June 30, 2014 19

Screen shot of the referenced article.

A recent World Bank study (PDF) analyzed download rates for reports published on the World Bank website.

The study showed that although 13% of World Bank reports in PDF are downloaded over 250 times, almost a third (31%) are never downloaded. A powerful factoid indeed!

…but wait for the punchline…

Many of these files were posted as PDF documents!

“Is the pdf hurting democracy?” asks Alex

Alex Hern, of the Guardian

That was indeed the question seriously posed by the Guardian’s “technology reporter” (their words, not mine) Alex Hern on Friday, May 9 2014.

For the record, May 9 is not April 1.

In his provocatively-titled piece Alex offers the opinion that the file-format commonly used for publishing official reports – PDF – may be to blame for an apparent lack of interest in the World Bank’s reports.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

The World Bank’s study clearly found downloads and citation rates to vary as a function of the report’s subject, language, length of time posted and publisher. The study did not mention file-type as a factor whatsoever.

The researchers simply took the number of PDF files downloaded as a measure of the report’s popularity. Why not? The PDF document is the “official” version for these reports. A fact that speaks, I think, for itself.

.pdf with dumb emoji.

But Alex knew better. He knew what he wanted to write. He just needed something – anything – to try to hang it on.

He probably didn’t bother to actually read the study. Had he done so, he might have noticed – and this won’t surprise you – that it comes to two key conclusions:

  • The papers downloaded most often tended to be those intended to inform public debate, and
  • The download distribution may be explained by the size of the intended audience

As for the dreaded threat to democracy? Not a factor.

  • The study’s authors didn’t even consider the “effect” PDF might have at all.
  • Most World Bank studies are made available in several formats, including text or Office files in addition to the official PDF. Some users – those with less bandwidth, for example – may click on the plain-text version that’s sometimes 1/30th the size of the PDF.

Alex does enlighten us with the stunning revelation that images do not contain text, and are thus harder to search. This is true, of course, regardless of the format used for posting them – PDF, HTML – whatever.

He’s also clearly unaware that a PDF may contain as an “attachment” any word-processing, Excel or other data file as the author wishes.

PDF has no implications for democracy beyond the positive. Indeed, PDF is part of how accountability is achieved in the digital age. More on that in another post.

This guy should go back to writing about something that doesn’t require the ability to read.