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.

One, Two, Three… Blog!

It is a little over three years since Cabells launched its blog The Source, and over 100 articles later it is still here dispensing wisdom on publication ethics, scholarly communications, and even the odd cartoon character. Simon Linacre reviews the good, the bad, and the ugly from the last 1,000 days and counting…


A quick look at the tag cloud at the bottom of this blog tells you everything you need to know about the main topic of conversation that has dominated its content for the last three or so years. While the number of predatory journals appearing and being identified in Cabells’ Predatory reports shows no sign of abating – 15,715 and counting – it is a topic that always generates the most interest among readers. Part of this fascination, I think, is that for many of us law-abiding citizens, coming face to face with actual crime and misdemeanors happens relatively rarely in our lives, But with every unwanted spam email we receive we are up close and personal with actual criminality in action.

Posts concerning predatory publishing that have garnered most interest – and this is replicated in the many webinars that Cabells delivers globally – tend to cover practical advice on avoiding predatory journals, as well as the wackier side of the phenomenon. For example, the post in 2019 that featured a journal with Yosemite Sam from Yale on one journal’s Editorial Board attracted a lot of attention, as did an article last year answering common questions about predatory journals. Despite the widespread coverage in academic journals and wider media, the topic still holds huge interest for all stakeholders in academia.

Other topics that have also been popular have focused on ‘how to…’ guidance, such as the latest criteria used to identify journals for inclusion in the Predatory Reports database and an ‘A to Z’ of predatory publishing in 2020. This perhaps highlights there is still great uncertainty amongst the many authors, librarians and publishers who read the blog about how to navigate the predatory journal landscape.

More recently, posts about hijacking journals and various issues highlighted in scholarly journals on wider issues of publication ethics have also garnered significant interest, with growing threats such as paper mills worrying many academics. Indeed, reflecting on the 100+ posts shared on the blog, there does seem to be a disproportionately large number of topics on bleak topics such as climate change, threats to academic freedoms and lack of research funding. However, some positive items have shone through and inspired a good deal of response and hope amidst the gloom. Chief among these is the work being done by Cabells and others to highlight the increasing engagement research reported in academic journals is contributing toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In addition to Cabells’ pilot collaboration to create a new metric, one of the most viewed recent posts was on how this ‘new perspective’ could change the entrenched paradigms of research publications for the better. Such interest in new ideas and positive change offers a glimpse of a more open and collaborative future, one that is not mired in scandal and tired thinking. There is much, then, to look forward to in The Source over the next three years and hundred posts.

2022: Year of the SDGs?

As a New Year year begins, Cabells would first like to wish everyone a Happy New Year, and kick 2022 off with some reflections on what could be the hottest trend in scholarly communications this year: the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Simon Linacre shares an update on this fast-moving area and surveys the runners and riders in a new digital arms race.


In 2012, the New York Times famously declared that year was the ‘Year of the MOOC’. Remember them? These ‘massive online open courses’ were going to disrupt higher education forever and lay waste to inefficient university programs. The truth was rather more mundane – while they proved a boon for lifelong learners and some who couldn’t afford college, and the lasting value was probably enabling a much better response from universities to the COVID-19 pandemic than previously envisaged as the whole world moved online for a few months.

So, it is not without trepidation that a decade later we are calling 2022 the Year of the SDGs. Like the MOOC, this acronym may be surpassed by events and a general withering lack of interest from the general public. However, there is some evidence to suggest that this could be the breakthrough year for SDGs and scholarly communications. Firstly, there are the goals themselves – the 17 aims are timebound to be achieved by 2030, and as every year goes by the urgency grows. This was reflected in the pledges made at COP26 in Glasgow in November, as wells as sustained coverage by global media linking freak weather events and policy decision-making to overarching sustainability imperatives.

Secondly, interest in the SDGs by publishers is undoubtedly growing. In addition to the numerous projects and initiatives by publishers linked to SDG themes, there are now 165 members of the SDG Publishers Compact committing to the promotion of the SDGs in their activities as well as a measure of internal adoption. For our part, Cabells was the Compact’s member of the month for December 2021 – here is a video explaining why we chose to join the initiative:

Thirdly, not only are publishers becoming more involved in the SDGs, but so is the content they publish. Just in the last few weeks, two major papers have been made public regarding the SDGs and the extent to which articles relate to them. Understanding these links is becoming more and more valuable – funders, universities, research offices, practitioners, and policymakers all want to understand what content is engaging with the SDGs to optimize decision-making to maximize the impact of research being funded and conducted. As with citations, what comes with this is not just the value of that impact but being able to count it as well.

