When looking at typical research paper documents in PDF, the two column layout makes it very difficult to scan pages easily because you have to move your eyes up and down and scroll up and down at the same time, so it is effectively like having two scroll bars.

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Is there a technical or usability issue with offering a offered that by default allows users to flip pages instead so that it is easier to read this type of document? Or does it already exist but I am just not aware of it for PDF readers? In Microsoft Word 2013 if you change the view settings to Reading mode and select the column layout then you can use the bottom scroller (not the next page button) to simulate the behaviour of scrolling between columns next to each other, which is actually the default behaviour I would want for this type of document.

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Is this the most user friendly way to view two column documents, and are there any technical or usability contraints I am not aware of and therefore it has been done the way it is? Taking into account that printing isn't as much of a major requirement for these documents anymore because you can collaborate using other tools, would an alternate viewing mode similar to what I described in MS Word be better?

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    Being able to reflow the content of a PDF would completely negate the purpose of the file being in a PDF format in the first place. The whole raison d'être of these files is that they are in a fixed format: "Each PDF file encapsulates a complete description of a fixed-layout flat document". Make the content readable online separately and provide a PDF as supporting content. If you need to have the PDF content reflow then you need to build it into the PDF itself from the start (which you can do) but once it's created then that's it.
    – JonW
    Jul 18, 2013 at 7:49
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    Is the question "Should there be" or "Is there" or "How do I..."? Jul 18, 2013 at 8:17
  • @Andrew Leach - sorry, question has been updated.
    – Michael Lai
    Jul 19, 2013 at 4:10
  • I rotate the monitor into portrait mode to read journal articles and books in two column format.
    – uxzapper
    Jul 21, 2013 at 2:16

1 Answer 1


PDF files are not meant to be viewed online.

Some of the reasons for using PDFs include preserving the print format, encapsulated formats, making documents easier to publish and preserving existing hard copy documents.

Good uses of PDF files include user guides, owner manuals and documents or forms that must be printed.

  • I guess it is not just PDF documents, and even PDF documents are beginning to be edited more online these days because a lot of tools are available for doing annotations and markups. I don't see why Microsoft Word makes it difficult to simulate this mode of viewing as well.
    – Michael Lai
    Jul 18, 2013 at 22:05
  • The question would be why Microsoft would want to do that?
    – SimonTeo
    Jul 19, 2013 at 3:57
  • Furthermore, your machine will need to have MS Word installed to view MS Word files. And not many people have them installed especially in Linux or Mac.
    – SimonTeo
    Jul 19, 2013 at 3:57
  • Sorry, I've updated the question. It is not really limited to PDF or MS Word. I am interested in why documents are presented that way to the user when it is clear that reading it involves a lot more scanning and moving around of the user's focus.
    – Michael Lai
    Jul 19, 2013 at 4:09
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    Hi Michael, I believe it's because of Newspaper format. Newspaper have been around as the only source of media in the past and the format are continue so. View it this way when you print the PDF out, you will read it with ease over reading it from the screen. Reason that I can think of is, you do not need to read from left to right (much more uncomfortable than up and down).
    – SimonTeo
    Jul 19, 2013 at 4:25

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