Sustainable Development Goals: mapping the research landscape

In September of 2015, the United Nations General Assembly, as part of the UN’s “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” adopted a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Consisting of 17 broad objectives, the goals are expressly intended to eliminate poverty, fight inequality, and confront climate change. In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “This global shared plan aims to transform the world in fifteen years and, crucially, to build lives of dignity for all.”

The goals themselves are stated with a direct simplicity – e.g., “End poverty in all its forms everywhere” – that clashes with the scale and complexity of the challenges involved. The agenda specifies 232 “identifiable indicators” by which progress can be tracked and assessed. Nevertheless, an undertaking of this magnitude, involving an enormous volume of research and labor in many fields, demands additional means of analysis to help policy makers and others deploy resources and gauge headway. 

Addressing this need with its third Global Research Report, after taking on new bibliometric measures and the Plan S initiative involving funding and Open Access, the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) at Clarivate Analytics turns its attention to “sustainable development goals” as a formal research topic.

By examining pertinent articles from the Web of Science and the citation linkages between them, ISI analysts have produced a detailed view of the extensive research into the component elements of sustainable development. This includes specifying areas of concentration by subject field and national output, as well as mapping how the various fields are grouped and connected according to the cognitive links provided by citations. 

Clusters of Inquiry  

ISI analysts began with a Web of Science search for the phrase “sustainable development goal(s)” occurring in the title, abstract, or keywords of an article; this produced some 2,800 “core” papers. The search then widened to reports that frequently cited one or more of the core papers, thereby indicating a commonality in their subject matter. With the population of cited and citing papers numbering more than 10,000, analysts used a citation-based technique called “bibliographic coupling” to reveal the cognitive relationships between the papers and group them into related clusters with descriptive labels. 

This collection of papers and interconnected nodes of research, all dealing with aspects of sustainable development, anchors a variety of tabular material and visualizations. The report specifies the nations that are most active in the larger clusters (that is, those accounting for greater numbers of research papers). A grid shows the predominant patterns in collaboration between regions.

The clusters and their citation-based links also serve to visually map recent research into the range of subject fields associated with sustainable development. With their proximity or remoteness determined by the strength of citation bonds, the clusters convey how some topics – the study of water supply and sanitation, for one – serve as a bridge or connector between topics that, in the absence of such a map, might not seem closely related. Analysis of the map also sharpens the picture of national and institutional participation in the specialty fields.

In the gulf between the 17 lofty goals proposed by the UN and the daunting prospect of realizing them, the selection of Web of Science-indexed literature provides a wealth of specifics. The latest Global Research Report furnishes real-world data to inform the efforts of policy makers, public-health officials, field workers, and others laudably endeavoring to transform the world. 

Download the full report on Web of Science-based research into SDGs.