In their paper ‘SDGs: A Responsible Research Assessment Tool toward Impactful Business Research’ (Rodenburg et al, 2021), the authors look at the relevance – or rather lack of relevance – the 50 journals used by the Financial Times for their business school rankings has regarding the SDGs. In a similar vein to Cabells and Saint Joseph’s University own research in this area, the authors want to highlight what can often be a yawning gap between the traditional notion of quality, and a more modern perspective of relevancy, impact and utility.

But are these quantitative approaches valid? As with the numerous criticisms of using citations as proxies for quality, there will be similar difficulties in equating simple mentions of the SDGs in articles to actual engagement and real-world impact. This and other concerns are methodically highlighted in a paper posted in the arXiv repository by industry expert Philip Purnell in his paper ‘A comparison of different methods of identifying publications related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Case Study of SDG 13 – Climate Action’ (Purnell n.d.). The paper looks at four major new approaches to wholesale rendering of SDG engagement across large swathes of article content, and in so doing identifies that no one service can encapsulate such engagement, and there is relatively little overlap between them either.

Just because 2022 is set to be the ‘Year of the SDGs’ for the scholarly communications industry, that doesn’t mean it has a clear path forward. There is a range of competing interests and systems at play which could go in any one direction. However, visit any publishing conference this year – real or virtual – and the SDGs and how to interact with them will undoubtedly by one of the main topics of conversation. And when we remember what the SDGs are actually for, this isn’t a bad thing at all.

Cabells’ Best Reads (and Listens) of 2021

As another turbulent year draws to a close, the Cabells team has been inspired by our friends and colleagues at The Scholarly Kitchen and other blogs and shared our thoughts on our favorite books we’ve read in 2021. We’d love to hear about your favorite books as well, so please feel free to leave your suggestions on the chat at the bottom. In the meantime, best wishes over the holidays to all our readers and a Happy New Year for 2022!


By Honor Bound by Tom Norris and Mike Thornton, with Dick Couch

By Honor Bound tells the harrowing true stories of two heroes and Medal of Honor recipients, Tom Norris and Mike Thornton, Navy SEALs who served together during the Vietnam War. Norris was awarded the Medal of Honor for repeatedly leading a team of South Vietnamese Sea Commandos behind enemy lines to extract two downed American pilots. Just months later, in the waning days of the war, Norris and Thornton led a reconnaissance mission deep into enemy territory where they encountered a vastly superior force. Norris was shot in the head and presumed dead by a South Vietnamese soldier who alerted Thornton once at their extraction point. Without a second thought, Thornton fought his way back to Norris (who was in fact not dead and went on to a long career in the F.B.I.) and out again, an unbelievable act of courage and loyalty that resulted in his being awarded the Medal of Honor. This represents the only time in modern history the most prestigious military decoration was awarded in a combat action where one recipient saved the life of another. These inspiring firsthand accounts, told by Norris and Thornton to fellow Navy SEAL Dick Couch, are as remarkable as the men who lived them. ~ Mike Bisaccio

Not Just the Tudors by Professor Suzannah Lipscomb


I have a confession to make. I haven’t read a book from cover to cover since the onset of the pandemic and realise that browsing around a bookshop figures highly in my enjoyment of the printed word. I have instead become a devotee of the podcast and would like to recommend Professor Suzannah Lipscomb’s ‘Not Just the Tudors’. It isn’t necessary to have an in-depth knowledge of the 1500s and the 1600s or its protagonists to enjoy this podcast. The style is such that you can be forgiven for thinking that you’re eavesdropping on a couple of expert historians discussing their research. The enthusiasm and passion for the subject is always evident while the experts make sure to provide background and context. Subjects are international and range widely through fashion, food, art and culture but even the very niche topics are brought to life. Quite a surprising amount of source material has survived in private collections so it’s thought-provoking to see how historians are using this to blow away some modern- day misconceptions, for example about Tudor and Elizabethan interactions with the Muslim world and with people of African descent. This podcast is a fascinating and thought-provoking listen but at the end of the day, if plain old intrigue, politics, sex and power play in the Tudor royal court is your thing, there’s still plenty of it to discover here. ~ Sarah Pollard

o caledonia by elspeth barker

This is a gem of a book, it largely takes place in a draughty old castle in Scotland and begins with the murder of the 16 year old protagonist Elspeth. Despite this grisly start, the beautiful, rich and witty writing make this book a joy to read. The story covers Elspeth’s short life and her misfit status both within her family and at boarding school. Elspeth finds solace in books, the landscape, animals and her relationship with her unconventional whisky-loving, Aunt Lila who is an expert on all things Fungi. Imbued with a feel of the gothic and more than a little of the strange, this is the perfect winter read. ~ Ruth Bailey

