In defence of the PDF

The death of the PDF has become something of a WonkComms mantra of late.

Any digital enthusiast trying to make the case to their more traditional colleagues to move away from the much-despised format will have circulated with glee the recent report from the World Bank showing that almost a third of their PDF papers never get read.

The criticisms are well-worn: PDFs are hard to navigate; they display badly on smartphones; they hark back to a bygone era of hard-copy publishing.

So the think tank world has been embracing HTML-based alternatives like digital longform publishing with gusto – and with beautiful and user-friendly results: from The Century Foundation’s Finding Home to Demos’s Quarterly, Policy Exchange’s hilariously named Smaller, Better Stronger Faster and the King’s Fund’s Quarterly Monitoring Report.

Indeed just last week the IPPR’s Condition of Britain report, described as the ‘Magna Carta’ for social democracy came in a web-friendly longform format, in a wonderfully apt tie-up between the birth of publishing and its current incarnation.

But the death of the PDF has been proclaimed before. And interestingly, while longform clearly has a place in the modern think tank’s menu of publishing choices, most of the examples listed above come alongside a downloadable PDF file.  That includes the World Bank’s report on the pitiful performance of their PDFs – an irony not lost on those reporting and sharing the story.

So why is it we find it so hard to move away from a publishing format invented in the early 1990s which is, as Joe Miller claims, essentially a hack – and one spectacularly ill-suited to the plethora of ways in which people now access online content?

Now, I’m no publishing or digital expert and there are cleverer people who write on these pages and elsewhere about the way forward for digital publishing. But as someone who works daily to connect researchers with their audiences, here are three reasons why, like the print editions of the newspapers, or the 00.01 embargo, I think the PDF will be sticking around for some time to come.

And if I’m plain wrong, or you think I’m a relic, please do leave your comments below and tell me why!

1)     People like a print-out

Hands up who prefers to read documents in print? Yes, thought so. And hands up who likes to scribble on documents with a pen or even a highlighter? Yup, me too.

When you spend your life straining your eyes in front of a screen, some time alone reading a wodge of paper, free from the distractions of Twitter, email or the news is a necessity. PDFs are hard to beat for easy printing. Boring but true.

2)    People like a page number

Think tankery occupies a spectrum between academia and journalism. And both sides of that equation love a page number – academics for their footnotes, journalists for conversations like this: “the killer stat you’re looking for is in the graph on page 9”.

While the concept of numbered pages is an anachronism in a digital publication, the language of page numbers is a universally understood way to navigate dense documents.  The PDF does the job nicely – and does so with a reassuring permanence that evades easily edited HTML copy.

3)    People like an attachment

“I hear you’re publishing a new report next week. Can you send over an embargoed copy?” A common request for press and public affairs wonkcomms people.

I’ve noticed that the humble email is often overlooked when we talk about the future of think tank comms. But the ubiquity of email amongst what I’d wager is pretty well 100% of our target audience, makes the email attachment an essential tool, especially for distributing material under embargo. That alone makes PDF a tough competitor – especially as it takes little specialist skill to create one.

The PDF is undoubtedly flawed. And the explosion in alternative ways to communicate think tank research – from Buzzfeed to longform, infographics to animation is brilliant (and the essence of WonkComms).

But until think tanks and their audiences embrace a radically different notion of think tank research (perhaps by ditching the linear model of storytelling altogether), I suspect that the clunky old PDF will be with us for some time to come.

Leonora Merry is Media & External Affairs Manager at the Nuffield Trust, who will soon be experimenting with alternatives to (or at least additions to) the PDF… 

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15 comments on “In defence of the PDF
  1. All true! I’ve been debating the PDF question too. Printed paper (with page numbers) is hard to beat in a more policy / academic world. But the PDF remains a problem for website searching and findable content.

    The conclusion I’ve tentatively come to is to pull out the key bits of work that are contained in PDFs and invest more time and effort (and hopefully money) on making supplementary resources that appeal to the audiences we need to reach.

    The problem there is that producing the thorough research and the PDF it goes in doesn’t take any less time, so it takes more resources and staff to produce the extra materials. If it’s a transition to some better future way, then it’s a short-term problem, but if this *is* the future, then Comms teams will need to be bigger. And that is another question… and so on. I’m sure between us, #wonkcomms can light the way 🙂

  2. Leonora (@leonoramerry) says:

    Thanks Kat.

    Yes, I’ve been pondering whether the answer is adding more and more outputs. While it may be a nice way to keep us comms people in jobs, I’m not convinced it’s the right approach to be honest. To me it smacks of a bit of a lack of focus.

    Clearly some of effective think tank comms is tailoring different outputs to different audiences (as Rich’s pyramid of engagement shows:, but I think we comms people need to be asking searching questions about whether proliferating outputs is necessary or is actually driven by a lack of clarity about who our target audience is and how they interact with us. I fear sometimes it may be the latter!


    • Palash Ranjan Sanyal says:

      It is the latter in my opinion. Keeping the target audience or the group we depend on, is the first thing the TTs try to in their communication. Often, not trying to expend in fear of losing stakeholders.

