Supporting the sustainability impact rankings at research universities
December 5, 2023
By Susan Jenkins
A new report from the International Center for the Study of Research can help libraries support their universities with insight into the most popular frameworks for sustainability reporting
Academic librarians are often engaged with understanding and measuring impact for their institutions. Increasingly, these efforts are bringing awareness to sustainability goals, building capacity for interpreting the progress of the university in its impact both within and beyond its communities.
Since the UN introduced the Sustainable Development Goals(opens in new tab/window) in 2015, attention has grown on measuring efforts and demonstrating progress towards a better future on our planet. In the last few years, several frameworks have emerged that offer universities a way to evaluate and report on the impact of their activities. However, each is different in how it measures sustainable indicators, so choosing a suitable framework to work with isn’t easy. “Demystifying sustainability assessment and reporting frameworks(opens in new tab/window)” a recent report by the International Center for the Study of Research at Elsevier, aims to make this process less daunting.
Besides offering an in-depth look at the six most popular reporting frameworks – QS Sustainability Rankings, THE Impact Rankings, STARS, UI GreenMetric, People & Planet University League, and Sustainability Leadership Scorecard (SLS) – the report provides a 6-step guide to help institutions assess which framework will best reflect their efforts, interests, and goals.
Measuring more than research impact
The ICSR report can help equip libraries to partner with institutional leadership in developing and achieving sustainability goals together. By becoming familiar with the frameworks, libraries can further align and amplify library services with their institution’s overall sustainability strategy, which also increases library visibility on campus.
Worldwide, the number of institutions already using a framework to report on their sustainability impact has grown tremendously since 2019. In fact, the report reveals that “in 2022, more countries and regions participated in the THE Impact Rankings than in the THE World University Rankings,” showing that universities are embracing opportunities to demonstrate their efforts.
By participating in a sustainability framework, universities can measure several factors of impact besides research output. The campus infrastructure, admissions and employment practices, teaching capacities, and community engagement are also included. Using a framework can provide insight into their strengths relative to other institutions, or to other industries as a whole.
A number of additional benefits are gained through engagement, including: “generating greater trust from students, staff and the larger community, attracting funding and recognition, mitigating risk, improving efficiency, and most of all, doing their part to create sustainable conditions for communities and environments.”
A brief look at the six frameworks
The chart below compares key differences between the frameworks with initial considerations that can help narrow the choice of frameworks that warrant a deeper look. A full comparison is included in the report. The last row lists a few of the top indicators that each framework emphasizes – these are categories of activities where an institutional impact can be measured.
QS Sustainability Rankings
THE Impact Rankings
People & Planet University League
Sustainability Leadership Scorecard (SLS)
Global *Previously ranked in QS WUR
UK and Ireland + international subscription
# Institutions/ countries participating
Fees for participation
$0* basic, subscription needed for ranking
$0+ Non-UK/Ireland institutions can subscribe for $150/yr.
Top indicators measured (in descending priority)
How the sustainability frameworks relate to the SDGs
The report investigates the frameworks’ alignment with two different criteria – sustainability measures defined by the Global Reporting Initiative, and alignment with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. While all six frameworks assess indicators that align with specific SDGs, the emphasis varies widely between the frameworks. The illustration below shows the percentage of emphasis each of the frameworks applies to measuring SDG impacts.
As noted in the illustration, The Impact Rankings have a different approach – assessing the top three SDG impacts and then awarding a ranking based on these plus SDG 17, “Partnerships for the Goals.”
The differences in SDG emphasis influence the university’s overall sustainability ranking within that framework. An institution that identifies significant contributions towards developing Sustainable Cities and Communities (SDG 11) will rank higher in the UI Green Metric framework than it would in the QS Sustainability Rankings or STARS, for example. On the other hand, if their strengths are more aligned with the goals of Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure (SDG 9) or Climate Action (SDG 13), then the QS framework may better represent those efforts, as it weighs those areas more heavily in its ranking methodology. Universities can also choose to participate in more than one framework.
A detailed analysis of how each framework interprets the SDG indicators is in the report.
6 steps to selecting a framework
A major contribution of the ICSR report is its 6-step guide to help institutions untangle the differences between frameworks and choose one to work with. The steps are all areas where libraries can contribute resources, advocacy, and knowledge:
Understand your institution’s existing sustainability efforts
Engage stakeholders and partners
Decide exactly what sustainability activities to measure and establish a baseline.
Identify which SDGs align with your priorities and goals.
Use the information gathered in the above steps to select a framework.
Get to know the framework and its requirements.
One of the ways that library expertise can contribute is in step 1, Understanding the existing sustainability efforts and contributions – a complex task that can include the research impact measurements libraries are already doing by documenting the impact of the university’s research output for each of the SDGs categories using data analytics services like SciVal(opens in new tab/window), which has a built-in SDG filter.
Libraries are also ideally positioned to Engage stakeholders and partners (step 2) by considering ways that their services and capacities contribute to SDGs and sustainability initiatives across campus and the larger community. For example, by leveraging the library’s network of different user communities through communication and outreach, they can play a role in engaging stakeholders in the process.
Additionally, libraries’ role as knowledge centers for their institutions and communities makes them ideal locations for building and maintaining sustainability topic hubs that bring together analytical resources, research areas, and linked collections, These efforts can link research initiatives, build interdisciplinary collaboration, and enhance the broader capacity-building activities of the institution.
Once priorities are selected and a framework is chosen, the library can continue to monitor SDG-related research output, but also report on the outcomes of its community and education initiatives, increasing visibility of the library within the institution and well beyond its walls.
The Tasmanian Societal Impact Model – helping universities measure and plan for societal impact
An additional resource that can help universities identify and prioritize their sustainability efforts is the new Tasmanian Societal Impact Model (TSIM).
The University of Tasmania - in collaboration with Elsevier’s International Center for the Study of Research - has developed this 5-part “playbook” to help research universities understand their societal impact potential and plan for the future. The model offers them an adaptable structure to align their approach with societal problems, identify research strengths, and establish action plans. Find more information and the playbook at https://www.societalimpactmodel.org/(opens in new tab/window).
Other resources on sustainability advocacy in library services
Conduct a Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Self-Assessment Audit (DEISAA) (SDG 10, Reduced Inequalities)
The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has produced a two-page PDF(opens in new tab/window) that maps library activities to each of the 17 UN SDGs
The website of the American Library Association (ALA) Task Force on the UN SDGs(opens in new tab/window) contains a host of resources for libraries, ranging from downloadable infographics and factsheets to posters and charts.