The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown

This book tells the deliciously horrifying true story of the Donner Party in the mid-1840s. Distasteful pun intended. As was that one. The story gives great insight into the unimaginable difficulties, pain, and decisions the members of the Donner Party faced as they trekked across the American wilderness from Illinois to California. They walked alongside wagons pulled by oxen across plains, desert, and through mountains before finally getting caught in unusually cold and snowy weather in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It’s a heartbreaking story of death and loss, but underneath it all is a story of survival – of doing whatever it takes to overcome the odds and live another day. Throughout the book are real accounts from letters written by survivors and explanations of how and why the victims’ own biological processes failed them. This was a riveting story – despite widespread knowledge of how it would end – but much like the early American emigrants’ journey, it’s to die for. (Final pun intended.) ~ Kathleen Berryman

matrix: a novel by lauren groff

I actually have 17 favorite books this year, so far (the year’s not over yet). In the interest of brevity, I have painfully narrowed the list to three.

Literary Fiction: Matrix: A Novel by Lauren Groff – I was devastated when this novel did not win the National Book Award last month. It is set in the 12th century and centers around Marie de France. She is the first known female writer of francophone verse, but very little is known of her actual life. At its heart, the novel is a thematic exploration of how suppression foments righteous rage which can be used to fuel defiance, devotion, determination, and ultimately power. Bonus points for the novel’s title which highlights the Latin origin, meaning “mother”.

The Brothers Karamazov

Classic Fiction: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – One of the greatest novels ever written. Maybe the greatest? As I read it for the first time this year (why did I wait so long?), I found myself wishing over and over that I could read it in the original Russian. If Dostoyevsky’s genius can peek all the way though the translation, imagine the glory that must be present in the original language text. I found myself stopping to cross-reference various translations trying to extract as much meaning and elegance as possible. The novel is a tour de force of insight into human nature and psychology.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir


Popular Fiction: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir – Such a fun, life-affirming read! Amid the difficulties and despair of 2020 and 2021, it is a sheer pleasure to read a novel that highlights the best attributes of humanity: intelligence, determination, devotion and kindness. A science-fiction tale of survival that highlights the stellar power of friendship. ~ Lacey Earle

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Perhaps more suited for the 1886 Book of the Year, I explored the literary classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. The modern adaptations we grew up with, from film to Looney Tunes cartoons, managed to streamline the narrative and soften out all the rough edges that make the original so rich. The duality of man theme is at the story’s core, but it’s explored, in full psychological depth, through a sort of mystery whodunit. Watching helplessly as our neighbors struggle and slowly transform into dangerous new forms without the ability to rationalize or stop it feels just as relevant of an idea today as it ever was. Add to that the after-dark backdrop of 19th century London, and you feel like you’re in a Victorian-themed escape room. Unravel the mystery, revel in scientific discovery, and watch in horror as one “man” terrorizes a small community. ~ Ricky Colson

The Propitious Esculent: The Potato in World History by John Reader (aka The Untold History of the Potato and Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent)
Propitious Esculent

In John Reader’s book that goes by many names, the central focus is our favorite nightshade: the potato. Though it discusses the history of the potato itself, including its cultivation in its original soil and its expansion to into every corner of the world, the book really shines in its examination on the potato’s role as a catalyst that stoked the furnace of urbanization and, ultimately, the industrial revolution. It explores how the potato has been used to variably feed the hungry, exploit workers, create whole economies and shepherd socioeconomic class systems into the modern era. This book is worth a read for anyone who likes to eat potatoes or has been taking part in post-industrial civilization. Suffice to say, that’s most of us. ~ Lucas Toutloff

Academic Sleuthing

With plenty of advice and guidance on the internet on how to identify and avoid predatory journals, many argue the game is up. However, Simon Linacre argues that while so many authors and journals slip through the net, numerous skills are required to avoid the pitfalls, not the least of which is, as one case study shows, being an amateur sleuth….


