PDF please

I receive a lot of e-mails from students, and even though I always tell them to send me PDF files, they almost always send me the source files for their documents instead (.doc, .docx, .odt, .pages, …). This semester we have started with electronic submission of term papers at our department, and even though it said everywhere that PDF was the file format to submit, of course all sorts of other formats turned up.

Besides the fact that I personally find it much easier and faster to handle PDF files, there are many reasons why it is not a good idea to send off the originals:

  • Compatibility: I am running three OSes (OSX, XP, Ubuntu) and have access to most word processors, so it is very seldom that I can’t open a file. But as the number of widespread text file formats have started to increase recently (with the addition of .docx, .odt, .pages to the old-timers .rtf and .doc), I notice that the issue of file format compatibility is starting to become an issue again for many people.
  • Accessibility: there is no point in passing away the source material unless you want people to edit it.
  • Layout: opening a .docx file in OpenOffice usually always results in a document that looks differently than it was intended in MS Word
  • Pictures: I often see that there are problems with embedded pictures, either they may not be there or formatting and image adjustments may be different than what was intended
  • Changes: if the “track changes” function was turned on while writing, all changes will be accessible to the reader. This may not always be a big problem, but there are several examples of where this has been a crucial issue.
  • Legal: the state regulations in Norway tell that all public documents should be saved as open formats, either .odt or .pdf. This is a fairly new regulation (1 January 2009), so it has not had a full impact yet, but hopefully it will one day.

Take-away message: never pass around your source material unless you specifically want people to change it (which is not the case with a university term paper, nor an official letter on your institution’s letter head…). Use PDF, please.

Published by


Alexander Refsum Jensenius is a music researcher and research musician living in Oslo, Norway.