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Elsevier Research Advances Understanding of the UN Sustainable Development Goals
Posted On November 17, 2020
A new report released by Elsevier in September, titled “The Power of Data to Advance the SDGs,” discusses the latest research on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were established by the United Nations (UN). Through the analysis of the last 5 years of published literature, Elsevier revealed the impact of different research topics on SDG progress, expert opinions on the state of research in these areas, and what areas need to continue to grow if the SDGs are to be met.

SDGs Creating Global Change

In 2015, the SDGs were adopted by all UN Member States to bring a worldwide effort to advance 17 interrelated topics that have an important impact on both the global population and the planet. These topics include ending poverty, providing clean water, taking action to combat climate change, and reducing inequalities for people across several different aspects of life.

To meet these goals by the intended 2030 deadline, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs provides support in fostering change in government policy, coordinating UN agencies for problem-solving on difficult topics, and creating partnerships to move research forward. This support has already created significant milestones: 5,132 actions have been taken thus far around the world. They include the doubling of the amount of national waters being protected since 2010, as well as the primary school completion rate increasing to 84% in 2018. The worldwide advancement toward the SDGs is updated here, with detailed progress reports made available in several languages.

Methods Behind the Data

While Elsevier has many specific partnerships to move SDG research forward, this nearly 100-page report includes general trends and analyses for all 17 of the SDGs. The data found in the report was determined using a clearly outlined processing framework on the 4.1 million SDG-related publications Elsevier has archived since the inception of the SDGs.

With the assistance of experts in each SDG field, search queries were created for Elsevier’s abstract and citation database Scopus. These search queries were then used in SciVal, Elsevier’s web-based research performance visualization application, to map each of the resulting archived publications to specific predetermined areas of research. These publication mappings have been improved through collaborations with universities around the world; the report states that Elsevier intends for the next iteration of mapping to be published at the end of 2020.

The process Elsevier outlines allowed for metadata analyses that reflect the current state of research for each SDG. These analyses are displayed in colorful data visualizations and include the most common research topics, key themes in these research topics, and various types of geographical data highlighting where research is being conducted. The summary statistics provide a complete review of the research that has taken place for each SDG and detail where specific progress can be further developed.

Elsevier Research Revealed

Several overall key insights are mentioned in the report. It shows that the most-researched SDGs are those that are more relevant to industrialized countries, such as SDGs involving renewable energy and health. This is in part due to where research is currently most likely to take place. The report provides evidence of this trend by pointing out that the number of articles related to the “Good Health and Well-Being” SDG is 3 million compared to the 11,000 articles that were published discussing the “No Poverty” SDG.

The report further focuses on four SDGs: “Good Health and Well-Being,” “Gender Equality,” “Reduced Inequalities,” and “Climate Action.” It offers comprehensive statistics for these SDGs and showcases interviews from experts on each. Through these interviews, topics such as the lessons learned from COVID-19’s impact on global health and the “blind spots” of research are considered in the hope that future projects will tackle these issues.

Where Research Can Improve

Through exploring trends in the four SDGs, the report details growth areas for research. One is the need to focus on commonalities among all of the SDGs—specifically, how sex and/or gender in each of the SDGs have not been researched to the fullest potential. The report states that the International Center for Study and Research determined this lack of information by combining a keyword search of sex and/or gender research terms in Scopus with the matching methods tool in SciVal.

The report mentions that of the 17 SDGs, there are only two (“Good Health and Well-Being” and “Gender Equality”) for which more than 60% of related publications factor in sex and/or gender. For the “Affordable and Clean Energy” SDG, only 1% of its related publications do so. Figures included in the report provide even more detail about the occurrence of sex and/or gender topics across different SDG focus areas. This perspective of incomplete research may have implications for policies made as progress continues toward these goals, with the report asserting that SDG research outcomes must benefit all people equally.

Additional improvements recommended by Elsevier include having published research translate into tangible policy change around the world and creating leadership to ensure that the SDGs are at the forefront of the world stage. With these growth areas discovered, research can move in a divisive direction to accomplish the SDGs before 2030.

Information Specialists Continue Progress

Elsevier has provided the processing methods and results of the SDG search queries for free on Mendeley Data, a data-sharing platform focused on open availability. Information specialists can use their knowledge to continue pushing research forward by giving feedback on the current publication mapping settings or by adding publications to the current mapping themselves. The details of this process can be found here.

In the report’s foreword, Elsevier CEO Kumsal Bayazit says the following: “I would like to call upon the research and health communities, policymakers and funders to explore the findings of our SDG report and share your feedback so that, together, we can evolve our understanding of the science and concrete actions needed to advance these mission-critical goals.”

Larissa Pack is a freelance science and medical writer. She gained experience in both the biotechnology field and academia while working on her graduate degree in bioengineering. Her email address is

Email Larissa Pack

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