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I'm going to be writing my dissertation in LaTeX quite soon.

Whenever I've done work in the past in LaTeX, I've always just used \documentclass[twocolumn]{article} but I've heard about multicol. What are the main advantages to the latter?

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balancing columns, changing the number of columns on one page. – mbork Mar 17 '13 at 21:54
disadvantage: licence (see e.g. tex.stackexchange.com/questions/40920/…) – mbork Mar 17 '13 at 21:55
Another disadvantage: multicol doesn't support floats. – Gonzalo Medina Mar 18 '13 at 1:49
up vote 5 down vote accepted

The multicol package has not been developed as a replacement for the twocolumn option of standard classes. It has been developed for more specialized scenarios and therefore shows some restrictions in general purpose documents.

Purpose of the multicol package is

  • to enable the flexible use of multiple columns (up to 9)
  • balance column to equal or near equal height
  • support changing the number of columns on a single page (equires balancing)

Typical use cases are medium length lists, e.g., index, glossaries, short articles with varying number of columns, balanced boxed text in two or more columns, etc.

Because of the requirement to auto-balance material and the use of columns with different width there are some restrictions with respect to floats: it is only possible to use full-width floats as the notion of a general column width doesn't exist and the balancing would make float placements very complicated. For the same reason, only page-wide footnotes are supported.

The license of this package is LPPL, i.e., it can be generally used for any purpose, despite the statement in one of the comments above. It is true, that multicol has an additional "moral obligation" clause, but it is clearly stated that this is a request not a legal requirement that is part of the license. This is a somewhat historical accident and anybody interested is invited to read the article on LPPL which gives some background.

From a practical point of view I don't think that it is advisable to use multicol for something like a dissertation unless balancing of columns is important (say at end of sections) and column-wide floats are not really necessary (as they would need to be placed by hand). But for part of a document it may make sense.

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