As the academic publishing industry becomes increasingly cognizant of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and begins to develop best practices for weaving sustainability into our operations, it’s crucial that we acknowledge the environmental effects of our industry. By reviewing those effects along with shifts in the industry, we can project—and influence—our future trajectory toward reduced environmental impact.
Current Environmental Outputs of Scholarly Communications
Anyone involved in scholarly communications knows that we’re currently in a time of rapid change and process development. Print-based academic journals are part of the commercial print sector, and researchers from HP have identified paper waste byproducts resulting from the publication production process as a primary source of its industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, over the last twenty years, scholarly publishing has largely shifted toward digital processing and publishing, leading to a complex set of environmental benefits and drawbacks.
Digital publishing and open access are inextricably linked concepts, and there’s much to be said both supporting and criticizing this paradigm shift’s impact on our industry. Digital publishing has massively reduced demand for print versions of materials, from the printed manuscript drafts once mailed to journal editors for evaluation to the finalized journal issues sent to journal subscribers, leading to reduced paper waste. This also results in a reduction in print material mailing/transport emissions and impacts.
These improvements, however, come at the cost of increased email and website use. Though there are doubtlessly many improvements of electronic communication compared with mail—for example, a single email requires around 1.7% of the energy of a single paper letter delivery—there are still consequences to these digital shifts. The physical components of electronics are major contributors to environmental detriment both in their manufacturing requirements and inefficient waste strategies. Data generation and use is also a large area of concern, especially as big data becomes increasingly widespread. This is especially concerning for the academic publishing industry, as big data is rapidly expanding throughout both the research sectors our industry works with and within the scholarly communications industry itself.
As our industry continues to evolve in pace with technological developments and growth in adjacent sectors, such as medical technology and digital publications, we’ll likely continue to see rapid shifts, both in expected and unexpected directions. Here are a few trends we expect will continue to flourish in upcoming years:
Increasing industry recognition and support for of social causes. Recently, many publishers have placed increased focus and attention on diversity and equity in publishing. Relevant industry shifts range from initiatives to improve diverse hiring practices to strategies to financially assist authors from low- and middle-income countries who may not be able to afford rapidly increasing article processing charges, with many publishers offering waivers for qualifying authors. In the last three years, sustainability has become another forefront social issue that publishers are addressing by both promoting awareness and through policy development.
Reduced in-person office presence. Though the industry’s shift toward the work-from-home model was primarily catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the trend toward remote work seems to be here to stay. This results in reduced office space requirements and, conseenergy consumption (air conditioning, lighting, technology, etc) and paper waste products.
Increased research publication focus on climate change. A literature review found that the number of climate change–focused academic journal publications increased over six-fold between 2005 and 2014; in more recent years, research has continued to grow, with the number of publications steadily growing annually since 1997. The more we support systematic, reproducible environmental research, the better we’ll understand our current crisis and opportunities to counteract climate change.
Increased burden of websites/portals. Digital publishing practices aren’t a panacea for our industry’s environmental impacts. Data and websites generate their own carbon emissions and environmental impacts, and as the industry continues shifting toward digital publishing, we must stay aware of the fact that it has its own drawbacks.
Influx in sheer number of publications requires more resources. In today’s current publishing landscape, authors are rewarded for their number of publications, not quality. This has led to a staggering increase in the number of research manuscripts published each year. Each of these publications require resource use, and as the size of our industry expands, so does our environmental impact.
How you can impact scholarly publishing’s environmental effects
If you want to become more involved in our industry’s efforts to promote sustainability, there are several ways to do so:
- Research and consider joining the SDG Publishers Compact Fellows. This group acts to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals within the publications industry by providing action tips, resources, and policy initiatives.
- Direct interested research staff toward the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This group has an open requests for volunteer authors to contribute on research manuscripts through a variety of roles, ranging from lead authors, review editors, chapter scientists, and expert reviewers. There are opportunities for non-researchers, too: IPCC also welcomes technical support unit volunteers, who assist with report preparation, organization, and editing.
- Advocate for digital publication, carbon neutrality/offset, and sustainable paper use. By acting as a sustainability champion in your workplace, you can potentially affect your employer’s practices within your team and company-wide. Sustainability initiatives tend to have a domino effect—one small action on your part could lead to industry-wide change!