Measuring Sustainability Research Impact

Last month, Cabells was excited and honored to have the opportunity to take part in the EduData Summit (EDS), which took place at the United Nations in New York City. The EDS is the “world’s premium forum for data-driven educators – a platform for strategists, data scientists, CIOs and other dataheads to discuss and share best practices at the intersection of big data, predictive analytics, learning analytics, and education.”

The theme of this year’s Summit was “The Virtuous Circle: Sustainable and inclusive life-long learning through EduData” and sessions focused on areas such as access to education, continued and distance education, innovation in data science and AI, and sustainability.

Cabells CTO Lucas Toutloff was joined by Rachel Martin, Global Sustainability Director at Elsevier, and David Steingard from Saint Joseph’s University’s Haub School of Business for the virtual presentation “Industry-University Collaboration for Impact with the UN SDGs.” The panel discussed the importance of connecting research and science to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) widely, and more specifically, bridging the gap between researchers and practitioners. The SDGs are 17 highly interconnected goals spanning a large set of environmental, social, and economic topics and represent a universal call to action for building a more sustainable planet by 2030.  

Scholarly publishing can steer research and innovation toward the SDGs if we specifically and collectively shift the focus to address these crucial objectives and solutions. Researchers must lead the way by providing solutions for practitioners to put into action. As one of the first U.S. organizations and non-primary publishers globally to be awarded membership to the SDG Publishers Compact, along with having the privilege of being part of the Compact’s Fellows Group, Cabells is fully invested in helping to leverage the power of scholarly publishing to achieve the SDGs.

The SDG Publisher’s Compact core mission is to create practical and actionable recommendations for stakeholders in every corner of academic research – academic publishers, editors and reviewers, researchers and students, academic authors and librarians – for how they can have the SDGs at the forefront of their research agenda so we can collectively bridge the gap between researchers and practice. The goal of the Compact Fellows Group is to encourage all areas of the ecosystem to share in incentivizing researchers to perform work that supports and addresses the SDG and help smooth the transition from research to practice. The Compact has created specific best practices and recommendations for each sector that can be acted upon immediately to drive research into the hands of practitioners. The goal is to incentivize research that is driving innovation to address the SDGs which means we need to have ways to parse through, discover, and measure this research, because “what gets measured gets done.”

A major component in this process is establishing a broad spectrum of reporting and insights to drive incentives and measures of impactful research to gauge how an institution, individual researcher, or journal is performing in terms of SDGs. SDG Publisher’s Compact members have a responsibility to drive research to action and impact and devise ways to measure its effectiveness, reward those who conduct and publish impactful research in impactful journals, and continue to encourage those who don’t.

Toward this end, and in the spirit of SDG 17 “Partnerships for the Goals,” we are working with SJU on a publisher-neutral, AI-driven academic journals rating system assessing scholarly impact on the SDGs, called the SDG Impact Intensity (SDGII) rating. Data, scholarship, and science will be the driving forces for meeting the 2030 goal and as SDG research output is increasing, funders, universities, and commercial and not-for-profit organizations need to know money, time, and research is being well spent and having an impact.

We have discussed (here and here) our commitment to doing our part to advance progress on meeting the SDGs and, ultimately, the 2030 Agenda. Our work with Professor Steingard and his team from SJU in developing the SDGII to help business schools determine the impact their research is having on society by addressing global crises has been some of our most rewarding work. Working within the business school ecosystem, we’re examining how the SDGs can inspire a transformation from quality to impact in business by looking at journals in terms of their alignment and taxonomy connection to the SDGs.

The top 50 business school journals (according to Financial Times in 2016) were examined by the United Nations PRME group and it was discovered that only 2.8% of articles published in ‘top-tier’ journals address challenges such as poverty, climate change, clean energy, water, equality, etc. This is a problem that continues today, many of the same journals are still among the top in business journal rankings and they are not championing and featuring impactful research to any meaningful and impactful degree.

Cabells and SJU are trying to address this problem through the SDGII by shifting the philosophy on what “counts” when looking at business journals and noting which publications are driving impact with respect to the SDGs. We are working to integrate, promote, and ultimately change the benchmarks of what matters in academic output and the data that drives decision-making.

