2017 top 30 global sustainability research papers

What was the global sustainability research that made the biggest headlines in 2017? Here’s the top 30 sourced from the Altmetric database.

Owen Gaffney
Future Earth Media Lab


Image: Hideyuki Mohri (Future Earth). Anthropocene inset: Globaia

Updated 24 Dec 2017*

My favourite list of the year was published earlier this week — the Altmetric top 100. Altmetric tracked 2.2 million research articles leading to 18.5 million media mentions then ranked them by their Altmetric Attention score. Nerdgasm.

The ranking is not for best article or most important bit of research. It is a simple, imperfect, measure of the research that got people talking or tapped into a global discussion in 2017. So, that alone is important.

My Future Earth colleague Kaela Slavik and I wanted to check out which global sustainability articles published in 2017 drove the most conversations. Here’s the top 30 based purely on their scores taken from scouring the top 700 papers in the database.

We defined “global sustainability” as research with significant implications for the future trajectory of people and planet. This took us beyond Earth-system research and into human health, artificial intelligence and microbial resistance. Number one on the list was authored by none other than Barack Obama — his second peer-reviewed paper while he was in office. Ten of the thirty on the list propose or describe solutions to the global sustainability challenge. Not bad, eh?

For the Top 100 papers see here.

Enough already. The list…

1. The irreversible momentum of clean energy (January 2017) Science Altmetric score: 7899

2. World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice (November 2017) BioScience Altmetric score: 6623

3. More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas (October 2017) PLoS ONE Altmetric score: 4486

4. Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence childrenês interests (January 2017) Science Altmetric score: 4421

5. Worldwide trends in body-mass index, underweight, overweight, and obesity from 1975 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 2416 population-based measurement studies in 128.9 million children, adolescents, and adults (October 2017) The Lancet Altmetric score: 4023

6. The antibiotic course has had its day (July 2017) British Medical Journal Altmetric score: 3513

7. Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity in 195 Countries over 25 Years (June 2017) New England Journal of Medicine Altmetric score: 3512

8. When Will AI Exceed Human Performance? Evidence from AI Experts (May 2017) Arxiv Altmetric score: 3478

9. Association between active commuting and incident cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality: prospective cohort study (April 2017) British Medical Journal Altmetric score: 3284

10. Why people prefer unequal societies (April 2017) Nature Human Behaviour Altmetric score: 3213

11. Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals (March 2017) Nature Altmetric score: 3162

12. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made (July 2017) Science Advances Altmetric score: 3034

13. Future life expectancy in 35 industrialised countries: projections with a Bayesian model ensemble (February 2017) The Lancet Altmetric score: 2916

14. Association of “Weekend Warrior” and Other Leisure Time Physical Activity Patterns With Risks for All-Cause, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer Mortality (January 2017) JAMA Internal Medicine Altmetric score: 2964

15. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines (July 2017) PNAS Altmetric score: 2836

16. Large-scale physical activity data reveal worldwide activity inequality Nature Altmetric score: 2732

17. Global risk of deadly heat (June 2017) Nature Climate Change Altmetric score: 2616

18. Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States (June 2017) Science Altmetric score: 2393

19. The effect of physical activity on mortality and cardiovascular disease in 130,000 people from 17 high-income, middle-income, and low-income countries: the PURE study (September 2017) The Lancet Altmetric score: 2268

20. Artificially lit surface of Earth at night increasing in radiance and extent (November 2017) Science Advances Altmetric score: 2259

21. Widespread Biological Response to Rapid Warming on the Antarctic Peninsula (May 2017) Current Biology Altmetric score: 2181

22. Bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants in the deepest ocean fauna (February 2017) Nature Ecology and Evolution Altmetric score: 2161

23. Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies (March 2017) International Journal of Epidemiology Altmetric score: 1978

24. The Lancet Commission on pollution and health (October 2017) The Lancet Altmetric score: 1923

25. Assessing recent warming using instrumentally homogeneous sea surface temperature records (January 2017) Science Advances Altmetric score: 1811

26. A roadmap for rapid decarbonization (March 2017) Science Altmetric score: 1806

27. Fruit, vegetable, and legume intake, and cardiovascular disease and deaths in 18 countries (PURE): a prospective cohort study (August 2017) International Journal of Epidemiology Altmetric score: 1789

28. Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014)(August 2017) Environmental Research Letters Altmetric score: 1750

29. The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions (July 2017) Environmental Research Letters Altmetric score: 1727

30. Increasing risk over time of weather-related hazards to the European population: a data-driven prognostic study (August 2017) The Lancet Planetary Health Altmetric score: 1641

So that’s it. Stuff to note:

Just a small handful of journals are driving the global conversation on global sustainability.

The vast majority of the articles above have been peer-reviewed, even policy articles like the Policy Forum papers in Science, but some may be commentaries. Even these are worth including because they are well-grounded, published in quality journals and often do an excellent job of synthesising out the big picture to see the forest from the trees.

I expected the 2017 Global Carbon Budget published by Future Earth’s Global Carbon Project to be in the list. This was released on 13 November and gained over 3000 media mentions globally. But it is nowhere (Altmetric score: 345). This could be down to its very recent publication date and maybe many media have not hyperlinked directly to the paper, preferring a project website instead. As I said, this is not a perfect science.

And finally, the analysis is based on the fifth annual list published by Altmetric. This year I was ready. A few months back, I had requested “researcher access” to their database. When the list was published I downloaded the full dataset — over one million rows. My overworked Macbook wept.

*The table was updated on 24 December following our publication of the Top 100 global sustainability research papers.