My university requires all written work (essays, reports and dissertations) to be submitted electronically in Microsoft Word format. At my previous university, PDF was also acceptable (in fact, recommended).

In the UK, where I study, assignment length is determined by the number of words (not pages, as is usual in some countries).

As a LibreOffice user, submitting in Word format regularly results in formatting issues for which I can lose marks. The university has sympathised with this, as well as my ultimate preference of being able to use LaTeX, but insist it is not possible to accept PDF files because they can't easily do a word count.

Looking at other UK universities, it seems that a majority accept PDF submissions either exclusively or in addition to other formats. How do they deal with the issue of assignment length?

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    – ff524
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 2:25

2 Answers 2


My only direct experience with this kind of academic word limit has been with my Master's and PhD dissertations. In both cases the official submission was in hard copy. Under those circumstances, I find it vanishingly unlikely that anyone did a word count -- I suspect that at my university, the word-limit rule would only be invoked if someone submits something that's blatantly too long (e.g. a 500-page MSc thesis).

I would guess that other universities deal with the issue of PDF word counts either by not caring much (as in the case of my dissertations), or simply by counting the number of words in the PDF: despite your university's insistence that this is impossible, there are dozens of free tools, both web-based and downloadable, which can accomplish this task. Even without those, Adobe Reader has a "save as text" function which produces an easily word-countable plain text file.

Another possibility is that those universities set the limits in terms of pages, not words.

  • 1
    @FedericoPoloni I have rewritten my answer to focus on the question as stated. I was more or less assuming an XY problem (X being "How do I persuade my university to accept PDFs?") but perhaps that was presumptuous of me.
    – Pont
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 19:11
  • It would be nice if I could have convinced them, but I already failed to do that before asking this question. One of my arguments was that other universities seem to manage fine with pdf, to which they responded they can't imagine how. Having resigned to having to acquire and use Word, I really am asking how other universities do it, not how to convince mine. Your experience, by the way, tallies with my experience at my previous university.
    – greenglass
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 7:36
  • @greenglass When they said they can't imagine how, did you try telling them about the programs available for word-counting PDFs? It would at least be interesting to know whether the supposed word-count problem is their actual reason or just an excuse.
    – Pont
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 7:53
  • I informed them of being able to use pdftotext, as well as being able to copy and paste the text from the pdf into a word processor to do a word-count. They consider this to be too time-consuming and inaccurate. They are also aware that turnitin provides a wordcount, but it includes the whole document. whereas the regulations exclude appendices, etc. I believe it is their actual reason rather than an excuse.
    – greenglass
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 10:38
  • @greenglass Ah, the requirement to exclude appendices etc. does make it fiddlier -- you can't just throw the whole PDF into a word-count utility. "It's too time-consuming and inaccurate" is at least more reasonable than the patently false "it's impossible".
    – Pont
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 10:55

To answer the titular question, my old UK department asked students to include the word count at the end of the assignment. While assignments had word counts, they were not part of our marking scheme. I don't think we could apply a penalty to short assignment or ignore a portion of a long assignment. Technically, we might have been able to say the assignment failed to meet the stated requirements and there would not be marked. In all my years, it was never an issue so we never need to verify the number of words. If we had to, we would have figured it out.

I think is your real question is how to be allowed to submit a PDF. You need to understand why they will not let you. You say the department

insist it is not possible to accept PDF files because they can't easily do a word count

My old UK department came very close to requiring electronic submissions in Word only. The non technical arguments revolved around word counts, TurnItIn processing of "non-text" PDF, and electronic marking. These all have different solutions. You can offer to include the word count or find a TeX friendly faculty or post grad student to do the count for you. You can show them that TurnItIn works with PDF. In terms of electronic marking, you need to understand there system. This likely means finding a tech savy faculty member and becoming "friends".

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