SDGs and the Higher Education Sustainability Initiative: The Way Forward

The 17 integrated UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a global call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Research and higher education will play vital roles in society’s march toward achieving the SDGs by the end of the decade and in building a sustainable future by providing current and future stakeholders with the knowledge, skills, and ethos to make informed and effective decisions to this end.

The Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) is a partnership that gathers over two dozen UN agency members and Higher Education Sustainability Networks. The Initiative tackles the most crucial challenges of our time by redesigning higher education to provide leadership on education for sustainable development, spearheading efforts to ‘green’ campuses, and supporting sustainable efforts in communities, while also ensuring the quality of education, equity, and gender equality.

Initiated in 2012 leading up to the Rio+20 conference, and bolstered with support of the United Nations, HESI provides higher education institutions with a vibrant confluence of higher education, science, and policymaking by enhancing awareness of higher education’s role in supporting sustainable development, facilitating multi-stakeholder discussions and action, and sharing best practices. The Initiative emphasizes the crucial role that higher education plays in educating the current and next generation of leaders, propelling the research agenda for public and private sectors, and helping to shape the path of national economies.

HESI also aims to directly address the problem of aligning research programs and outcomes in scholarly publications. By highlighting those journals that are already focused on this alignment – and those that could do better – Cabells and Saint Joseph’s University are hoping to play a big part in facilitating this process.

One of the overall goals of Cabells is to optimize decision making for both researchers and institutions. The SDGs are becoming increasingly important to these groups, and we strive to support them in enhancing the impact of the work they’re doing. One way we’ve been able to do this is through our collaboration with Saint Joseph’s University and Dr. David Steingard, developers of the SDG Dashboard at Saint Joseph’s University, to create a new metric called the SDG Impact Intensity™ (SDGII) journal rating. The SDGII seeks to contextualize and understand the relevance of academic research in terms of the SDGs. Climate change, sustainability, and equity are among the most powerful forces for change in society, and yet they are ignored by traditional citation-based metrics.

The SDG Impact Intensity uses a sophisticated AI methodology from SJU to look at article output in journals from Cabells’ Journalytics database and gives those journals a ranking determined by the relative focus they have exhibited in their article publications over the last five years with respect to the SDGs. The SDGII provides a rating of up to five ‘SDG wheels’ to summarize the SDG relevance of articles published over a five-year period (2016-2020).

As previously discussed in The Source, the SDGII show that journals well-known for perceived academic quality in business and management performed badly when assessed for SDG relevance, while journals focused on sustainability issues performed much better.

We believe our work with SJU and Dr. Steingard will be a key collaboration within the industry and its work on the SDGs, and we’ve joined the SDG Publishers Compact (Cabells was proud to be named the Compact’s member of the month for December 2021) to help further this partnership and the pursuit of the SDGs. In the coming months, Cabells and Dr. Steingard will be on hand at the upcoming PRME, AACSB, and SSP annual meetings to discuss a new iteration of the metric and lead discussions on how impact-focused metrics can support a progressive publication agenda. Greater than a change in perspective, there is an ongoing paradigm shift occurring as the value of journals moves past ideas of quality based largely on citations, reputation lists, and prestige, to impact and mission-driven research outputs.

BOOK REVIEW: Predatory Publishing, by Jingfeng Xia (Routledge)

During 2021 while Simon Linacre was researching and writing what he thought was the first book on predatory journals, he discovered… someone had got there first. Putting rivalry to one side he reviews the recently published book, which offers in-depth research into a phenomenon which is now stepping out of the shadows.

It is a curious feeling reading a book on a topic that you yourself have written about. During 2021 when I was writing a short ebook on predatory journals (to be published later this year), I heard that Jingfeng Xia – a former academic based in the US – had written a book on predatory publishing that was due out at the end of the year. It was, therefore, with a mix of trepidation and intrigue that I ordered the book as soon as it was released to see what another author had made about the phenomenon. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Predatory Publishing (Xia, 2021) presents an overview of not just predatory publishing practices, but also predatory conferences, journal hijackings and other related deceptive activities. The stated aim of the book is to provide a reference point for researchers, authors and other stakeholders in scholarly communications, and its comprehensive academic research builds a solid base to achieve this. After introducing the topic and giving some necessary background, the meat of the book goes into some detail on predatory journals and predatory publishers, and the market dynamics that have enabled them to develop and prosper.

As you would expect, a good deal of the book focuses on Jeffrey Beall and Beall’s Lists, which are explained and discussed objectively, as are some examples of predatory journal behaviors. Xia also discusses Cabells’ Predatory Reports and other “blacklists”, and the use of this term to describe lists of predatory journals does sit rather uneasily as Cabells and many other organizations have moved away from employing it. Nevertheless, the author looks at this and other lists of recommended journals and does a good job of highlighting how they work and the value they can offer researchers if used wisely. Of particular good use are the inclusion of numerous screenshots and tables of information to fulfil the intention of providing a useful reference for authors, including Cabells’ list of criteria for including titles in its Predatory Reports database.

In terms of publishers, Xia has decided to use several examples of predatory and non-predatory behaviour based on some publishers that were included in Beall’s List. This is particularly instructive as it highlights both accepted predatory publishers and why they were included in Beall’s List (in this case OMICS), but also publishers that were included at one stage but then removed as they were able to show their activities were legitimate (in this case MDPI). By highlighting real examples of publishing behaviours – both deceptive and legitimate – those people hitherto ignorant of predatory publishing practices will be much enlightened.

The rest of the book includes an excellent short chapter on the role journal stakeholders play in predatory publishing, including editors and reviewers who have worked (or have been purported to work) on predatory journals, although of course one of the main traits of such journals is they don’t have any such stakeholders on board. But as Xia notes, “it takes a village to build the predatory publishing market”, and stakeholders other than predatory publishers themselves have been complicit in growing the phenomenon, such as those authors who knowingly publish in the journals to satisfy some requirement or other. Further chapters on predatory conferences, hijacked journals and in particular fake indices are also instructive, and Xia’s dissection of the latter is particularly welcome. Its explanation and presentation of a long list of such indices is perhaps unique in the literature on predatory publishing, and extremely valuable to researchers taken in by data points made to look like Clarivate Analytics’ Journal Impact Factor.

One unfortunate manifestation of reading a book on a topic you are so familiar with is that it is all too easy to spot errors. One such error is in relation to a common myth that Cabells’ Predatory Reports database and Beall’s Lists are in some way linked – they are not. Xia quotes one academic article saying “they [Cabells] do take many articles from Beall’s archive”, and says elsewhere that “unlike Beall’s journal blacklist, which has been taken over by Cabells…”. Both these statements are untrue – Cabells developed its database independently, and while it spoke to Beall as an expert in the area during development, it verified each journal as per its criteria. If there is one criticism for what is an otherwise excellent book, it is that it is rather a cold and dispassionate investigation into the subject that relies a little too much on academic research at the expense of a little journalistic endeavour. Conducting interviews and speaking to stakeholders might have brought the topic more alive, and achieve the author’s aim to provide a much-needed point of clarity on what has always been an all-too-murky subject area.

Xia, J. (2022). Predatory Publishing. Routledge.