To continue to promote this initiative and encourage the shift from quality to impact, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss our progress at the AACSB’s International Conference and Annual Meeting (ICAM), in April in New Orleans.

Sustainability is the crisis of our generation, and sustainability‑mindedness has been an important point in academic research. The SDGII is designed to give stakeholders on every level the ability to measure what they’re doing and to serve as a cross‑motivational tool to drive the industry forward on issues of sustainability. As mentioned earlier, when it comes to incentives, what gets measured gets done. The traditional metrics of evaluating the quality of research journals focus mainly on citation intensity which evaluates journals based on how much they are used and cited. While this makes sense on some level, research must be read to have an impact after all, it’s missing the mark by not considering, and measuring, impact on SDGs.

The SDGII is an alternative, complementary metric that will evaluate a journals SDG research and output through artificial intelligence and machine learning and build a profile for the publication to demonstrate its impact on these issues. Rather than throw out the traditional approach of evaluating quality and value of a journal, we are seeking to build on the foundation that good journals have in terms of things like scholarly rigor, audience, citations, and rankings. We want to move the needle to highlight research and journals that address the SDGs and the SDGII will help business schools demonstrate how their research is achieving societal impact and meeting the Global Goals.

Seeds of Change

If you plan on attending the Society for Scholarly Publishing’s (SSP) 44th Annual Meeting next month in Chicago, be sure to make time to attend Session 4F, “Open Science and SDGs: Harnessing Open Science to Address Global Issues.” Lucas Toutloff, CTO at Cabells, will be part of an outstanding panel that will be discussing ways the scientific community and journalism can drive change and wider societal outreach through open science policies and by embracing SDGs as a key topic in research impact.

Over the past year we have written extensively about our commitment to doing our part to move the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and, ultimately, their 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, forward. We were proud to join the SDG Publishers Compact as one of the first U.S. organizations and non-primary publishers globally to be awarded membership, and we look forward to becoming more involved in the rankings, ratings, and assessments HESI action group, tasked with guiding the changes to the criteria for assessment of the performance of higher education institutions to include contributions to the UN SDGs.

We’ve also been thrilled at the growth of and excitement for the SDG Impact Intensity™ (SDGII) academic journal rating, the first system for evaluating how journals contribute to positively impacting the SDGs. The SDGII is the result of our collaboration with Dr. David Steingard, Director of the SDG Dashboard initiative and Associate Professor of Leadership, Ethics, & Organizational Sustainability at the Haub School of Business at Saint Joseph’s University, and his team of researchers.

The SDGII uses SJU’s AI-based methodology 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).

Last month, we had the chance to champion the potential benefits and impact of the SDGII at the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) North American Biennial Meeting in Virginia, and at the AACSB’s International Conference and Annual Meeting (ICAM) in New Orleans. David and his team discussed their vision and efforts to inspire a transformation from “quality” to “impact” in academic publications.

From right to left: Dr. Julia Christensen Hughes, Dr. Kathleen Rodenburg, and Dr. David Steinberg speak at the PRME 2022 Biennial Meeting at George Mason University in Arlington, VA.

At PRME, we discussed how impact-focused metrics can support progressive publication and business education agendas and unveiled a new iteration of the metric – the SDGII 3000, which provides a rating to measure the SDG-intensity of 3000 academic business journals, as well as the net impact of a business school’s faculty on publications advancing the SDGs. The SDGII 3000 will analyze 95%+ of all relevant business school and SDG-related journals where faculty publish and represents a massive expansion of the measurement of the social and environmental impact of publications through the SDGs.  

Dr. David Steingard presents the SDGII 3000 for the first time at PRME.

We look forward to continuing this discussion in Chicago at the SSP conference, both during our session and beyond. We will discuss the ways that open science is impacting SDG initiatives and programs and explore methods for operationalizing SDG-mindedness as a tool for measuring both research impact and potential. The momentum is building for this game-changing initiative and we hope to see continued interest and excitement from all corners of academia.

