of text is a pain, and this is not encouraging to move towards a notebook-based framework.