in BMJ

Environmental impact of journal distribution is complex


Letter by me in the BMJ this week:


Inglis contends that the BMJ’s print run and thus carbon footprint can be reduced by a combination of increased reader sharing of print issues and greater embrace of digital distribution.

The whole picture is less straightforward. The BMJ is a commercial publication, albeit not an aggressively capitalist one, and it must pay its way. Part of its funding comes from print advertising, and advertisers remain reluctant to pay for online and iPad advertisements. Were the BMJ to make the transition to an online only publication, with most printed copies communally read in institutions, its business could prove unsustainable. “So what?” some might say, but unexamined healthcare is also wasteful inefficient healthcare.

The idea that a move from printed to digital distribution will automatically lower the BMJ’s carbon footprint is not a foregone conclusion. At least one comparison of the environmental impact of print, online, and tablet based consumption has been attempted and comes out only hesitantly for tablets.

A comparison of print and digital distribution must include all stages. A digital journal is free from the physical print and distribution costs of a print journal but data storage—“cloud computing”—and device manufacture/disposal must be considered. Greenpeace’s recent report on cloud computing data centres voices concern that many rely on “cheap but dirty” coal power stations.

Ultimately many factors determining an electronic journal’s environmental impact are down to reader behaviour. The fewer tablets, laptops, and smart phones we buy the lower our carbon footprint. Yet most of us own several devices with overlapping functionality, which we regularly replace. Few of us switch them off as often as we should.

Competing interests: SG is employed by the BMJ as editorial registrar.


(June 2018 review – links updated)

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  1. Thank you for posting your letter here as well as others may wish to join in the discussion. I have been receiving the paper BMJ as part of my BMA membership of £425. But very soon I will not be receiving a paper edition as I have asked to be removed from the distribution list.

    To non-BMA members, online only or online and paper is offered.
    The paper version costs about £320 extra per year. Are you suggesting that offering this reduction for online only access means that the BMJ is losing out somehow?

    I’d imagine that most of the online access of the BMJ is currently to the research articles which are offered ‘free’. Would more paying subscribers or BMA members switching to online access only make a large impact on the server load?

    Hopefully we will see more discussion soon.
    Thanks again,
    Anne Marie