Back Together Again

Conference season is upon us and all of us at Cabells are excited to get back to in-person events to safely reconnect with old friends and establish ties with new ones. Like everyone else in the world, academe has had to adapt, pivot, and evolve to a new way of life, one largely designed to limit human interaction. Maybe that’s why it seems like there is a bit more excitement surrounding conferences this year, the anticipation of being back together with our community and all the ideas, learning, teaching, and growing that in-person events foster.

Cabells is hitting the ground running and we will be at the upcoming Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) North American Biennial Meeting April 21-23 in Arlington, Virginia. PRME is a United Nations-supported initiative founded in 2007 as a platform to raise the profile of sustainability in management and business schools around the world. Their mission to transform management education and shape the skills and mindset of future business leaders to advance sustainable development and create collective impact dovetails perfectly with Cabells’ values and goals.

Speaking of fitting perfectly with our mission, we are also very excited to be returning to AACSB’s ICAM 2022 in New Orleans, April 24-26. We will have a large contingent at ICAM this year, find us at booth 219 or in one of the conference’s insightful sessions to say hello and learn what we have been up to since we last met.

At both PRME and ICAM we are looking forward to discussing our work in collaboration with David Steingard and Saint Joseph’s University (previously discussed here and here) in examining how the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can inspire a transformation from “quality” to “impact” in academic publications. We’ve looked at opportunities that help and obstacles that hinder work on making this shift happen, and hope to offer solutions that help accelerate progress.

Our work in helping to develop the SDG Impact Intensity™ (SDGII) journal rating, which measures business and management journals on their focus and impact on sustainability and related issues has been challenging and rewarding. We’re looking forward to sharing our work and the progress we’ve made in helping shift the paradigm on what counts as impact in academic and business research.

We hope to see you in Arlington or New Orleans, travel safely!

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.

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.

A New Perspective

What should a good quality journal include in its make-up – rigorous research, well-regarded editorial board, plenty of citations? But what if we challenge these assumptions and demand commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals as well? There are solutions to this challenge, and here Simon Linacre introduces the first SDG Impact Intensity™ rating from Cabells and Saint Joseph’s University.


It is said that some of the best deals are done in a secluded restaurant or in the back of a cab. For academics, perhaps the equivalent is the fringes of a conference gala dinner and in a coach back to the hotel. That’s what happened when I met Dr. David Steingard from Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) in Lisbon in late 2019, where we discussed what an appraisal of journals from the perspective of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) might look like.

First trialed in March of this year, the fruits of this meeting are released today in the shape of the SDG Impact Intensity™ journal rating. This pilot study – the first full ratings are expected in early 2022 – seeks to highlight the differences between business and management journals regarded as leaders in their disciplines, and those which have focused on sustainability and related issues. The pilot consists of 100 journals rated according to their relevance – or intensity – to the UN’s 17 SDGs, determined by the relative focus they have exhibited in their article publications over the last five years. Using a sophisticated AI methodology from SJU and journals based on Cabells’ Journalytics database, journals were rated from zero to five, with six journals achieving the top rating.

Traditionally, citations and rankings have been a proxy for quality, none more so than the list of 50 journals used by the Financial Times for its FT Research rankings. However, to what extent have these journals started to reflect on research on climate change and the SDGs in recent years – a focus which should surely be a top priority for business and business schools alike?

The evidence from the SDG Impact Intensity™ journal rating is that… there has been very little focus at all. As you can see from the list of 100 journals, only two journals from the FT 50 appear in the top 50 of the list, showcasing the fact – as if there was any doubt – that sustainability journals that have typically lagged behind top business journals in terms of citations and prestige far outperform them when it comes to engagement with the SDGs and the research agenda they represent. We will view with interest the FT’s plan for a “slow hackathon” this Autumn as part of a review of their journal list.

