The Washington Post

The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads

What if someone had already figured out the answers to the world's most pressing policy problems, but those solutions were buried deep in a PDF, somewhere nobody will ever read them?

According to a recent report by the World Bank, that scenario is not so far-fetched. The bank is one of those high-minded organizations -- Washington is full of them -- that release hundreds, maybe thousands, of reports a year on policy issues big and small. Many of these reports are long and highly technical, and just about all of them get released to the world as a PDF report posted to the organization's Web site.

The World Bank recently decided to ask an important question: Is anyone actually reading these things? They dug into their Web site traffic data and came to the following conclusions: Nearly one-third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, not even once. Another 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. Only 13 percent had seen more than 250 downloads in their lifetimes. Since most World Bank reports have a stated objective of informing public debate or government policy, this seems like a pretty lousy track record.


Now, granted, the bank isn't Buzzfeed. It wouldn't be reasonable to expect thousands of downloads for reports with titles like "Detecting Urban Expansion and Land Tenure Security Assessment: The Case of Bahir Dar and Debre Markos Peri-Urban Areas of Ethiopia." Moreover, downloads aren't the be-all and end-all of information dissemination; many of these reports probably get some distribution by e-mail, or are printed and handed out at conferences. Still, it's fair to assume that many big-idea reports with lofty goals to elevate the public discourse never get read by anyone other than the report writer and maybe an editor or two. Maybe the author's spouse. Or mom.

I'm not picking on the World Bank here. In fact, they're to be commended, strongly, for not only taking a serious look at the question but making their findings public for the rest of us to learn from. And don't think for a second that this is just a World Bank problem. PDF reports are basically the bread and butter of Washington's huge think tank industry, for instance. Every single one of these groups should be taking a serious look at their own PDF analytics the way the bank has.

Government agencies are also addicted to the PDF. As The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold reported this week, federal agencies spend thousands of dollars and employee-hours each year producing Congressionally-mandated reports that nobody reads. And let's not even get started on the situation in academia, where the country's best and brightest compete for the honor of seeing their life's work locked away behind some publisher's paywall.

Not every policy report is going to be a game-changer, of course. But the sheer numbers dictate that there are probably a lot of really, really good ideas out there that never see the light of day. This seems like an inefficient way for the policy community to do business, but what's the alternative?

One final irony to ponder: You know that World Bank report, about how nobody reads its PDFs? It's only available as a PDF. Given the attention it's receiving, it may also be one of their most-downloaded reports ever.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Sleep advice you won't find in baby books
In defense of dads
Scenes from Brazil's Carajás Railway
Play Videos
For good coffee, sniff, slurp and spit
How to keep your child safe in the water
How your online data can get hijacked
Play Videos
How to avoid harmful chemicals in school supplies
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
How much can one woman eat?
Play Videos
What you need to know about Legionnaires' disease
How to get organized for back to school
Pandas, from birth to milk to mom
Next Story
Lydia DePillis · May 8, 2014

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.