For the better part of two decades in medicine, I considered printed journals an old friend. Getting my latest medical journal in the mail, opening it, enjoying the feel, look, and even the smell of the journal was almost like getting a monthly present. During training, Journal club was the substitute I needed for the Book of the Month clubs I could not attend with other friends. To this day, I still consider reading them time well spent.
Yet, I cannot ignore their environmental impact in an era of alarming climate change. The plastic shrink wraps, commonly made from substances like polyvinyl chloride, polyolefin, polypropylene, and polyethylene, are not readily recyclable. The same is true for the glossy paper on which most journals are printed. Adding a glued-on advertisement to the cover does not help matters either.
And so, my desire to act on the growing concerns of climate change has reshaped my views on printed journals. The stacks of unread journals wrapped in plastic I used to find bemusing in an attending’s offices now bring thoughts of useless waste. Receiving so-called “second-tier” journals on diseases I no longer treat fills me with frustration as they go from mailbox to trash in under five seconds. I have even begun to question the notion that publishing is one of the most important factors to sustaining our careers, because it may not be sustaining the planet.
I find myself not alone in my concerns. Recently, I followed a post in a social media group for women in medicine in which another female physician lamented the challenges of trying to cancel receiving print journals while maintaining membership in her professional society. One, it seems, could not come without the other as easily as she had hoped. Discussions ensued, highlighting that the policy varied by journal and society.
In my journey to think and act differently, I have begun taking steps.
I unsubscribe from unsolicited emails to reduce the likelihood of receiving print mail from that source.
I have begun calling medical journals and unsubscribing from those I do not read.
For the journals I read regularly, I have asked to be converted to the online-only subscription format. If it cannot be done, I have emailed customer service to ask for a change.
And I no longer print articles from online literature searches. If I could find it once, I can find it again.
Science itself indicates that time is getting shorter for us to reduce climate change meaningfully. I ask us all to consider if the number of printed medical journals we all receive monthly carries the same value it once did. Perhaps it is time for a change.
Cynthia Anderson is a radiation oncologist.
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