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I believe that the majority of Elsevier journals use a standard dual column document class.

However, some journals that are owned by Elsevier use an alternative single column format (e.g. J. Comput. Phys.; J. Sound and Vib.).

What is the reason for using a different format for these journals? My first guess would be that since historically those journals were single column format they may keep this format, but why then did Elsivier move them to their own single column format (narrow margins and smaller font) instead of moving to dual column (easier to read) or just keeping the same words-per-line that the journals had beforehand?

Personally I find it more difficult to read the current single column format (post 2002)

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The only case in which I know of an advantage to a one-column format is when the papers tend to contain many long formulas. However, I would guess that this is not the case for the Journal of Sound and Vibration. –  Wrzlprmft Mar 31 at 8:52
Two columns are a hack to put more ink on one page while keep the text readable. In PDFs, you'll find single-column and shorter lines (cf LaTeX's default) but I guess journals view that as wasting precious paper. –  Raphael Mar 31 at 12:08
"Standard double column format" Didn't know that this exists. –  Dirk Mar 31 at 19:20
while keep the text readable — [citation needed] –  JeffE Apr 1 at 0:21
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6 Answers 6

up vote 8 down vote accepted

(Copy Editor speaking ;-) )

When designing a journal's typesetting style, there are several things to consider:

  • What are the paper size restrictions? Can you choose any paper size or choose from a short list, or is it fixed? For instance, Springer uses it's own paper size for many publications, The journal I typeset is stuck to A4 because it's the cheapest to print here, etc.

  • What font size and family is going to be used? The smaller the size, the more characters per line you get, as well, sans-serif fonts make it harder to follow a line of text in a long paragraph.

  • What are the typical contents of the papers? For papers with many long paragraphs, it's almost necessary to have narrow columns (I'll explain that later). For papers with lots of colour photos and graphics, you want to allow graphical appendices since colour printing is then cheaper and printer handling easier. For lots of math formulas, you prefer wide columns so that they fit better. For lots of very small graphics and tables, you might prefer two columns so that you can put more easily two of them next to each other.

  • Who is going to use the final template and how? Do you have a professional typesetter to carefully typeset all the papers? Do your audience use Word or LaTeX more? If they use Word, you think twice to make the journal two-column since you can be close to sure that people will mess the template up.

What is "narrow" and "wide":

  • Narrow is basically anything with less than 66 characters per line on average. It's been proved over centuries that this is the limit width on which the eyes are able to follow the line correctly and switch to the next line correctly. With sans-serif fonts, the width should be a bit less since the serifs significantly help to follow the line.

  • Wide is anything that allows you to conveniently typeset long formulas. The rule-of-thumb I know is: At least 50 characters per line on average. Remember that being too wide makes it difficult to follow the lines correctly. However, this is not much an issue if the only long text in the typical articles is the introduction and most of the other paragraphs are less than 4-5 lines.

The decision of Elsevier to make some journals one-column and another ones two-column on the same paper size might be, seeing the arguments above, quite justified.

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Mathematics journals (including many published by Elsevier) are usually single column. I assume this is because of the frequent need for long equations. The longer lines are somewhat more difficult for the eye, but one gets used to it.

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I have a few issues of Elsevier's TCS lying around here. Many articles are next to illegible, but not because of single-column mode; I guess it just does not matter. If you want to read it comfortably, get a nicely styled preprint (LaTeX's default are already better). If that's not readable as well (poor craftsmanship happens), don't read the paper. –  Raphael Mar 31 at 12:07
@Nate: that's a good comment about mathematics being more suited to single column. However from my side of physical science most journals that I deal with appear to be double column - and it seems arbitrary that the two examples that I cited are single column when i) they are less math intensive then other double column examples, and ii) competing journals e.g. J. Acoust. Soc. Am which is of higher prestige than J. Sound and Vib. does well in double column format (format breaks are allowed to display long equations). So the choice on Elsevier's part seems arbitrary in non-math journals. –  Eksze Mar 31 at 15:29
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One column is just as standard as two column. Tradition, in conjunction with type-setting standards, likely determine the state of affairs. Many journals have traditionally been printed in a smaller size than letter/A4. For the large format, two column is more efficient. That is, you can squeeze more words into a page than for a single column. With smaller formats this is no longer true because the two-column format requires smaller font size to maintain readable lines; lines with to few letters are detrimental to the readability since it fragments the text. Hence it becomes more a matter of choice which way to go, one or two column. In addition, one column is easier to type set and one column figures in a small format also becomes small.

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Note that it is no problem to use two-column pictures in a one-column format. Also lines with many letters are very detrimental to the readability of the text. –  Wrzlprmft Mar 31 at 8:48
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One possible explanation for the variety of formats is the fact that Elsevier acquired a lot of other publishers; they tend not to change the format of an newly acquired journal, probably for brand issues (the cover and style are well-known to the audience, changing them could be disturbing).

This does not explain why the journals where single columned by their original publishers in the first place, but other answers have tackled this issue.

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Of the Economics' journals that Elsevier publishes (and there are lots of them!) I think all (if not almost all) are single column. Which journals use double column? Why would they use double column? I referee a lot for Elsevier's economics journals, it would be a nightmare to read double column economics papers.

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Two examples would be J. Chem. Phys.; Ultrasonics. That's interesting that economics uses single column. What is the advantage (I'm assuming the equations aren't that long/numerous)? Personally I prefer single over double (when text/margins are appropriately sized), but don't appreciate Elsevier's effort to squeeze in as many words-per line as they can at the expense of my eyes. –  Eksze Mar 31 at 15:38
@James: Economics papers have two parts. In the introduction and conclusion, you try to "sell" the paper, connect it with existing literature, etc... So it is pretty much like a book. If you are reading a book, I assume you would prefer single column, no? The rest is pretty much like a mathematics journal: theorems, proposition and proofs. Lots of equations or tables (if it is empirical work). I never print (or read) papers in their original size. Try to crop their margins and print a zoomed version. –  Dr Pangloss Mar 31 at 17:49
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One reason for one-column format has already been mentioned: especially for math papers, it's useful to display long computations and formulae (even with one column, it can be a nightmare to make them fit the page!).

I don't know if anyone shares this, but I see another reason to prefer this format: when reading an article on my computer (which cannot display the entire page on the screen), I find it very annoying to get back to the top of the page when I finished the first column instead of just keeping scrolling down.

I suspect however that habit plays a large role in the appreciation of such and such presentation and that helps explain why the practices seem to be so homogeneous in a given field.

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There's a good reason why many people have two screens, one rotated landscape ;-) –  tohecz Mar 31 at 20:57
When I am rich and want to stop working from all the places where I carry my laptop I will consider it ^^. –  Ri49 Mar 31 at 21:07
I see your point, I live on the same boat as you do. –  tohecz Mar 31 at 21:08
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