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SDGs in the workflow

We looked towards the future of the planet in September’s webinar. We love discussing the big topics! On this occasion, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) brought our well-informed panel together. Joining our host Romy Beard were Dana Compton, Managing Director and Publisher at ASCE and SDG Publishers Compact Fellow, Sara Yow, Senior Editorial Operations Supervisor at Cell Press, and Tyler Ruse, Director, Publisher Solutions at Digital Science. 

Event duration October 31, 2023

During the research process, it is important to consider all the little details. It’s those little things that give researchers the ability to innovate in their fields. But how does all of this relate to the world outside the lab and the library? What happens when we take a step back and look at the bigger picture? Aligning scholarly communications with the UN SDGs helps readers see how current research is providing solutions to some of the biggest problems facing the planet.  

What are SDGs? 

In total there are 17 UN SDGs covering topics including: gender equality, clean water and sanitation, climate action, and sustainable cities and communities. The SDGs are a call to action to provide solutions for the biggest issues facing the world. The panel focused their discussion on how to introduce SDGs into the publishing workflow in a meaningful way.  

There was a consensus that SDGs are not only important in terms of providing a focus for academics all over the world; the SDGs are also a useful way to organise and promote research. The main conversation centred around the different approaches to making this happen.  

SDG research already accounts for almost half of all indexed research – with over 7.4 million citations alone. However, the panel believed that there is still more research out there that is SDG aligned and not tagged as such. This became the basis for discussion: How can we get that research tagged? Should the research be tagged as SDG related during submission or after publication? And how can this be incorporated into existing workflows and datasets? 

Integrate SDGs into the publishing workflow 

Two of Cell Press’ journals, CHEM and Chem Catalysis, have SDGs integrated into the author workflow. They already knew the remit of the journals matched up with the UN SDGs when they were launched in 2016 and 2021 respectively, so they decided to make SDGs part of the publishing process. 

During submission authors are asked to include a bigger picture statement, summarizing the research for non-experts. Authors are made aware of this requirement in the journal aims and scope, journal lists and journal homepages. 

“Linking the paper directly to a UN SDG meets the goal of giving the research a broader context and links the research directly to global issues that the UN has identified.”  


To make things easier Cell Press have an edited selection of SDGs for both journals. This means that authors can choose the SDGs most relevant to their paper and aren’t overwhelmed with choice. At least one SDG must be selected at the time of submission and during the editorial process the editorial team can support the author to update this if needed.  

When an article is accepted for publication, the SDGs are passed along to production and published alongside the article. At the bottom of an article published by CHEM or Chem Catalysis, readers can click on an SDG and see other articles that have the same classification. But what are the definitions of the SDGs and how can we categorize research based on them? 

A question that arose amongst the panel was – are SDGs included in CrossRef DOI Metadata? It’s not something that is currently offered but could be part of something the SDGs Publishers Compact could advocate for. At the moment, one barrier to integrating SDGs into publishing workflows is the lack of a standardized taxonomy, which is something NISO could potentially help with. 

Classify the research 

At Digital Science they began the process of integrating SDGs into their Dimensions product to automate the process of applying SDGs to articles. They started the project in 2020. At that time the availability of the data and working out how to classify the articles under the SDGs was a challenge. Pulling together a workable taxonomy played a large role in getting this project off the ground. Standardization would have sped the process up, but the insights they gained along the way were interesting. 

Currently there is not a publicly available SDG taxonomy, which not only made it difficult for Digital Science to start their project, but it also makes it harder for smaller publishers to integrate SDGs into their workflow. Smaller publishers would need to dedicate time to creating the taxonomy internally, rather than relying on an off-the-shelf industry standard. STM have been contacted to create an industry wide resource on SDG taxonomy that could be developed with everyone in publishing in mind. 

This means that instead of having a standardized taxonomy, Digital Science had to rely on other classification tools already built into Dimensions. From there, they worked on training data that could be modelled for tagging unclassified documents with SDGs. The next challenge took them back to taxonomy again as they refined the definitions of the categories and made sure that the articles accurately matched the SDGs. 

They had to look at the exact phrasing in the articles to get good matches.  After working this out they used some other techniques already developed, so they could automatically apply UN SDGs to those publications. At the end of that process, they were able to run 138 million documents through the tool to try and identify the UN SDGs within the documents and apply the appropriate tag.  

Automate the SDG workflow 

What are the benefits of having an automated tool like this? That’s exactly what Digital Science investigated next.  