Back in the day when I used to lecture researchers on optimizing their publishing strategy, I always used to use the refrain ‘Research your research’ to underline the importance of utilizing the investigative skills of academic research for the purpose of understanding scholarly communications. Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, and knowing how the medium of academic publishing works can enable effective and robust decision-making, especially in academia where those decisions can have a long-term bearing on careers. Knowing the best journals to publish in can prove to be a huge benefit to any given academic.

Turns out knowing where NOT to publish can also have the same benefits.

This notion was underlined to Cabells this month when an academic publications advisor highlighted a case they had been involved in at their university. The advisor – whose identity and that of the institution has been anonymized at their request – was based at a research institute and among other duties advised its researchers about submissions to academic journals, including such things as copyediting, publishing licenses, and open access payments.

Recently, one of the institute’s academics had been invited to present at a conference in 2022, but the invitation was brought to the advisor’s attention as it was a little outside their normal sphere of activity. The advisor thought the invite and presentation were a bit unprofessional and advised against accepting the invitation. Upon further investigation, they found the conference was linked to a suspected predatory publisher, which had been highlighted online in several different sources.

However, the advisor was still not satisfied as while there were suggested links and implications, there was also some evidence of legitimate activities and details. It was only when the advisor scrutinized some of the journals’ articles that she found further evidence of fake journals and scientific anomalies and requested confirmation of their suspicions. We were glad to confirm that the publisher in question – Knowledge Enterprises Inc. (KEI) – indeed looked suspicious and had six journals included in our Predatory Reports database [see image below for example].

Predatory Reports entry for Journal of Economics and Banking from KEI Journals

The moral of this story is not just that ‘researching your research’ can help identify bad actors. It also shows that persistence with an investigation and a wide range of inputs from different sources are required to support ethical publication practices. In some cases, nothing less will do.

The New Normal?

With 2022 promising to be either ‘back to normal,’ the ‘new normal,’ or ‘near normal,’ what does ‘normal’ actually look like in scholarly communications? Simon Linacre reports from two recent business school conferences on what to expect – and what should happen – in the next 12 months.


It first hit me when I sat down on the train to London for my first conference in nearly two years. The train was on time, but there were no seat reservations operational; some people were wearing masks (as advised in the UK), but some people weren’t (it’s not now mandatory); a lot of people were attending the event, but the interesting people I wanted to meet were dialing in for their talks.

Welcome to the new normal for scholarly communications.

Comparing events now to events in 2019 is a little like comparing Christmas or other festivals to 10 or 20 years ago. They feel different and should be better, but we can’t help feeling wistful for when things seemed a little simpler. Following my experience in the last week, academic conferences will be enhanced in terms of who they can get to speak at them and the variety of talks and activities, but they may be a little less satisfying as people dial in with the inevitable technical problems, and in-person meetings are diluted by absences.

The fact that such events are impacted in this way is actually a good thing, as in part it shows a willingness for academics to bite the bullet and stay away from events due to a need to cut their carbon emissions. This topic was very much present in the two conferences I have recently attended, but in slightly different ways. At the Chartered Association of Business Schools (Chartered ABS) event in London, the issue of sustainability was prominent, with a keynote panel discussion and breakout session dedicated to the topic and how business schools should respond. Among the hand-wringing, however, there was little in the way of answers. A key point was made by one business school representative who said to help meet emissions targets the school needed to half its carbon footprint, but the school’s strategic plan was to double the number of students. With student travel responsible for almost half the school’s footprint, it was difficult to see how it could meet both growth and emissions targets.

The second event was the Global Business School Network’s GBSN Beyond annual event which had decided to remain an online event due to its international audience and Covid issues. Sustainability was also a key element in the event’s agenda, with talks on issues such as community impact and corporate human rights, all supported by a virtual reality-inspired online hub for delegates (see below).

It was at this event two years ago that the collaboration between Saint Joseph’s University and Cabells began that has resulted in the development of the SDG Impact Intensity rating. I was really pleased to share an update on the project at the conference it started at this year, along with ideas for future development, but sad I couldn’t meet people in person. However, I was also glad I wasn’t burning up resources unnecessarily just to propel me somewhere I didn’t need to be. Maybe the new normal should be ‘new normals’, as whatever we do now there are multiple, often contradictory, emotions and feelings in play.

