The industry which is probably responsible for producing more hot air than any other, the academic publishing industry, is being exhorted to become carbon neutral. In an article in the Scholarly Kitchen, the official blog of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, entitled a ‘Call for Carbon Neutrality in Scholarly Publishing’ a group of senior publishers from a range of scholarly societies who constitute the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Council of the ISMTE (International Society for Managing and Technical Editors) has issued the call. It is not made clear why carbon neutrality is the concern of a group dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion, but for a piece of climate change virtue-signalling, this article takes some beating.
The opening sentence says: “Like COVID-19 and systemic racism, reducing the worst effects of climate change is something that needs to be addressed at every level of society, including scholarly publishing.” With reference to Earth Day (which took place last weekend), the UN Climate Change Conference, COP 27 and an article entitled ‘Call for Emergency Action’ by Laurie Laybourn-Langton of the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research), it continues in the same vein:
Our businesses and associations must band together and work collectively toward reducing carbon emissions at levels that will provide our children and grandchildren with a livable [sic] world. It is not enough to simply publish research on this topic. We must work directly to combat climate change in our operational activities as well.
Quoting directly from the Laybourn-Langton article, the authors demonstrate they have fallen for the usual climate change tropes as in, “Health is already being harmed by global temperature increases and the destruction of the natural world” and the usual stuff about how the ‘climate emergency’ is having a disproportionately harmful effect on the poor and the oppressed.
Helpfully, the authors of the ‘Call for Carbon Neutrality in Scholarly Publishing’ quote the Wikipedia definition of ‘carbon neutrality‘ and concede that: “Carbon emissions from the knowledge economy in North America and Europe may be small relative to other sectors. This does not make them inconsequential.” But the piece neglects to set out what the carbon footprint of the academic publishing industry is, which aspects of the industry are contributing to that footprint and how that could be reduced.
Surely, carbon emissions from the ‘knowledge economy’ are not only small but are indeed inconsequential. There can be few processes that are specific to this industry that generate much of a carbon footprint over and above the usual things such as heating buildings and powering desktops that every industry has. But the use of paper to print journals and books has largely been stopped in favour of online journals and more recently of online books. Very few leading publishers and their associated scholarly societies publish anything in hard copy these days, even for advertising at conferences. Journals are online and university libraries order almost exclusively electronic copies of textbooks. At academic conferences, where once you came away with a pile of journals to read, you are usually handed a business card with a QR code to gain access to some free articles to read. Is it the proliferation of these business cards that these climate activists are concerned about? If so, that’s a campaign I could get behind.
When I first joined the editorial board of an academic journal in 1994 I made regular expenses paid trips to London and Oxford, international board members were flown in, and we were often flown across the globe to meet in exotic places. Editorial boards have long since abandoned these practices. The COVID-19 restrictions put an end to them, with all meetings now being held online. It is genuinely hard to see how much closer to carbon neutrality the academic publishing industry could be.
The authors exhort organisations to adopt measures that will keep “global temperature increases below 1.5°C”, which shouldn’t be difficult given that the average global temperature is currently falling. Being in publishing, they must also broadcast their efforts so the public can follow their good example. The likely soporific effect of such proclamations escapes the authors who suffer from a comical lack of self-awareness. They end with a climate ‘call to arms’:
It is hoped climate neutrality will become part of our discourse on social media and in our business meetings, just as we continue to publish about climate change in our journals. If this problem is going to be solved, it will not be through the work of a single person, organisation or government. It will be through our collective action.
Dr. Roger Watson is Academic Dean of Nursing at Southwest Medical University, China. He has a PhD in biochemistry.