Rombald green texture

Mission-led publishing

17th February 2022

Author: Sally Wilson, Publishing Director at Emerald Publishing


Sally Wilson, Emerald’s Publishing Director, reflects on our Time for Change Report 2021, commenting on what publishers should do to drive change within the research sector, and their role in supporting research that addresses the greatest challenges of our day. Turning to Emerald specifically, she discusses our mission-led approach to advance sustainable development, equality and diversity, and our role in creating a healthy research culture.

Our annual Time for Change Report reflects the crippling global impact of COVID-19 and the ongoing challenges facing our research community. Amid an already pressured research culture, the community has navigated the move to hybrid or online teaching and working, the juggle of work and home schooling, and restrictions on travel that have affected collaboration.

Research among certain groups has clearly been impacted by the pandemic, and at the same time change within research culture has slowed. Disappointingly, there has been an increase in reliance on traditional citations and impact factors to evaluate the quality of research, rather than a focus on changes in practice, policy or behaviour that can deliver real-world impact and societal change – a shift that’s needed now more than ever. However, what I find particularly encouraging is that academics desire publishers to play a role in supporting change in the research sector, and this should serve as a wake-up call to the industry to either get started or to see where there’s more we can do.

Publish research that has real impact

It’s essential that we publishers help to further change in academia, but we should also be looking to support research that can make a difference to society. Following the launch of our real impact manifesto in 2018, we’ve been looking to publish the best social science research that’s aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and has real impact. We signed the SDG Publishers Compact as a founding signatory in December 2020, and that was the natural next step. On the back of that, we looked at how we could further refine the work we are doing.

At the end of 2020, we created four Emerald goals – fairer society, healthier lives, responsible management, quality education for all – and then we mapped those to the SDGs. It was important to walk the talk – we’re mission led – and try to attract the best social science research that’s going to have real societal impact. We’ve also been trying to make sure we are representative from a geographical, career stage and gender perspective.

It's important that we aren’t working in an old-fashioned mindset, so that in order to be considered a quality research outlet, an editor has to reject more than 80% of the work that comes in. It’s not necessarily that we would accept more research, it’s that we would accept different types of research. Some of our journals are automatically, because of their nature, more aligned to the UN SDGs, while others can increase that alignment by expanding their aims and scope to attract different types of research. In an accountancy journal, for example, we might be looking at sustainability issues, responding to globalisation, accounting practices that encourage ethical behaviours, etc.

We will be focusing on growing our SDG-focused content and publishing that alongside more traditional content in both paywalled and open publishing venues, this would be the area of primary focus for us to grow output and those are the kinds of conversations we are having with our editor-in-chiefs and our advisory boards. 

We’re continually refining our approach to make sure we support our communities the best we can. Our efforts are appreciated by the sector and it was inspiring to see that a selection of our journals highly performed at the SDG Impact Intensity rating. I look forward to seeing the full results in 2022.

Complementary metrics

One of the main barriers to change is that researchers are still judged on traditional metrics. Unfortunately, real world impact can be somewhat at odds with the expectation to publish in a high impact factor journal because that’s not always the best place for their research. That’s why we sometimes get resistance on Emerald Open Research (EOR). Often, we are trying to target those progressive researchers who share our ethics as well, but it’s hard if you don’t have funding or if you know you have to publish in a certain journal and behave in a specific way to get on. You might do that to progress, but how do you make it better for the people who come after you?

Despite the sector’s tie to traditional metrics, what is heartening is the support for alternative methods of impact – these are particularly important for interdisciplinary research, as are publication outlets and review processes. We champion tools such as Altmetric as a complement to traditional citation-based metrics to help researchers gain measured attention for their research across a range of different channels, including social and traditional media.

As publishers we should continue to work with academia, ratings/rankings bodies and discovery service providers to develop complementary metrics to citation and impact factors that are aligned to the needs of interdisciplinary research and influence how researchers are rewarded, and research is funded.

Publishing options

It’s positive to see consistent support for publishers to offer different options to publish as a way to improve academic culture, but I would add that this is just part of what publishers should be doing. As a mission-led publisher, we have effectively used our voice to shine a light on the shared disparities that exist in both academia and publishing. In addition to our commitment to the Publisher’s Compact and DORA, we work as a facilitator to build deep relationships with the communities we serve through outreach and providing access to tools and services. This includes English language editing and piloting a free manuscript assessment tool at submission.

We are a publishing partner of Research4Life, providing online access to institutions in low- and middle-income countries and waivers to publish in our gold journals and EOR. An advantage of EOR is that all research is aligned to ‘grand challenges’ and it provides a faster route to publication through open access and open peer review. We are currently looking at the end-to-end publishing experience to reduce friction and direct researchers to the most appropriate home for their research whether publishing in an open or subscription venue. Finally, Engage has been launched as a 'safe space' to debate the topical and controversial issues affecting academia, as well as network and collaborate through sharing best practice ideas and advice.


Beyond publishing options, academics want publishers to provide more support for post-publication promotion and we see this as vital for real-world impact. At Emerald, the publication process isn’t the last step of the researcher’s journey. We ensure our digital platforms are accessible and we support our authors to re-work their research into engaging digital formats beyond the article or book chapter, such as podcasts, blog posts, videos and infographics. We signpost this content on ScienceOpen and direct people back to the published source.

We offer a range of resources to support the author in promoting their work to professional networks, at conferences and on social media channels. Our unique Emerald structured abstracts ask authors to consider and articulate the social and practical implications of their research and having this clearly flagged at abstract level means readers are more easily able to identify papers that have built these considerations into the research and writing process. We also joined I4OA, a cross publisher initiative whereby scholarly publishers open the abstracts of their publications to allow for unrestricted availability of abstracts to boost the discovery of research.

Diversity on editorial boards

Another area academics would like publishers to address is greater diversity within editorial boards.  We acknowledge there are challenges to overcome, but we are working to make this happen. It’s really hard to get more diversity on editorial boards, because often the editor-in-chief or existing editorial board advisors will be in charge of recruitment and if their network of peers is not diverse, it’s not necessarily their fault. We’re exploring how we can support them to look beyond their existing networks to recruit new people. That’s why we carried out the early career researcher (ECR) pilot, to see how we get people into those early publishing opportunities, whether it’s reviewer initially, though the best editors still review.

We are aiming for gender parity and want to ensure they are representative of where the best research happens globally. We’re working with editors to recruit ECRs and trialling ECR editorial advisory boards to provide more publishing opportunities, from extending reviewer pools to eliciting fresh ideas for special issues and our journal content more broadly.

Dimensions is invaluable in helping us identify the best research alliance UN SDGs, institutions and researchers, and in recent years we’ve done a little bit more active commissioning, working with the editorial boards to say let’s create a special issue aligned to this SDG or this goal. So, we work with them to identify the best editors for special issues and that sort of thing. This is where more collaborative/new ways of working with our editorial advisory teams comes in. How it’s changed recently is that the commissioning editors have tried to take more of a strategic role, working with the editorial advisory boards and the editor-in-chief, to really steer together where the journal is going, increasing that alignment to UN SDGs and real-world impact. 

Push for change

As we look to the future, we encourage mission-led publishers like ourselves to continue their journey to challenge unhealthy practices within publishing and academia. While the effects of COVID appear to have dampened the appetite for change among some, particularly in the research community, we should still call out practices that don’t move us forward.

Emerald will continue to innovate to provide flexible and diverse publishing, along with tools and services that meet the needs of the research community both now and in the future. This is a responsibility that we at Emerald will continue to embrace as part of our manifesto to be a home for research that achieves attention, reach and real-world impact.