Electric Book Works Web, mobile and print publications

Publishing research in useful formats

It’s a well-known problem that so much research is published in PDF only. The head of gov.uk, Neil Williams, wrote recently about the same problem with many public-interest publications:

Compared with HTML content, information published in a PDF is harder to find, use and maintain. More importantly, unless created with sufficient care PDFs can often be bad for accessibility and rarely comply with open standards.

So we were thrilled when leading education non-profit Saide asked us to produce a major piece of research in multiple formats: as a live website, an ebook, and downloadable PDFs, and in a high-quality print edition.

Learning about sustainable change in education in South Africa: The Jika iMfundo campaign 2015–2017 is the result of years of in-depth research into the effectiveness of large-scale education interventions.


What are the benefits of publishing research in multiple formats?

If you want others to actually read, cite and share your research, you have to make it really easy for them to do that. And different people will have different needs and preferences:

  • It can be very powerful to hand a high-quality printed book to an influential person. A beautiful printed book lends a project real credibility.
  • Many people like to download and print out PDFs to read on paper, or to use PDFs in PDF-annotation apps on tablets. Those PDFs must be optimised for use on screens, including clickable navigation and reasonable image sizes. (That is, they are not the same as PDFs for book printing.)
  • Many people do their reading on their phones today. Mobile-friendly web pages are much easier to read and bookmark on a phone.
  • Many people like to read long-form content on an ereader, like Amazon Kindle. A key feature of this is the ability to highlight and annotate as you read, and to see what others are highlighting. If your research is available in the Kindle store (or other stores like iBooks), it’s easy for people to find and annotate it like this.
  • Web pages are easy to share on social media. Today, we get many of our recommendations from contacts sharing links on social media. So website versions of research can be critical for getting others to share your work in this way.
  • Search engines likely rate web pages higher than PDFs, for various reasons. So research published as web-page content (as opposed to PDFs for download) will be far more visible and popular in search results.
  • You can get in-depth analytics from website publications. Using a service like Google Analytics you can see what people read most, what they search for, and where they are, right down to city level.
  • Well-constructed web pages are better for accessibility: for instance, for read-aloud screen readers and high-contrast displays for the visually impaired.
  • They can also be prioritised and navigated by voice-driven services like Alexa and Google Assistant, which can find and read web pages in response to a user’s voice requests.
  • Website versions can be updated instantly, should information change.

So, for organisations who really want to see their research have an impact, publishing in multiple formats is critically important.


So what are the cost implications? How much more does it cost to publish in this way?

When we first planned this project, we costed two versions:

  1. A high-quality print edition and PDF produced the traditional way: using InDesign for layout and exporting print-ready and downloadable PDFs.
  2. The book in multiple formats described above, produced in our digital-first workflow.

The multi-format option cost only 10 per cent more than the traditional option. Of course, this cost ratio is possible because the team running the digital-first project is skilled and has great tools. That said, the difference in value and potential impact of the research far outweighs the slight increase in costs.

Multi-format publishing is still new to many organisations, only because their teams don’t know it’s possible, haven’t seen it in action, or think it’s too expensive. We expect that as others see the potential of multi-format publishing, more and more organisations will follow in Saide’s footsteps.

Arthur Attwell last updated 1 June 2018