“We looked at funding projects, to see if we could apply SDGs to the grants themselves. Are there geographical hotspots? Are those changing over time? Are we seeing an increase in funding over time as it relates to different SDGs? Do those change by SDG and do those change by geography?” Tyler 

By using these questions as way to create a solution, they could provide a complete overview of the SDG workflow, providing insights from funding to publication. The final piece of the puzzle was taking this from being a retrospective tool to being something that works in real time. By feeding a title and abstract into the tool it gives suggested SDGs for an article, and this can be applied during submission or anywhere in the publishing process. Pretty smart! 

From gathering and classifying all the documents, they could run reports and get some interesting insights. They found that there are spikes in the data in terms of the different SDGs countries are covering in their research. For example: countries that have a significant coastline create more research that relates to the SDG ‘Life Underwater’. It, of course, all depends on the economic make up of the area where the research took place, but SDG related research is found globally across the economic spectrum.  

Support article discoverability with SDGs 

We’ve covered how articles can be classified with SDGs, now let’s look at how these classifications can lead to readers finding the articles they need. Dana has been involved in a lot of conversations about how the impact of SDG research can be displayed. 

“This is more than pulling out all the research that fits based on taxonomy. From our experience, I think we need a tool that ranks relevance, so the cream rises to the top so to speak.”  


Dana spoke about a project that Clarivate undertook which goes beyond quantifying the amount of SDG research. To get a richer overview, they looked at using the number of citations an article has received to showcase the quality of the research. This could be added to the journal metrics that are used to appeal to authors. Moving forward, Romy mentioned that it would be interesting to track the sentiment of citations, to find out if they agree or disagree with the source. 

Implementing a strategy that shows the relevancy of SDG published research this could increase publisher loyalty with authors. Doing so would demonstrate the publisher has made a commitment to advancing SDGs by making them part of the publishing experience.  

“Open access and SDGs are not explicitly tied together, but as OA increases and SDG alignment increases, the whole author as a customer idea becomes more important.”  


Yes, we are going back to taxonomies again! Having the correct classifications ultimately aids discoverability of research, making it easier to connect readers with the quality research they are looking for. There is a real danger that if every publisher creates their own taxonomy, it will become more difficult for the most relevant articles to come to the surface. 

Raise awareness of SDGs 

As we previously mentioned, Cell Press promote SDGs before submission even starts. By using the tool that Digital Science have developed, publishers can automatically make SDGs a part of the workflow, making articles more discoverable. All of this integrates SDGs into the publishing workflow, but it also helps to raise awareness of the SDGs themselves.  

There are other initiatives that help to fly the flag for SDGs. The Publisher’s Compact is a set of commitments that publishers can sign up to, to show their commitment to accelerating the process of meeting SDG targets. Over the past three years, the compact has collected over 300 signatories. The commitments that publishers have signed up to are in three main areas: prioritizing sustainability, taking action, and raising awareness. 

Raising awareness as part of the compact means being an SDG advocate to all of your stakeholders, by communicating why the SDGs are important and that together you can commit to taking action to meet the goals. 

The Compact fellows and the STM Social Responsibility Committee are working towards resources that allow publishers to reach these goals. They create action tips that support fulfilling the aims of the compact and reaching those all-important SDG goals. These tips are flexible and can be applied whether you are an academic publisher, editor, researcher, student, or a practitioner. It really is about starting the discussion in an organization and getting everyone thinking about how best to meet the SDGs.  

Move publishing in the right direction 

Towards the end of the webinar Romy asked our panellists what the future looks like.   

For Dana and the STM Social Responsibility Committee, they want at least 50% of STM members to become signatories to the compact. Communicating the relevance and importance of SDG's for scholarly communications is the key factor to making everything work. This neatly aligns with Sara’s hopes for the future, as Cell Press will continue to work on how they can best unitize the UN SDGs within Chem and Chem Catalysis. In future, they’re considering how they can integrate SDGs into other journals. 

Digital Science will continue to refine their taxonomy and approach to mapping SDGs. Just like they have done with research grants, they want to expand SDG classifications out to other areas the research life cycle, taking in clinical trials, patents documents or supplementary data. This should hopefully pullout some interesting analysis and cross referencing!  

For as long as we continue to face the challenges outlined in the UN SDGs, there will always be a need to consider how these goals are mapped out across the research lifecycle. The discussion ended on a positive note, with maybe some interesting future collaborations on the horizon! 


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