PDFs that nobody reads

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

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.


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.


  1. James James says:

    Who was it that said if you really want to get your ideas out there, write books, not articles.

  2. Steve Johnson says:

    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.

    Do they?

  3. Tim says:

    The imperative is to publish. No one said anything about readership.

  4. Alrenous says:

    Steve Johnson:

    Oh sure. But you would have to read through so much crap to find them it’s significantly faster to think up your own good ideas.

  5. Steve Johnson says:


    I was thinking more that since zero good ideas have been spotted in the few PDFs that people have read, and if you assume there’s a normal distribution of good ideas, and you take the mean to be 0 and the stdv to be 0, then you come up with…

  6. Bob Sykes says:

    The same thing happens in the sciences. The vast majority of papers are never cited or even read, but the authors get tenure.

  7. Kudzu Bob says:

    Catchier titles might help.

    “One Weird Trick to End African Poverty.”

  8. Grasspunk says:

    Sometimes the opposite happens. There’s a paper where I am second author that I never wrote a word of and it has been cited a lot (263 times according to this).

    And then it was used as an example in “how to cite” documents in the social sciences, e.g. here.

    So the reference appears all over the place. Too bad I wasn’t a psychologist looking for tenure.

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