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Should we save our documents in SharePoint as PDFs to avoid editing?

Posted on March 21, 2024

In this article, I would like to answer a question that arises more often than it should. The question is whether or not to save documents in SharePoint as PDFs to avoid editing. This often comes up when an organization wants to store some official and formal policies and procedures or SOPs. Here is my take on this.

Microsoft Word vs. Adobe PDF

The question stems from the fact that it is so easy to change the Word document compared to PDF. With Microsoft Word, you can open a document in the browser or the native application and make the changes immediately. PDF files, however, are not that easy to modify. The built-in PDF viewer in SharePoint Online is just a viewer and does not allow any type of editing within the browser.

It is all about Security and Permissions

That said, the short answer is that whether or not you save a document as a PDF does not matter. It is the site or document library permissions that determine whether users can edit or not.

Scenario # 1: Site Permissions is Read-Only

If the site permissions only allow users to Read (Visitors Group), then that will be all they will be able to do. You could even store the documents in Word; the users won’t be able to modify them. True, they could download them locally and make changes, but they won’t be able to upload the files back to the same “official” SharePoint site/document library.

Word or PDF in SharePoint

Scenario # 2: Site Permissions is Edit (Members Group), and you saved documents as PDFs

With this scenario, let’s pretend you decided to go for PDFs but left permissions loosey-goosey – i.e., Edit. Here, you might get a false sense of security. Though you might think users can’t edit PDFs, they actually can. Nothing stops the user from downloading the file and making some basic changes, even with a free version of Adobe Viewer. Moreover, if they have Adobe Professional, they can edit PDFs and reupload them back to the site.

Word or PDF in SharePoint

The bottom line

At the end of the day, again, it is site security that determines whether users can edit documents, whether they are Word docs or PDFs. PDFs typically, look “nice” and cleaner when opening them up, so historically, that was the preferred choice for storing formal documents. Personally, I would go for PDFs and still make sure your site/library has Read access for the users.

About Me

I’m Greg Zelfond, a U.S. based SharePoint consultant, and I provide affordable out-of-the-box SharePoint consulting, training, and configuration assistance to small and medium-sized businesses all over the world.

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