PDFs or not? That isn’t the right question.

This year’s thread questioning the value of PDFs for publishing research has spawned an important discussion (links at the bottom of this thread).

On the face of it, the question we are discussing is:

  • Should we publish PDFs, or is there a better format?

I would argue that this is not the important question, and is in fact an unproductive and distracting question. The question we should be asking:

  • How do we publish research in a way that maximizes impact?

To narrow the focus of this article, I assume that there are still milestones where research progress needs to be carefully presented, wrapped into a bow, and published. In other words, I’ll attempt to describe approaching maximizing impact in a way that we can all implement based on the way organizations already work. Furthermore, I hope that you can implement these in a way that improves your web presence overall rather than just snowflakes where specific research gets highly customized attention in order to improve impact (although these are also important for experimentation).

Moving away from artifact thinking

One of the reasons that the PDF-or-not discussion is unproductive is that it puts too much emphasis on the research artifact. Sure in peer-reviewed journals there need to be specific articles that are written, reviewed, published, and cited but that isn’t the only way that research is published (especially when your are attempting to achieve outcomes outside academia). Let’s start with two problems with artifact thinking:

  • Most people won’t dive into the artifact anyway. They want key points / takeaways, talking points, infographics, and simple tools, often without looking at the methodology, detailed logic, precedent research, etc. Another way of looking at this is that we want to progressively reveal the details, placing high value information at the top of that funnel.
  • There is a thread of research that the artifact is a part of. Except for specialists, a specific article is probably not particularly interesting for long. The latest information on a thread, the seminal research, related research, the underlying data, and other aspects are more important than most specific artifacts. Too often the article is a dead end for the site visitor when in the real world there is a dynamic thread of research occurring.

None of the above has to do with the format of a research output, but how the research is written and contextualized.

There is an aspect of format that does reflect a serious problem with artifact thinking: e artifact looks old or irrelevant quickly. In fact, the more sophisticated and one-off you go, the more likely it will look ridiculous a few years later. Ideally the research is presented in a way that can continue to be improved over time (so all research gets the new user interface, contextualized with the rest of the research). This points towards a structure that can be rendered in multiple formats, but I think the questions below are even more important (much of the context can be wrapped around PDFs anyway).

Better questions

I would propose the following questions:

  • What outcomes do we want from our research?
  • How can we project our research as a thread for continual engagement?

What outcomes do we want from our research?

The exact outcomes you want depend on the goals and stance of your organization, but some fairly typical desirable outcomes for research institutions are:

  • Arming someone with information or tools to influence a decision maker or implementor, either directly or indirectly
  • Demonstrating the usefulness of ongoing research
  • Changing someone’s mind
  • Deepening affiliation with your organization
  • Indicating an interest in a particular topic discussed in the research

In my experience, research institutions are not really thinking in terms of the outcomes they want from research. In fact, the World Bank report that came out that spawned the recent surge in this discussion is talking about things like downloads which is kind of like talking about the the-now-much-dirided “hits” or “eyeballs” that everyone used to talk about for site success.

How can we project our research as a thread for continual engagement?

The last two bulleted outcome examples listed above point to the fact that your research organization will continue to publish research! This isn’t about some sort of shock and awe campaign you are running once and forgetting. This also fits into your strategy for deepening engagement with various key audience groups over the long term (perhaps the topic of another blog post), but the primary point here is that everything you publish should encourage continual engagement. Note that here I am not talking about just encouraging continual engagement on a single research output. To use an example, if you publish some research that attracts attention, then ideally the reader then signs up for a newsletter on that particular topic so they can engage with the next research on the topic as soon as it is published.

Topics pages (see previous Wonkcomms post) are a key structure to encourage continual engagement. The topics should be deeply integrated with your site so that specific research outputs point to the relevant topics pages and the relevant topic pages point back (be it your blog, main site, or otherwise). Perhaps the absolute most basic step you can take is to not have naked links to PDFs anywhere on your site, since this encourages blind dead-ends for your users.

Personally, I wouldn’t stress too much about PDF or not. Yes, to be buzzword-compliant and cutting edge and to impress each other we may want to explore other mechanisms, but answering and addressing the above questions is more important than simply format.


Further reading, starting with the report that started this thread:

Thanks to Joe Miller for feedback on an initial draft of this blog post.

David makes large website improvements happen, especially in very early planning. Clients include the Library of Congress, Heritage Foundation, the World Bank, MBC Group, Resources for the Future, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Jackson Lab, Center for Global Development, Realtree.com, Oak Ridge National Lab, Marriott International, Hanley Wood, BIO, Thomson Reuters, and the Centers for Disease Control. He is the author of Website Migration Handbook, and primarily blogs at http://hobbsontech.com.

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5 comments on “PDFs or not? That isn’t the right question.
  1. […] This year's thread questioning the value of PDFs for publishing research has spawned an important discussion (links at the bottom of this thread). On the face of it, the question we are discussing …  […]

  2. […] lots of good comments below, thanks also to Robert Watt for linking to a great article on the ‘wonkcomms‘ site, which argues that thinking of research in terms of ‘artifacts’ is the […]

  3. […] hands of those specific audiences who would find them most useful in their work though, which is where WonkComms picks up with some specific, action oriented suggestions on how we can reframe our thinking around […]

  4. […] relevant question is: what do readers do with it afterwards? David Hobbs at WonkComms then asks two questions of policy and research communications to lift the focus of ubiquitous traffic […]

  5. […] organizations are accustomed to thinking of reports as final products—as artifacts that go up on the web for people to find. But technology is quickly moving away from the open web. Nowhere is that more […]

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