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.

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.

What really counts for rankings?

University and business school rankings have induced hate and ridicule in equal measure since they were first developed, and yet we are told enjoy huge popularity with students. Simon Linacre looks at how the status quo could change thanks in part to some rankings’ own shortcomings.


In a story earlier this month in Times Higher Education (THE), it was reported that the status of a university vis-à-vis sustainability was now the primary consideration for international students, ahead of academic reputation, location, job prospects and even accessibility for Uber Eats deliveries – OK, maybe not the last one. But for those who think students should place such considerations at the top of their lists, this was indeed one of those rare things in higher ed in recent times: a good news story.

But how do students choose such a university? Amazingly, THE produced a ranking just a week later providing students with, you guessed it, a ranking of universities based on their sustainability credentials. Aligned with the UN’s now-ubiquitous Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs), the ranking is now well-established and this year proclaimed the University of Manchester in the UK as the number one university that had the highest impact ranking across all 17 SDGs, although it was somewhat of an outlier for the UK, with four of the top ten universities based in Australia.

Cynics may point out that such rankings have become an essential part of the marketing mix for outfits such as THE, the Financial Times and QS. Indeed the latter has faced allegations this week over possible conflicts of interest between its consulting arm and its rankings with regard to universities in Russia – a charge which QS denies. However, perhaps most concerning is the imbalance that has always existed between the importance placed on rankings by institutions and the transparency and/or relevance of the rankings themselves. A perpetual case of the tail wagging the dog.

Take, for instance, the list of 50 journals used by the Financial Times as the basis for one of its numerous criteria for assessing business schools for its annual rankings. The list is currently under review after not changing since 2016, and then it only added 5 journals from the 45 it used prior to that date, which was itself an upgrade from 40 used in the 2000s. In other words, despite the massive changes seen in business and business education – from Enron to the global financial crisis to globalisation to the COVID pandemic – there has been barely any change in the journals used to assess publications from business schools to determine whether they are high quality.

The FT’s Global Education Editor Andrew Jack was questioned about the relevance of the FT50 and the rankings in general in Davos in 2020, and answered that to change the criteria would endanger the comparability of the rankings. This intransigence by the FT and other actors in higher education and scholarly communications was in part the motivation behind Cabells’ pilot study with the Haub School of Business at St Joseph’s University in the US to create a new rating based on journals’ output intensity in terms of the SDGs. Maintaining the status quo also reinforces paradigms and restricts diversity, marginalizing those in vulnerable and alternative environments.

If students and authors want information on SDGs and sustainability to make their education choices, it is beholden on the industry to try and supply it in as many ways as possible. And not to worry about how well the numbers stack up compared to a world we left behind a long time ago. A world that some agencies seem to want to cling on to despite evident shortcomings.

Opening up the SDGs

While the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer a framework for global communities to tackle the world’s biggest challenges, there are still huge barriers to overcome in ensuring research follows the desired path. This week, Simon Linacre reflects on the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ effects in publishing and one organization trying to refine a fragmented infrastructure.

Recently, Cabells has been able to further its commitment to pursuing the UN SDGs by signing up to the SDG Publishers Compact and sharing details of its pilot journal rating system with the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University that assesses journals in terms of their relevance to the SDGs. Part of the reason Cabells is working with the SDGs – aside from a simple belief that they are a force for good – is that they represent an opportunity to offer reward and recognition for researchers who are using their talents to in some small way make the world a better place.

The scholarly communications industry, like many others, relies on push and pull dynamics to maintain its growth trajectory. The push elements include the availability of citations and other metrics to judge performance, recognition for publishing in certain journals, and various community rewards for well-received research. On the flip side, pull elements include opportunities shared by academic publishers, a facility to record research achievements, and an opportunity to share findings globally. This is how the publishing world turns round.

This dynamic also helps to explain why potentially disruptive developments – such as Open Access or non-peer-reviewed journals and platforms – may fail to gain initial traction, and why they may require additional support in order to become embedded with academics and their mode of operations. Going back to the SDGs, we can see how their emergence could similarly be stymied by the existing power play in scholarly publishing – where are the push and pull factors guiding researchers to focus on SDG-related subjects?

I recently spoke to Stephanie Dawson, CEO at ScienceOpen, which is a discovery platform that seeks to enable academics to enhance their research in an open access environment and offer publishers ‘context building services’ to improve the impact of their outputs. ScienceOpen is very much involved with the UN SDGs, recently creating a number of content containers for SDG-related articles. By offering curative opportunities, post-publication enhancements, and article-level data services, ScienceOpen is most definitely doing its part to support a pull strategy in the industry.

Stephanie says, “We began this project working with the University College London (UCL) Library to showcase their outputs around the UN SDGs. Because we believe there needs to be broad community buy-in, we also wanted to encourage researchers globally to highlight their contributions to the Sustainable Development Goals by adding keywords and author summaries on ScienceOpen, regardless of the journal they published in and demanding publisher engagement for new works.”

And this is what Cabells is also trying to achieve – by offering new metrics that can be used to guide authors to the optimal publishing option (push) and highlighting traditionally overlooked journals with low citations as destination publications (pull), we hope we can change the conversation from ‘Is this a good journal?’ to ‘Does this research matter?’. And we think reframing the context like ScienceOpen is doing is an important first step.