Well, it appears that yesterday's article on an open access journal  published by the library at Indiana University has generated quite a level of response — some from professors, some from university press personnel, the last one (at this writing) from a librarian. Lots of folks listing lots of reasons why traditional, peer-reviewed print journals are better than open access (free) journals, even if the OA journals are reviewed by exactly the same peers. If you haven’t looked it over, you probably should.
From a sustainability point of view, it’s no contest. Digital is good. Paper is bad. End of story.
Well, maybe not quite the end. Let’s look at it in a little more detail. Presume that the article is already written, edited, and reviewed (all of which has to be done, regardless of medium). From that point on, the digital journal (not all digital journals are open access, but all open access journals -- I think -- are digital) follows a publication process which consumes only a small quantity of electricity. The print (paper) journal is the output of a publication process which consumes far more electricity, as well as pulpwood, water, chlorine, dyes, air and fossil fuel.
Let’s be fair. The print journal evolved at a time when the most efficient mechanism for sharing information was ink on paper. That’s no longer the case. Information now travels (and is stored, waiting to travel) far more efficiently in digital form. Paper doesn’t weigh a lot, but electronic ones and zeros weigh even less and so are transported quicker and more cheaply. Paper is still useful for the one article a reader wants to pore over and mark up, but it doesn’t have to be consumed to mail each subscriber a full copy of each article (s)he has no interest in reading.
And paper is a tremendously harmful product to the environment. I don’t know what sort of paper stock most journals are printed on (although, for the price many of them charge, it ought to be pure silk!), but think of a single sheet of 8.5″ x 11″ printer/copier paper. Production of each individual sheet consumes 13 ounces of fresh water. Production of each ream puts 8.4 kg (about 18.5 lbs.) of CO2 into the atmosphere. The water weighs way more than the paper does (no surprise there), but even the CO2 weighs more!!
Print journal publishers don’t pay the full lifecycle costs of the paper their product uses. And paper companies don’t pay the full costs, either. Most of the costs are externalized — passed off to the public, or the planet, to absorb. Some of the comments on yesterday’s article  state critically that digital journals never get charged for the full costs of their production, but print journals pay an even smaller percentage of their real costs.
From an ecological point of view, most paper’s a real loser. Sure, 100% post-consumer recycled stock is a heck of an improvement, particularly if the reprocessing is chlorine-free, and especially if the power used in the reprocessing is generated renewably. But why print pages no one’s going to read? Why print the entire issue so that students can make photocopies of any article they’re going to use? Why not have the original be digital, and the specifically desired “copy” the actual first print? Remember: REDUCE, reuse, recycle.
And sustainability is about more than just the ecology. It’s also about society and the economy. Print journals, while they serve the purpose of circulating high-quality research among the interested academic community, also serve to keep that research out of the hands of most everyone else. Worse, each journal serves only a narrow audience — even within academe — in a pattern which reinforces the value of narrow academic specialties.
Truth be told, the education community has a special responsibility to lead efforts to achieve sustainability, because the education community played a significant role in getting us into this mess. The whole paradigm of specialization — of narrow fields of expertise, research conducted primarily within the bounds of those fields, students taught to make decisions via techniques which value only those results observable through the lens of a particular subject area — has contributed mightily to the technologies of cost externalization (and not just in paper production or journal printing). What’s created anthropogenic global warming is the net effect of many trillion individual decisions, each of which (presumably) made sense within the terms in which it was consciously framed. The individual decision-makers are less to be blamed than is the system which taught each of them to optimize only locally, and disregard externalized costs. We don’t think globally, because we organize information, and expertise, narrowly. And the modern multiversity is the living incarnation of that organizational scheme.
So long as academic effort is organized into boxes or “silos", we will continue to experience unintended (and often undesirable) consequences because any technology we design will have effects beyond our scope of vision. Academic journals are the most obvious artifact of this organizational scheme. If we can’t even think about changing how we print journals, how can we hope to think about redesigning our collective knowledge base? And, if we re-vision journals appropriately, access to information will be far more open than the wildest dreams of the librarians at Indiana U.