Shedding light on sustainability research with data science and web-based analytics

New search queries help governments, funding bodies and other organizations understand how their research contributes to the UN SDGs

Scopus Scival SDG image

We’re facing tough challenges as a society. From global inequality to the climate crisis, the trials facing humanity are complex and far reaching.

The research community has responded by becoming more connected, more collaborative and even more focused in addressing these challenges. Much of that focus is around the UN Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015 as part of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. These 17 goals and the associated 169 targets identify the areas considered of critical importance for humanity. But how do researchers and their associated institutions know when they’re making a difference.

At Elsevier,  we realized we could use our data and analytics expertise to partner with the community to help define and understand the work already supporting the SDGs globally.

Governments, funding bodies, universities, nonprofits and commercial organizations spend a significant amount of money and resources on research activities aimed at understanding and addressing the SDGs. Of course, they want to know whether they’re directing their time and effort in a way that makes a difference. That means people at research institutions globally are under pressure to demonstrate the impact their reseach is having on society. To do this, they must understand the key fields that support the SDGs and how they are contributing to these fields.

SDG Inspiration Day

SDG Inspiration Day is a joint effort of the Global Compact Network Netherlands and Elsevier. The day focuses on the role data plays in advancing the SDGs: data through the lenses of businesses, government, science, NGOs and civil society.

The event seeks to bring companies, researchers, policymakers, academics, NGO’s and civil society together to share their perspectives on how they further advance the SDGs through the use of data in their practices, and to inspire how we could collaborate on this together.

Maria de Kleijn, whose team has been active in SDG insights for many years, will be part of the panel and will highlight how Dutch research supports the SDGs.

To help with that, our data science teams worked with experts to create a Scopus search query for each SDG. We built the queries in-house taking a targeted and expert-informed approach to ensure the queries reflected the specific targets and indicators using a framework for query development we believed would generate the most valid queries.

We used each search query in our SciVal solution to generate pre-defined Research Areas, which describe the work research institutions are doing on each SDG and the outcomes. The results come from the same data set, ensuring consistency across the comparisons and analyses.

The initial work was part of a request from Times Higher Education, which asked for Elsevier’s help in defining SDG search queries for use in their University Impact Rankings by SDGs. This original query formed the starting point for several rounds of review and refinement (see workflow diagram below), which included looking at the publications returned by the search queries in Scopus. Full details of the methodology and results for each SDG search query are freely available on Mendeley, and the team continues to welcome feedback on the queries so they can be refined further.

The framework for query development, starting with our 2017 sustainability report, through to refinement based on SDG indicators, to the updated search queries now available in SciVal.

What does that mean for the people who will be using it? In addition to using Scopus search results to explore the publications returned by the search queries, SciVal users will be able to investigate, understand and analyze SDG research globally in more detail.

Robbertjan KalffAs my colleague Robbertjan Kalff, VP of SciVal, explained:

Our customers have told us that it is difficult to show their contribution to the different UN SDGs. The SDG Research Areas in SciVal are a unified reference to see the research output and impact of your institution for each of the goals and to identify the key research groups per individual goal. This is the start of a program that, together with the research community, will support a better understanding of work done towards the SDG goals.

During our latest testing round, we used the search queries in Scopus to create Publication Sets within SciVal and shared them with a handful of experts at universities around the world. The initial feedback has been promising; the results have been well received and seem to resonate with and include expected researchers and institutions.

National Cheng Kung University has integrated the SDGs into its strategic planning for 2018-2020. Having the data in SciVal now allows us to get a clear view on how our research contributes to each SDG. In addition, we can use this data to help identify potential partner to collaboration on SDG-related projects.

— Dr. Joy Lin, Research Associate Professor & Project Manager, National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan

The experts we spoke with at these institutions were especially keen to identify the most relevant authors and institutions in the field, look at where they sit compared to peers and competitors, and see which people work in the field they’re not already aware of.

The SDG agenda is extremely important and the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) welcomes Elsevier’s efforts to deliver SciVal tools extracting research publications relevant for different SDGs. This is one approach to help both researchers and research managers in gearing their work towards the unified goals defined by UN. SDU urges further work to develop more accurate next-generation tools to map research to SDGs.

— Maeva Vignes, Funding Advisor, University of Southern Denmark Research & Innovation Organisation (SDU RIO)

They were also keen to use SciVal to look at how to benchmark in these SDG fields compared to peers and competitors, which sub-fields and Topics peers/competitors are active in, how these fields are characterized, and whether they can use the representations of the SDG fields to further develop existing partnerships or identify potential new research partners within fields of interest. They also seized on the ability to examine their departments’ contributions and impact in the SDG fields, and how they could use the analyses to demonstrate this contribution and impact.

Bamini JayabalsinghamStarting on this journey has been incredibly rewarding for those of us working on the initiative. As my colleague Bamini Jayabalsingham, Senior Analytical Product Manager, explained:

It’s been so gratifying to develop a strategy to identify the research that supports achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Although the goals themselves are broad, the targets and indicators allow us to focus and refine the relevant research to include. I am looking forward to receiving feedback from the researcher community so we can iterate on these queries.

The SDG fields we’ve defined are just one way of looking at each of the SDGs and the key people and institutions working to achieve the SDG goals, but we hope it will help researchers and institutions track and demonstrate progress, as well as finding new people to collaborate with and new areas to investigate. The SDGs represent complex challenges humanity faces and understanding the links in research supporting the SDGs will hopefully bring to light the interconnected nature of the SDGs and how researchers across multiple disciplines are working together to make progress. We are excited about continuing the journey with the research community in defining, profiling and understanding the research and activities supporting the SDGs.

Sustainability is also one of the key themes of the International Center for the Study of Research's (ICSR) research agenda. Find out more about its seven key research themes and the ICSR itself.


Written by

Maria de Kleijn, MBA

Written by

Maria de Kleijn, MBA

As Senior VP of Analytical Services at Elsevier, Maria de Kleijn-Lloyd is responsible for bespoke analytical services to universities, funding bodies and governments worldwide, advising them on research performance, international collaboration, gender in research and research impact. Prior to joining Elsevier, Maria has worked for McKinsey and Company, for the Dutch government, and in the power and gas sector, in various analytical roles to combining big data to inform decisions. Maria holds a master’s degree with distinction in Applied Physics from Delft University of Technology and an MBA with distinction from Oxford University.

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