How do you keep track of the latest findings in our interdisciplinary endeavour called “sustainability science”? Ever felt lost given the sheer amount of information that is available in our community? Whether or not we like and use such labels as “information society” or “knowledge society”, it is obvious that we as researchers are confronted with an increasingly fast-growing amount of available data and information – a development that is not likely to change in the near future. And if we think about sustainability science, its ill-defined problems, interdisciplinarity and complexity, things are not getting any easier.
Not only are we dealing with a disciplinary discourse, let’s say in (environmental) economics or sociology, but also an inter- and transdisciplinary discourse in sustainability in which we are laymen in many of the topics but still need to figure out how new findings in that area affect our own research. So ultimately we need to keep track of information that is fast-growing and rather fragmented in different disciplines and research areas. The figure below exemplifies the growth by illustrating the hits per year the search term “sustainable development” brings in the “Web of Science” database.
What makes things even worse is that there are little routines and disciplinary settings that help to handle the relevant information. I remember quite well how I felt overwhelmed by the complexity of sustainability issues and the little disciplinary knowledge I had when I started working on my PhD and was looking not only at my very specific topic but also some broader issues on sustainability. And this even though I consider myself as one of the “2nd Generation Researchers” in sustainability science – one who has been trained in interdisciplinary settings from the very beginning and who has been exposed to the different views of social and natural science.
So what you need to find your way around in sustainability science is a strategy to keep up with an overview of the state of the art in your research area, so when you are writing and presenting you do not only rely on an arbitrary selection of what is available.
For me, there are three main strategies, I have found useful and want to share with you:
- Reviews and overview articles
The first might be the most obvious one, if you think from a more traditional disciplinary perspective. Reviews and overview articles are a well-established way to take stock of what is important in a field and can be found as a separate topic for highly rated journals in just about every social science discipline. The American Economic Review, The Annual Review of Political Science and The Annual Review of Sociology are only some of these examples that contribute regular reviews and overviews to their disciplinary discourse. If we look at the much younger and less settled area of sustainability science things are a bit trickier. But even here we now find an increasing number of such contributions. And this is where you get the chance to find much of the development that goes on summarized and accessible. For instance, the journal Sustainability Science offers both review and overview articles:
Review articles consider the implications and lessons to be learned, including the need for future inquiry, from a body of research on any sustainability topic.
Overview articles provide timely assessments, general observations and insights from experts on strategies to advance global sustainability.
Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability is another journal that might be worth looking at, as it was developed out of the recognition that it is increasingly difficult for specialists to keep up to date with the expanding volume of information published. Thus it provides evaluations of the most interesting papers, annotated by experts, from the great wealth of original publications. I am sure we will see more and more such approaches come, as the field is becoming more established. Following them right from the beginning can help you a lot in staying informed about what is going on.
- Journal alerts
What are the top ten journals you read regularly or at least most often? If you have never thought about journals this way, try to find at least the ten most important ones for your work. In which journals did you find the most important articles you recently cited? Where do the big names in your field publish? Once you have a list of your most important journals, make sure you are informed whenever a new issue comes out;all journals nowadays offer a “ToC Alert” that will send you an email with all the abstracts, or at least the table of contents whenever a new issue comes out. This is even more interesting when it comes to “OnlineFirst” papers that are not yet published but already available on the Web.
There are, of course, all sorts of other fancy opportunities as well, such as RSS feeds, Twitter updates and so on, but for me I guess that is about all that is needed and thus all I am willing to understand. The important thing is, find a way that suits you and actually USE it to make sure you know what is going on in your field.
- Database alerts
Pretty much the same counts for databases in which not only a single journal is covered but a much broader sample of journal articles, book chapters and conference proceedings. You are probably aware of the biggies such as Google Scholar, Web of Science or Scopus. But when it comes to sustainability science there might be others that are helpful as well that are a bit more off the beaten track.
Sustainability Science Abstracts (published by ProQuest, CSA) is probably the first choice and the leading database in sustainability studies, covering relevant papers, reports, books and reviews from standard peer-reviewed scientific journals, so that a total of 207,000 records is looked at. But, depending on your disciplinary background, there will be other databases worth considering. Check with your librarian, who should be able to point towards the most important for your research interest!
Using these databases for your searches is one thing, and an important one for sure. But what makes these databases a really powerful tool for staying informed is the ability to save your searches and to create customized search alerts. Once you have done that you will be informed by email whenever new articles are added to the database. This can be a rather general search term (let’s say, in my case, “higher education AND sustainability”) or very specific indeed (e.g. only articles in peer-reviewed journals dealing with problem-based learning in undergraduate courses and explicitly referred to as education for sustainable development). There are several options to limit your search, so it might be best to play around a bit to find the right balance between a manageable number of hits and thus alerts over time and the most complete overview for your field you can look at. A number of really good introductions make you familiar with options and choices for the different databases and I highly recommend checking this out!
While these are my personal favourites and maybe even the “must dos” from my point of view, there are certainly many other ways to stay informed. Blogs from researchers in your specific area, social bookmarking sites or those for sharing slides or literature, social networks or even Twitter – the options are manifold and there are great examples of how people use these tools. Bottom line, what really counts is (1) finding a strategy that suits your needs and your learning and working style and (2) actually using this particular strategy to stay informed.
And if you come across a different way of gathering the information you need in your research area that proves to be successful for you, let me know!