Study reveals disconnect between researcher ambitions and reality in achieving UN SDGs - Taylor & Francis Newsroom

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Breaking research

2nd February 2021

Study reveals disconnect between researcher ambitions and reality in achieving UN SDGs


In one of the very first studies investigating Earth and Environmental Science researchers and their attitudes towards research impact, 90% of respondents indicated that it was important they contribute to tackling real-world problems with their work or that they intended to do so in the future. However, feedback in the survey suggests that this laudable ambition is being lost amidst the reality of being a researcher – where success is measured primarily by citations and publication venue.

When asked to indicate their three most-preferred forms of impact from a selection including citations, downloads, contribution to the advancement of research, and challenges such as taking action in supporting the UN SDGs, 73% responded that citations (from within their own fields or from other fields) were most important to them. Just 21% stated that “contribution to tackling real-world problems” was one of the most-important forms of impact that they were looking for from their research.

With research done by Taylor & Francis and published in F1000Research, this study of 2,695 researchers from the US, China, India, the UK, and Europe, also had a few other surprises. For example, contrary to what is often discussed in the media, age was not a significant factor in motivation. Millennials and early-career researchers were no less prone to want to solve the ‘Grand Challenges of our Time’ than Baby Boomers. Regional attitudes towards research goals, on the other hand, showed some variations.

When asked why they submitted their work to certain journals, researchers from India more than any other regional group (30%) were interested in impact within their own communities, responding that “it’s the best way to reach my community”; additionally this group (31%) were the ones most incentivized by having their profile raised in their own country.

As in other regions, respondents from China conveyed that receiving citations from within the same field was one of the most important types of impact for them (72%), followed by contribution to the advancement of research (49%) and readership/downloads (33%).

Respondents from the UK and Europe closely matched the global averages for both the types of impact that were most important and the most important factors in determining the choice of journal. Where the report saw the most difference was in the prospect of forming new collaborations (24%), which this group considered to be a more important type of impact than for respondents from India (16%) and China (14%).

US authors placed more value on real-world types of impact than the global average, with a higher percentage responding that contribution to tackling big real-world problems was one of the most important types of impact to them (29%), and having an input into policy decision-making was important to a higher proportion of this group as well (34% vs 19% overall).

Report authors Andrew Kelly, Victoria Gardner and Anna Gilbert (all of Taylor & Francis) hope that this invaluable new knowledge will help catalyze the academic community to make these altruistic researcher desires a reality, and they provide recommendations in the article for collaborative consideration.

“There is a knowledge gap in understanding and communicating the link between highly focused projects and live policy issues, so laudable ambitions are being lost,” says Taylor & Francis’ Andrew Kelly. “From improved cognisance of how research is incorporated into decision-making, to rewarding and recognizing policy impact, publishers, funders and institutions, must make strides to incentivize and support researcher aspirations to affect real-world change.”

This article is currently undergoing peer review. Peer review of articles published in F1000Research takes place after publication and is entirely open and transparent. Peer review status and reports are published alongside the article. Full details can be found here.