      About PDF, I believe two important fact for developing countries:
      1) Internet connectivity, which I guess is required for having the long form. Whereas you can just download a PDF and use it anywhere.
      2) Interactivity, not that I am saying PDFs are interactive, but you can at least comment and highlight when you need.

  3. Joe says:

    I think there’s partly also a technology problem. We have to keep adding outputs, in part, because we gear our processes around producing PDFs as the “main” research product. Moving to a digital-first approach–with content treated as content, broken out into useful metadata, and stored in a genuine content management system and not just a web CMS–will allow us to push to multiple platforms at the same time, without requiring a giant team of people to do bespoke work for each output.

    I think Nick has implemented something like this at ODI. IIRC, they’re storing content in XML, then pushing to PDF and the web simultaneously from there. Down the road, they could presumably push to apps or social accounts or what have you, just by integrating the right APIs with the right metadata.

  4. In developing countries -not all- and most importantly in some think tank / research communities -not all- we are still fighting another battle: “don’t print it, just send a PDF!”

    There is still a perception that the only valid output of research is a big chunky publication, with pages one can touch. Cash strapped think tanks are spending more money than they need to by publishing hard copies of their papers, reports and books; sending them by post to their readers; and piling them high on registration tables at the events they organise.

    Most of the time, they don’t have to publish this way. A PDF will do the trick. Whoever is interested will print out the paper. A blog post might be enough for those only interested in the headline argument/idea. Etc.

  5. That’s true and it’s not like we don’t already have enough to do in comms.

    I think the problem for us is that we know who our audience is but don’t yet know of the impact of our work or what’s effective. What do those people want from us? So trying different outputs could be a way of gauging that.

    If you have any tips on measuring impact in a think tank, let me know. Perhaps that’s a good subject for the twitter rotation or the linkedin group…

  6. I agree with Leonora and others that the pdf is going to be here for a while yet.

    However, I think things have shifted in that pdfs are now often being read onscreen rather than being printed off – at least among our audiences at The King’s Fund. In our latest survey of 500 web users, we asked how people would like to consume our published outputs. The results showed that most users (77%) would prefer to to download the full pdf and read it onscreen, compared to 41% who said they would download and print it out to read it. 23% said they’d like to read the full report as an e-book, and 3% said they’d prefer to buy a printed copy. (The results add up to more than 100% as we allowed people to select more than one option).

    I think these results are interesting because they suggest that – for the audience of this particular health policy thinktank, at least – most people want to read pdfs onscreen. It is on this basis that we’ve just done a ‘digital-first’ overhaul of our publication pdfs to make them easy to view and navigate online (eg, see

    I have often pondered the (strange but true, I think) fact that there is this perception that content is more ‘real’ or carries more weight when it is presented in a pdf than in a standard web page. But I think this perception will shift over time.

    Leonora mentions The King’s Fund’s recent Quarterly Monitoring Report – now reborn in digital format (but still, notably, with a pdf summary, which is circulated under embargo to press – we weren’t brave enough to drop that!). Our web stats show that the vast majority of users have accessed the content via webpages (5000 unique visitors), rather than downloading the pdf summary (1000 downloads). It’ll be interesting to see how usage develops over time.

    Things are certainly getting more complicated with all the different, emerging formats at our disposal. All the more reason to experiment and share what we learn!

  7. Tan Copsey says:

    Also worth remembering that stated preference often doesn’t match behaviour. I did a similar survey pre-launch for a recent BBC Media Action project. The behaviour post-launch was quite different, with relatively few people reading PDF reports and the vast majority preferring online, interactive content.

    To complicate things further, this varied a lot nationally and printed products went like hotcakes in one country.

  8. John Osterman says:

    There’s definitely a technology problem for publishing the same content in multiple formats, especially when there is no live link from the source content to the outputs. Find mistake, and you have to fix it twice, if not more. The store-in-XML management system Joe mentions above seems to be the real solution. I’d love to know more about the workflow and technical demands on the team. Can a small shop do it?

    Other than that, improving our website’s print media CSS might help break dependence on the PDF. At the Center for Global Development, I’ve quietly launched a new web and mobile friendly brief format (see here that involved improving the print CSS (actually we didn’t have dedicated print media CSS). Now, printing the HTML is arguably nicer than printing the PDF on your laser printer.

  9. […] a blog where policy communications officers gather for support, one recurrent worry concerns the fate of the PDF. But while slicker comms might help get the message out, would they help create better policy? If […]

  10. […] of their own reports have never been read. It’s made many of us question the very purpose of the pdf itself. Many of our “what’s it all about” deliberations often conclude that it should all be […]

  11. kylie merion says:

    Really useful information. Thanks for the info, super helpful. Try AltoMerge to merge your PDF files here It allows you to merge files in different formats.

  12. […] piece, then providing that content through a pleasant and appropriate front-end experience (aka, not solely in PDFs), and making that entire process easy to […]

  13. Hi thanks for sharinng this

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