Cabells started to investigate this area to see if there was another way to assess what value journals represented to authors looking to publish their work. What the last two years have shown is that more than a shift in perspective, there is a paradigm shift waiting to happen as the value of journals to authors moves from old-fashioned prestige to a more dynamic representation of mission-driven research. While Cabells and some publishers have backed this general shift by signing up to initiatives such as the UN Publishers Compact, much more can be done to progress the impact agenda in scholarly communications. Events such as the upcoming Higher Education Sustainability Initiative (HESI) Webinar aim to tackle the problem of aligning research programs and outcomes in publications head on. By highlighting those journals that are already focused on this alignment – and those that could do better – Cabells and SJU are hoping they can play a part in genuinely moving the dial.

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.

Cabells launches new SDG Impact Intensity™ journal rating system in partnership with Saint Joseph’s University’s Haub School of Business

Following hot on the heels of Cabells’ inclusion in the United Nations SDG Publishers Compact, we are also announcing an exclusive partnership with Saint Joseph’s University (SJU) for a new metric assessing journals and their engagement with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Simon Linacre explains the origins of the collaboration and how the new metric could help researchers, funders, and universities alike.

If you can remember way back to the halcyon days when we went to academic conferences, you will remember one of the many benefits we enjoyed was to meet a kindred spirit, someone who shared your thoughts and ideas and looked forward to seeing again at another event. These international friendships also had the benefit of enabling you to develop something meaningful with your work, and went some way to justifying the time and expense the trips often entailed.

I was lucky enough to have one such encounter at the GBSN annual conference in Lisbon, Portugal at the end of 2019 when I met professor David Steingard from Saint Joseph’s University in the US. He was at the event to present some of the work he had been doing at SJU on its SDG Dashboard – an interactive visualization and data analytics tool demonstrating how university programmes align with the 17 SDGs. At the gala dinner I sought Dr. Steingard out and asked him something that had been buzzing inside my head ever since I heard him speak:

What if we applied your SDG reporting methodology to journals?

An animated conversation then followed, which continued on the bus home to the hotel, at the conference the next day and ultimately to the lobby of a swanky hotel in Davos (there are no other kinds of hotels there, to be honest) a year ago. From then on, small teams at SJU and Cabells have been working on a methodology for analysing and assessing the extent to which a journal has engaged with the UN’s SDGs through the articles it has published over time. This has resulted in the new metric we are releasing shortly – SDG Impact Intensity™ – the first academic journal rating system for evaluating how journals contribute to positively impacting the SDGs.

Using data collated from Cabells’ Journalytics database and running it through SJU’s AI-based methodology for identifying SDG relevance, SDG Impact Intensityprovides a rating of up to three ‘SDG rings’ to summarise the SDG relevance of articles published in the journals over a five-year period (2016-2020). For the first pilot phase of development, we chose 50 of the most storied business and management journals used for the Financial Times Global MBA ranking as well as 50 of the most dynamic journals from Cabells’ Journalytics database focused on sustainability, ethics, public policy and environmental management.

It may come as no surprise to learn that the so-called top journals lagged way behind their counterparts when it came to their levels of SDG focus. For example, none of the top 26 journals in the pilot phase are from the FT50, and only four of the top ten are from the world’s five biggest academic publishers. In contrast, the journals traditionally ranked at the very top of management journal rankings from the past 50 years in disciplines such as marketing, accounting, finance and management languish at bottom of the pilot phase ratings. While these results are hardly surprising, it perhaps shows that while governments, funders and society as a whole have started to embrace the SDGs, this has yet to filter through to what has been published in journals traditionally regarded as high impact. There has long been criticism that such titles have been favoured by business school management structures over more innovative, real-world relevant journals, and this very much seems to be borne out by the results of Cabells’ research with SJU. The very notion of what academic journal “quality” means is fundamentally challenged in light of considering how journals can make an ”impact” through engaging the SDGs.

Cabells and SJU are hoping to further their partnership and broaden their coverage of journals to enable more researchers and other interested parties to understand the type of research their target journals are publishing. With more information and greater understanding of the SDGs at hand, it is to be hoped we see a move away from a narrow, single-focus on traditional quality metrics towards a broader encouragement of research and publication that generates a positive impact on bettering the human condition and environmentally sustaining the Earth as detailed in the SDGs. In turn, we should see academia and scholarly communications play their part in ensuring the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development moves forward that much quicker.