No Hiding from Predatory Menace

If you thought predatory publishing had had its day and things were improving, there is bad news. As Simon Linacre reports, there is even more bad news and surely worse behavior to follow in the coming weeks and months. However, the InterAcademy Partnership’s ongoing project studying predatory journals and conferences aims to educate researchers on how to identify and avoid these dangers.


As we wind down to the end of what has been yet another tumultuous year and some of us look forward to the various holidays and celebrations that lie ahead, it is common for us to reflect on what has gone before and look forward to what a new year may bring. Particularly against the backdrop of the global pandemic and dangers of climate change, it would be comforting to look at some issues that may be close to being resolved or at least lessened in their negative impact.

Just don’t look to the fight against predatory publishing activities for any relief.

In a year that has seen Cabells’ Predatory Reports database pass 15,000 journals, a major study has started to release its findings from its global investigation into predatory journals and conferences. The InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) is an international network of scientific academies collaborating on issues to provide trustworthy advice and guidance. In the last 18 months it has tackled predatory activities as one of its projects, releasing some initial findings earlier this year. These showed that from a survey of over 1,800 academics on 112 countries:

  • nearly a quarter had either published in a predatory journal, participated in a predatory conference, or didn’t know if they had
  • over 80% thought predatory practices were on the rise or a serious problem in their country of work
  • over half thought that such practices widened the research gap between high income and low income countries.

The full report is currently at the peer review stage and due for release early in 2022, with a research article also in the works. IAP believe that one of the main things it has learned from the study is that researchers in all countries, at all stages of their career and in any discipline can be vulnerable to predatory practices, and as a result raising awareness is now a vital mission for IAP.  In this vein, it has announced it is running four regional webinars through its IAP Regional Networks and one global webinar with The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), both with the Global Young Academy, focused mainly on the research community.  

Tickets for the free webinars are now available and open to everyone. If we can’t end the year on a high note with respect to predatory journals, at least we can try and ensure ourselves and our networks are as aware as possible of this dark phenomenon.

OA Week: Open Spectrum

This week sees the 14th Open Access Week (#OAWeek #OAWeek2021) since it started in 2008. To mark the event, Simon Linacre looks at the challenges and opportunities the movement may face in post-pandemic times.



For many in the scholarly communications industry, Open Access Week is a fixture on the calendar just as much as Frankfurt Book Fair and The Charleston Conference, which bookend OA week. So, it may surprise people to learn that it only started as ‘Open Access Day’ in October 2008 as a follow up to the National Day of Action for Open Access in February 2007, growing to a week’s worth of activity in 2009. OA has come a long way since then – but how far does it still have to go?

Open Access content was minimal in those days, with an estimated 8.5% of published articles available as OA in 2008, and a further 11.9% available in repositories. By 2020, several estimates put the total number of research articles available via some form of OA as well over half of all articles published.

Judging the success of this growth since the inception of OA Week is difficult, and it probably depends where you are on the spectrum of opinion on OA itself. If you strongly believe that all research should be freely available period, then there is probably some frustration that a significant slice of content is still behind a paywall. The growth of OA as a percentage of all content has been sustained and consistent but is unlikely to reach the vast majority of published articles for some time yet. However, this availability varies hugely in terms of geography, with some countries such as the UK having national mandates in place to ensure almost all newly published articles are Open Access.

If you are on the other side of the spectrum and have no problem with the traditional subscription model, then you may be surprised how developed OA has become. So-called transformative agreements, initiatives such as Plan S and the increased use of repositories for scholarly communications have all contributed to the tide turning in favor of OA.

And if you are on this side of the spectrum, then you may also have concerns about the decrease in use of peer review as a method of validating research. The COVID-19 pandemic has both highlighted the risks of research being shared without peer review checks, and also stressed the importance of the sharing of vital medical research as quickly as possible. The net result is probably an acceleration, both of the availability OA research and worries about the consequences of this.

But where does this acceleration lead to? It was inevitable that most research would become available as OA, and if funding – either for authors or for publishers – was available to cover the costs of that, then few would disagree with this outcome. But for many it was not about when most research would be made OA, but how that would happen, and for them the validation of research in an age of fake news and deep fake images is perhaps more important than ever.


