I am a mathematician whose work often connects with physics, so I often have to read papers in physics journals. I find that the two-column format popular with physics journals annoying, and based on the following questions on this stackexchange I am not the only one that feels that way:

Difficulty reading scientific papers in two columns

How best to present long equations in two-column papers?

Do two-column format journals publish one column for special cases?

I contend that the two-column format is impractical for long mathematical equations and is harder to read, since your eyes have to move in a pattern different from most other printed texts. But I suppose that there must be some advantage to the two-column format, given it is so standard in some branches of academia. But I can't think of a single reason why it would be better than a single column printed page! Enlighten me, please.

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    I don't think there's an advantage. It's just ... tradition. For similar reasons, the citation styles in certain fields omit the paper name, which I find annoying but manageable. – Allure Sep 5 '18 at 3:00
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    There's a good discussion in this answer. – Anyon Sep 5 '18 at 3:02
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    A lot of these standards come from the dark ages before personal computers. So don’t be surprised if the answer has something to do with the limitations of punch cards and maximizing the number of articles that can be distributed using a single carrier pigeon. – Thomas Sep 5 '18 at 3:15
  • @Thomas your comment would be more convincing, except that most of the formatting of computer produced documents has been unremittingly horrible (Of course the default options in some well known document-creation apps bear a lot of the blame for this). – alephzero Sep 5 '18 at 8:40
  • I transitioned from an area with majorly single-column publications to an area with majorly double-column ones. I got used to it quite fast and like two columns more now, when reading papers. I'd also say the typical "expected" width of an equation has also something in common with the decision if the layout would be one-column. – Oleg Lobachev Sep 5 '18 at 18:14

There's a widespread belief that shorter lines (fewer characters per line) are easier to read, because the eye doesn't have to move as far horizontally from the end of one line back to the start of the next. The left edge of the text (assuming left-to-right languages) may already be in your peripheral vision. Thus it's easier to visually find the correct line to read next, and avoid accidentally rereading the same line or skipping lines.

This is the justification for the extremely wide margins that LaTeX uses by default in one-column styles, for instance.

I don't know offhand if there is research supporting this belief, but maybe someone can fill me in if they know.

Two columns makes it easier to have short lines, without resorting to small paper size, large font sizes, or huge margins. Thus you still get a high density of text per page, and it keeps page counts down (and the associated costs).

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    Some references to studies on line length and readability here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_length. The newspaper industry has known about this for centuries - hence the large number of narrow columns per page in traditional broadsheet and tabloid page layouts. – alephzero Sep 5 '18 at 8:37
  • Reinforcing this, online-only physics journals such as the Journal of High Energy Physics (JHEP) or Quantum, which don't incur printing costs, are often single-column with larger margins. – knzhou Sep 5 '18 at 9:04
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    There actually is a lot of research on this. My copy of "the elements of typographic style" (version 3.2) covers it as: anything from 45 to 75 characters is considered satisfactory length for a single column work ... for a multiple-column work a better average is 40-50 characters (pg 26) – Racheet Sep 5 '18 at 12:22
  • The correct keywords to put into google to find the academic background are "typographic measure", and 'The elements of typographic style' is a popular textbook for typesetting. – Racheet Sep 5 '18 at 12:26

As mentioned elsewhere, "[t]here's a widespread belief that shorter lines...are easier to read." Regarding,

I contend that the two-column format is impractical for long mathematical equations

Push long equations into one-column figures.

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    Your solution seems like it would greatly disrupt the flow of any paper with more than a few such equations. – Tobias Kildetoft Sep 5 '18 at 9:30
  • Related (on figures). – user68958 Sep 5 '18 at 9:34
  • @TobiasKildetoft This is a workaround, not a solution. It will work in some cases and not in others. – user2768 Sep 5 '18 at 11:22
  • @corey979 Indeed: in two-column manuscripts, place one-column figures at the top or bottom. (LaTeX does this anyhow.) – user2768 Sep 5 '18 at 11:24
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    And many journals stick to the principle that a figure is a figure, and an equation is an equation and you mustn't jumble the two up. There are other workarounds for full-width equations, but they're not great either – Chris H Sep 5 '18 at 12:42

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