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Sustainability science continues to grow, per updated analysis

Elsevier’s analysis reveals that “planet” is the largest and most impactful theme

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Key findings of the updated analysis are presented in an infographic. See the full version below.

Editor’s note: This month, we are exploring “how science can build a sustainable future.” That’s the impetus behind the field of sustainability science – which continues to grow and evolve, according to an updated analysis by Elsevier’s Analytical Services. Sarah Huggett, Analytical Services Product Manager and lead analyst for the infographics, reports.


As the world discussed the future of the Paris climate agreement, a team of analysts from Elsevier’s Research Intelligence and Research Networks groups deep-dived into the bibliometric data of sustainability science. It’s part of our ongoing efforts to provide insights into this rapidly growing field of research.

The term sustainability science is used to describe the research that supports and drives sustainable development. It spans virtually all fields, including environmental science, social science, public health, medicine, economics and physical sciences.

Our team took a fresh look at some of the indicators in the report they released before the UN ratified its Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability Science in a Global Research Landscape gives an overview of the development of sustainability science as a research field in 2009-13 using data from Scopus, our abstract and citation database.

The refreshed analysis, which covers 2011-15 and focuses on research output, impact and collaboration, confirms our initial findings. During this period, researchers across the world published almost 380,000 papers on one of the six themes that encompass sustainability: Dignity, People, Prosperity, Planet, Justice and Partnership.

Overall, Planet is the largest theme, with 172,663 papers published on the subject between 2011 and 2015 – 43 percent of all publications in sustainability science. Planet is also the most impactful research topic within sustainability, with a field-weighted citation impact (FWCI) 1.5 times the overall global average. FWCI is a normalized indicator of research impact that accounts for differences in citation levels across fields, article types and publication ages. The theme also benefits from the highest proportion of international collaboration as measured through author affiliations.

With 172,663 papers published about our planet, <em> Planet</em> is the largest of the six themes that encompass the UN's sustainable development goals.

International collaboration is often linked to high citation impact – a trend seen in our analysis too. The countries with the highest international collaboration rate in sustainability science also have a high FWCI. The top five prolific countries in sustainability science are (in order of research output): the USA, the UK, China, Germany and Australia. However, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden have the most impactful research in the field, with the highest international collaboration rates.

The international collaboration percentage correlates with field-weighted citation impact (FWCI). Switzerland is the country that produces sustainability research with the highest international collaboration percentage rate and highest FWCI.

Globally, just under a quarter of papers in sustainability science result from international collaboration. Meanwhile, the FWCI of sustainability science is 1.31, which means that sustainability science research is cited 31 percent more than the overall average.

The growing importance of sustainability is visible in the continued growth of scholarly output in the topic. The pressing relevance of environmental issues is reflected in the size of the planet theme. Many such issues pose complex challenges and have global repercussions, which can to some extent explain why the theme sees relatively high levels of international collaboration: the research is likely to be relevant across borders and require input from experts in multiple countries.


Infographic: Sustainability Science 2011-2015

View the full-size infographic and download.

How science can build a sustainable future

This month, we are exploring “how science can build a sustainable future.” At Elsevier, we support sustainability science throughout our business, bringing sustainability research to a wider audience, for example, and providing information and analytics that shed light on sustainability research to help inform policy.


Elisa Nelissen, Communications Officer, and Coralie Bos, Senior Manager, Corporate Brand, also contributed to this report.

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