New Kid on the Block

The publishing industry is often derided for its lack of innovation. However, as Simon Linacre argues, there is often innovation going on right under our noses where the radical nature of changes are yet to be fully understood, for good or bad.



There is a clock ticking down on the top right of my screen. I have 15 mins and 28 seconds to upgrade to premium membership for half price. But what do I need to do? What is the clock for? What happens if I don’t click the button to stop the clock in time…?

This isn’t an excerpt from a new pulp fiction thriller, but one of the elements in a new journal many academics will have received notification of recently. Academia Letters is a new journal from Academia.edu, a social networking platform for researchers worldwide to share and discover research. Since it started life in 2008, the site has become popular with academics, with millions signed up to take advantage of the platform to promote their research and find others to collaborate with. It has also been controversial, accused of hosting thousands of article pdfs in breach of copyright terms. Up until now, the site has focused on enabling researchers to share their work, but now they have joined the publishing game with their own journal publishing short articles of between 800 and 1,600 words.

The new offering provides several other different takes on the traditional journal:

  • All articles are Open Access but for a lower fee than average (£300 in the UK)
  • Peer review times are promised to be “lightning-fast”
  • Articles are accepted or rejected at the first round, with only minor revisions required if accepted.

Now, some people reading this will ask themselves: “Doesn’t that sound like a predatory journal?”. However, it is very clear that Academia Letters is categorically NOT predatory in nature, because far from attempting to deceive authors into believing there is in-depth peer review, it is clear that the light-touch process and access to millions of users should mean the publishing process is both fast and cheap compared to other OA options. However, the quality of articles would not be expected to match those in a traditional journal given the brevity and lack of intervention from peer reviewers in the new model.

It will be interesting to see how many authors take advantage of the new approach chosen by the journal. If it takes off, it could open up other new forms from traditional publishers and other networking sites, and be held up as a clear example of innovation in scholarly communications. However, the journal may run afoul of its approach to marketing as authors have become increasingly wary of promises of fast turnaround times and low APCs from predatory publishers. For example, what happened when the ticking clock ran down to signify the end of a half price deal to become a premium member of Academia.edu? It simply reset to 48 hours for the same deal. Such marketing tactics may be effective in signing some authors up, but others may well be put off, however innovative the new proposition might be.

Not Seeing the Wood for the Trees

There is much to learn from literature regarding scholarly communications, not least how to get messages across the divide to the wider public. Simon Linacre finds much food for thought in chewing over a modern classic.


Like many people, I tend to have two or three books on the go at once. This is due in part to different moods suiting different types of books, but also due to some fallacious idea that I will read them more quickly if I do so concurrently rather than one at a time. It also helps tackle larger books, and there are few larger than my recent fiction read, The Overstory by Richard Powers. A true epic intertwining several different stories that all become rooted to the conservation of redwoods in the Pacific Northwest of the US, it encompasses far more than environmental concerns. Liberty, corporate behavior, relationships and child welfare are all covered, as well as the often-blighted route taken by academic researchers.

The professor in question makes a quite literally groundbreaking discovery about how trees can communicate with each other in a forest through root systems, but as soon as she is lauded she then is put down by fellow academics pouring scorn on her ideas and effectively shunning her from her profession. It is only when her ideas are revived and proven again that she comes into her own, but not as an academic expert – rather as a rabble-rouser, polemicist, and leader of like-minded people.

One of the themes hinted at in this story is the impact debate, and how academic research or any kind of uncovered truth can possibly enable real change in the face of corporate hegemony, state bureaucracy and sheer noise created by those arguing for their individual rights to lead their lives as they see fit. The book offers a little hope among huge piles of despair, but is nevertheless an uplifting read due to the force of will exhibited from the main characters. Similarly, one can see that for those academics who raise their head above the parapet and choose impactful research over more popular or recognised research areas, the path towards individual and societal success can appear a long one.

In one telling passage in the book, one character trying to save a tree by living high in its boughs is almost blown off by a helicopter hovering over her perch. Those behind the actions of the helicopter argue they are saving livelihoods by cutting down the trees; those behind the protest say the same, but those livelihoods stretch far into the future and will be worth more than the short-term approach being adopted by the loggers. The parallels for scholarly communication are also stark, as the limited resources that have backed non-actionable research may soon switch to more actionable outcomes. It just needs all stakeholders to see the wood for the trees and move towards a much more impact-focused trail.