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Working with PDFs


What are PDFs?

PDF stands for Portable Document Format and is a file type that is commonly used to create a final version of a file, like a digital version of printing it off on paper.

You can recognise a PDF by the .pdf at the end of the file name. You might find them for things like digital versions of journal articles and reports or even things like menus or signs, where they are acting like the printed off version but on a digital device. They are also commonly used for submitting academic work that may previously have been submitted in paper copy.

Three PDFs: one journal article, one NHS poster, and one exported Word document
PDFs can have a range of content, but common uses for PDFs include digital journal articles, posters (our example is an NHS poster), and written work exported as a PDF.

PDFs are useful because they preserve your formatting for whoever else opens it, making it a good way to share final versions of content that contains images, diagrams, or other formatting. PDFs can be tricky because they are not easily editable, due to the fact they are designed as a final document like printing, and may contain material from various different applications exported into PDF format.

Do you need a PDF?

PDFs are a very common file format and you probably get sent or use them often. They are very useful for sharing final documents and you can add useful accessibility features like ensuring they are readable by screen readers and other assistive software. However, people often create or want to create PDFs without knowing if a PDF is really the most useful file to have for their situation.

Here are some useful considerations when choosing which format to save and share files in:

  • Is anyone expected to edit the file? If editing is required or likely, then PDFs are not the best file format to use. Stick with a format that can be used with an editing tool, like .docx for a Word document, .xlsx for a spreadsheet, or .pptx for a presentation. On the other hand, if you don't want anyone to edit a document, a PDF can be useful, as it ensures they don't accidentally delete text for example in a document.
  • How are you sharing the file? You can share PDFs in a variety of ways, including storing on Google Drive and hosting on a website. Most methods include options for people to download the PDF onto their own device, so bear that in mind if it is a PDF that might be replaced in the future with a more updated version.
  • How will people be accessing the file? You might want to consider the expectations of how people will access and open the file. PDFs can be useful as most devices include some way of opening and viewing them, whereas other file types such as Word documents may require specific applications to open them. On the other hand, people often don't have tools for editing or combining PDFs available to them, so anything editable or that people might need to tweak or personalise might be better as a different file format. You may also want to consider devices: PDFs will be very small on mobile device screens and people may have to zoom in to read them, so if people are likely to want to use the file on a small screen, it can be better to use a webpage instead that can be responsive to screen size.

If you're a student, you may have to submit your work in PDF format, on the VLE or otherwise, and you may need to anonymise your PDF as part of this process. For more on submitting assignments (including guidance on anonymising files), see the Learning Technology Practical Guide:

Creating and exporting to PDF

If you need to create a PDF, you will typically first create it in another application, for example Microsoft Word or Google Docs, and then use the Export or Download option to create a PDF final version of that file. You can also do with with other applications, e.g. spreadsheets, presentations, etc, but you may find that a PDF isn't always what you need from these files, as they have specific features and interactivity that may be lost in PDF format.

Our guidance on sharing documents with other people includes instructions for how to save a Word or Google Doc file as a PDF.

You can also create PDFs in other ways. For example, you can scan physical documents using a scanner or a printer with a scanner attached (which might be referred to as an "MFD" (Multi Function Device). These PDFs may have OCR (optical character recognition) features that can try and recognise the text in the document, or you can use PDF editing tools like ABBYY Finereader's OCR features to do this later on. Bear in mind that this may not always be accurate, and scanned PDFs can be difficult for people to access.

Computers often have a feature within printing options to Save to PDF or Print to PDF. This basically means that a PDF file will be created as if it was being printed. You might use this if there are no other options for exporting to a PDF format, but you need a PDF file.

Viewing and annotating PDFs

There are a range of applications available for viewing PDFs, some of which also allow you to annotate PDFs (this does not edit the PDF's content, but is similar to drawing on a piece of paper).

Your device will have a default application set for opening PDFs. This might be a web browser such as Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome, or another tool, like Adobe Acrobat Reader or Preview on a Mac. You can change your default PDF application if you want - search online for how to do it on your device if you're not sure.

You can also get other PDF viewing tools that offer different features such as annotation, including OrbitNote. Some applications with other purposes, like Paperpile for reference management, also contain PDF viewers for accessing PDFs saved in that application.

Sometimes PDFs don't open with the application you expect. When you open a PDF on the internet, for example, it may just open in your web browser if it hasn't been downloaded onto your device. If you're prefer to open your PDF with another tool, make sure you have downloaded it (there should be a link in your web browser) and then you can double click to open it in your default PDF viewer or right click to select a specific tool to open the file with.

Converting PDFs

Though PDFs are designed to be a final format, sometimes you end up with a PDF that you really need to be another file type. This might be to make it easier for you to use, for example converting a PDF into a text file you can more easily read on a tablet or e-reader or into an audio file you can listen to. Or it might be because you've been given a PDF that you need to return to an editable format and editing the PDF directly isn't suitable, for example if you need to change a leaflet or other document that has been made into a PDF.

Bear in mind that PDF conversion is not a perfect process and often you will need to do a fair bit of editing to get the new file how you want it. The best option tends to be to see if you can ask someone for the original, non-PDF version of the file and edit that one, but sometimes you will not be able to access this.

Some options for converting PDFs:

  • ABBY FineReader - At the University of York we have ABBYY FineReader available on managed devices (through Software Center) and on classroom PCs and the Virtual Desktop Service. ABBYY FineReader can convert PDF files into a Word or Excel format as well as allow you to create accessible PDFs and combine PDF files
  • Corel PDF Fusion - Another PDF tool available at the University of York that can convert PDFs into Microsoft Word format (though often changing the formatting in the process).
  • Blackboard Ally - If you are accessing a PDF on the VLE, you can use Blackboard Ally to access your PDF course materials in other formats by converting them.

Editing PDFs

As much as we've emphasised that PDFs are a final format, you can edit them if you really need to. Many more comprehensive PDF tools, like ABBYY FineReader available on University of York PCs, have a range of editing options, though these can vary and their effectiveness will depend on your PDF and what you want to do.

Some PDF editors allow you to edit text within that PDF and others can only allow you to add things "on top" of the file, for example adding text or shapes (essentially just annotation). Some tools have redaction features (but be careful to read up on these to ensure they do what you need, as some can be undone in a PDF tool if someone wanted to).

At the University of York, ABBYY FineReader is available on managed devices, classroom PCs, and on the Virtual Desktop Service and has a range of PDF editing features.

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