Digital

PDF myths

pdf myth or fact

HTML is the format most appreciated by contemporary digital audiences.

The use of PDF documents on the University website is acceptable if accessible alternatives are provided.

In 2003, renowned usability expert Jakob Nielsen declared PDFs "Unfit for Human Consumption". Here are some popular PDF myths:

 

P.D.F.s prevent copying and plagiarism - Myth!

File protection

Copying and printing can only be blocked if you use the advanced features in the full or professional version of Adobe Acrobat,not the free Acrobat Reader.

If you do not "lock" a PDF in this way:

  • users can choose the "Save as text" option in Acrobat
  • text can easily be copied and pasted
  • there are plenty of PDF to text converters available and web-based utilities
  • Google will also do it - for example, "File Format: PDF/Adobe Acrobat - View as HTML".

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P.D.F.s can’t be modified - Myth!

Replacing files

If a document on a web page:

  • can be read electronically
  • is downloaded and readable (without security accesses) or
  • is available in hard-copy (printed)

then with the required skills it may be altered and to a cursory view appear authentic.

In this situation a protection the University offers in Pheme protected editing rights to our content management systems for websites. If a document has been altered without proper authority it is prevented from replacing the original document on the same webpage should the editor be without web editing permissions. If the editor, usually current staff or students, does have access and changes the file there are records identifying this.

Modified hard copies

PDFs can be modified - for example, when dealing with paper-based print-outs of PDF forms you can:

  • print, complete and return
  • print, scan, modify, print, complete and return
  • extract, modify, print, complete and return.

Could an online HTML interactive web form be used instead?

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PDFs ensure people see the document as formatted - Myth!

By default PDFs are formatted to the size of a printed document, usually A4. Electronic screens come in a huge variety of sizes, desktop, tablet, mobile — ~10cm - 60cms+; orientations, landscape or portrait; resolutions, 800 - 2000+ pixels; and ratios, 4:3, 16:9, 16:10...,.

It makes little sense to restrict the layout of electronic documents to the size of a fixed, physical piece of paper when the document is provided for electronic reading. The layout of electronic information should be flexible to suit the characteristics of the display device and the requirements of the end user - not restricted to the dimensions of a piece of paper.

On desktop screens PDF readers may only display a portion of the printed document or the full page in text too small to read. On smaller screens, particularly mobile devices, it may be necessary to zoom in to a point where only a tiny portion of the PDF is legible and then drag this tiny window around the document attempting to read. What proves difficult to most people may prove insurmountable for people with a range of mobility and vision impairments.

Some mobile PDF readers will change the layout of the PDF to make the content more legible on mobile devices with greater and lesser degrees of success.

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PDFs are accessible - Myth!

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission:

"Based on the best advice available, and the results of its own evaluation, the Commission is compelled to conclude that none of the screen-readers currently available on the Australian market support all the accessibility features that are defined in the PDF specification, or even all of those features that would be reasonably considered essential for an equal and independent user experience interacting with PDF documents."

"The Commission’s advice, current October 2010, is therefore that PDF cannot be regarded as a sufficiently accessible format to provide a user experience for a person with a disability that is equivalent to that available to a person without a disability, and which is also equivalent to that obtained from using the document marked up in traditional HTML."

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission:"...organisations that publish documents only in PDF risk complaint under the DDA [Disability Discrimination Act] unless they make the content available in at least one additional format and in a manner that incorporates principles of accessible document design. Additional formats should be published simultaneously with the PDF version..."

The requirement to provide accessible alternatives to PDFs is reflected in mandatory requirements for all Federal Government departments and agencies: "Agencies are reminded that it is still a requirement to publish an alternative to all PDF documents (preferably in HTML)."

Universities Australia's (then Australian Vice Chancellors Committee) guidelines relating to students with a disability and on information access for students with print disabilities are rather old (2006 and 2004) but state:

"The Disability Discrimination Act and the subordinate DDA Standards for Education require universities to provide educational services in an accessible way. This includes providing information to students in a format that they can use and which supports their learning."

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PDFs are preferred for the web - Myth!

In reality:

  • web browsers read (X)HTML and text
  • web browsers require an “add on” to read PDFs
  • PDFs are often larger than HTML of the same
  • PDFs often take longer to download
  • PDFs take longer to render on the screen
  • PDF readers employ radically different interface and navigation models
  • RTF or text is acceptable, PDF – only is not.

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PDFs should never be used - Myth!

If electronic documents are intended for printed use, PDFs excel at ensuring that printed output is the same from one printer to another.

Adobe has extended the PDF format with detailed forms capability. Online forms may offer similar or better functionality.

PDFs must not be employed online without an accessible alternative.

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P.D.F. (Portable Document Format)

On the web PDF documents do not engender success like HTML documents do. Search engines and users with special needs do not enjoy P.D.F. nearly as much as HTML and the benefits it brings. We have written a short expose on some popular PDF myths.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's view is that "organisations that publish documents only in PDF risk complaint under the DDA unless they make the content available in at least one additional format and in a manner that incorporates principles of accessible document design. Additional formats should be published simultaneously with the PDF version, and at least one such format should be downloadable as a single document if the PDF version is available as a single download."

Reducing your PDFs can improve access for visitors. Annual page views on the website of the Victorian Government?s Department of Primary Industries increased from 4.2 million to 5.8 million when they purged their PDFs.

H.T.M.L. is the format most appreciated by contemporary digital audiences. The use of PDF documents on the University website is acceptable if accessible alternatives are provided.

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