PDFs are good

Alex Parsons
May 17, 2018 · 2 min read

Lots of things in this piece about not using PDFs are true, but my conclusion from a ‘publishing research/reports’ view was to do both.

mySociety research is now published as pdf, mobile responsive and plain text (and kindle for fun) e.g. https://research.mysociety.org/publications/participatory-budgeting

I’ll write something about how we do that some time, but here are the reasons:

Once I saw two people from the council going door to door advising about boiler upgrades. They switched the high-vis vest at each house depending who was going to be doing the talking.

PDFs are an authority symbol. They are the ‘wearing the high vis vest’ of web publishing. Saving a word document as a pdf makes it more credible.

When you are literally the government this is less of an issue, but PDFs are not just a file format — they have a cultural position that needs to be considered.

Researcher workflows are built around PDFs. “You are not the user” is fine, but it was absolutely nuts when I was building a website to display research that *I myself* would have probably have moved on without citing.

I do not trust organisations (espec gov) not to change and delete websites. I have copies of reports that are now impossible to find online. Accidentally, because I downloaded the PDF.

I have on my to-do list to go back and reconvert some old research that I *only* published in web formats. I’d love not to do the extra work — but I see it as a use of time that will increase the value of the research.

So while PDFs are in many respects awful, it’s wrong to say they provide no benefit. Depending what you’re trying to do, they may be a very good bad idea.

Alex Parsons

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Democracy, data and other things.