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Scholarly publishers and the SDGs

Few scholarly publishers covered the Millennium Development Goals, but the Sustainable Development Goals are now a key part of their strategy, argues James Butcher

Words by James Butcher
1 March 2023

When the United Nations adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in September 2000, few academics cheered the politicians’ lofty ambitions to change the world. Many of the MDG targets, which the 191 UN member states pledged to achieve by 2015, seemed like empty promises, especially after the disappointments of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. By 2015, good progress had been made for some of the MDG targets, especially related to health. 

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cover the period 2015–2030 and the publishing landscape has evolved considerably. Scholarly publishers are responding much more positively to the SDGs, helping to facilitate discussion and inform on progress.

Focus on health

John McArthur and Christine Zhang from The Brookings Institution, USA, looked at the coverage of the MDGs, which ran from 2000 to 2015, in the popular media and in 12 academic journals (McArthur & Zhang, 2018). Between 2002 and 2014, the journal that published the most articles referencing the MDGs was The Lancet (1,223 articles), followed by World Development (176 articles), Nature (75 articles), The New England Journal of Medicine (35 articles) and Science (26 articles).

The Lancet, which celebrates its bicentenary later this year, has been addressing societal challenges relating to health in its pages since it was launched in October 1823. In 1850, Thomas Wakley and his editors wrote:

“One of the noblest attributes of our profession is its practical humanity towards the poor. The medical man is often, in truth, the natural defender of the poor and needy against oppressive laws, and against the vicious errors of our social régime.”

Over the past 20 years, since the publication of the ground-breaking Child Survival Series, the editors have developed the journal to become one of the leading voices in global health. The Lancet has published important papers on some of the key societal health challenges of our times. The journal often acted as broker between competing research groups; the power and prestige of the brand was able to create and maintain academic collaborations.

The resulting publications have been influential, undoubtedly contributing to the journal’s strong growth in impact factor (in 2000 the impact factor was 10.2 and it is now 202.7). More importantly, the papers have helped to improve the lives of some of the world’s most impoverished people by creating data sets that could be used to hold politicians to account for the MDGs (and SDGs) they signed up to.

The Brookings researchers clearly demonstrated that The Lancet’s coverage of the MDGs was unusual; few journals devoted much space to the MDGs, but that was soon to change.

The Sustainable Development Goals

The publishing landscape is now very different and publishers are embracing sustainability topics like never before, partly for corporate social responsibility reasons, but mostly because scientific output in SDG-related topics is rapidly increasing.

The paper by McArthur and Zhang heavily influenced me in driving the expansion of the Nature Portfolio (along with Sir Philip Campbell, Springer Nature’s Editor-in-Chief, and others) to launch journals such as Nature Climate Change, Nature Sustainability, Nature Energy and Nature Water. These ‘thematic’ journals bring together diverse communities of academics and policy makers and provide a forum for debate, and a home for original research.

The publishing landscape is now very different and publishers are embracing sustainability topics like never before…mostly because scientific output in SDG-related topics is rapidly increasing

The SDGs are much broader in scope than the MDGs, which had a strong focus on health. This provides many more opportunities for scholarly publishers to play an important role in communicating research, review, and opinion that contributes to the SDGs. For example, at the end of last year Cambridge University Press announced that it is launching a new series of OA journals, under the brand Cambridge Prisms, covering topics related to global society’s greatest challenges. Furthermore, Oxford University Press’s new line of open access journals includes titles on climate change, energy, digital health, and infrastructure and health.

Open Access publishers are also launching new journals on sustainability topics. In 2021, PLOS announced five new journals – its first launches in 14 years – covering climate change, sustainability, water, digital health, and global health. Frontiers also has a sustainability landing page that hosts content from nine journals.

However, the fastest growing journals are published by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI): Sustainability published 17,394 articles in 2022 and International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published 17,445 articles. To put those numbers into context, Scientific Reports published 22,653 articles last year and PLOS One published 16,069. It’s quite possible that either this year or next the world’s largest journal will be published by MDPI and will publish content related to sustainability.

Human society is facing significant and unprecedented challenges. Now, more than ever, the academic community needs to step up and do whatever it can to catalyse political change. Scholarly publishers are increasingly playing a key role in facilitating that discussion by convening academics and policy makers, and by publishing research that measures and informs progress towards the SDGs.  

The SDG Publishers Compact

The SDGs Publishers Compact was launched two years ago as a collaboration between the United Nations and the International Publishers Association (www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sdg-publishers-compact/). Many scholarly publishers have signed up to the Compact, which commits them to deliver on ten action points. Unfortunately, the action points are rather generic and aren’t SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound), but that’s perhaps understandable given the different focus and capabilities of the signatories. There’s an obvious risk that publishers can sign up to the compact, benefiting from good PR in the process, and then fail to follow up (or report on) their commitments. Dr Haseeb Irfanullah provides an excellent critique of the SDG Publishers Compact (Where Do We Stand Now? The Scholarly Kitchen, 2022).

James Butcher

James Butcher is a strategy consultant at Clarke & Esposito and writes the Journalology newsletter. He started his publishing career as an editor at The Lancet before moving to Springer Nature, where he was Vice President of the Nature journals until February 2022.

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