QS World University Rankings: Sustainable Development Goals methodology | Top Universities

QS World University Rankings: Sustainable Development Goals methodology

By Craig OCallaghan

Updated October 27, 2022 Updated October 27, 2022

Our aim in creating this methodology was to give a sense of the relative productivity of research into Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at institutions. We look both at the output, and the impact of that output, to arrive at a scaled score.

Please see here for more details on the background and approach taken for these filters.

The data

The data for our SDG filters is provided by our research partners at Elsevier SciVal. Please see here for the approach they took to creating their SDG mappings. Each SDG is mapped to certain publication keywords which are searchable within SciVal. We requested the following data points for each institution in the QS World University Rankings, for each SDG:

  • Total number of papers published in 2016-2020
  • Total number of citations received by such papers in 2016-2021, with author-level self-citations excluded
  • Number of papers published in Top 10 percent of academic sources as defined by CiteScore Percentile
  • Average per paper Field-Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI), with author-level self-citations excluded (once compared to other papers of the same paper type, publication year and subject area of a source)
  • Median of per paper citations, with author-level self-citations excluded
  • Median of per paper FWCI, with author-level self-citations excluded

Approximately 100 papers with citations and affiliations inordinately above the global median per SDG were excluded.

With the above data points ready per institution per SDG, the following inclusion criteria, indicator set, and adjustment methods were designed.


The eligibility threshold established in the pilot edition of the project is to be among the top three quartiles by the total number of papers in the corresponding SDG.

The indicators

  • Total citation count, weighted at 30 percent (a measure of the overall impact of all papers published by an institution in the given SDG field)
  • Average per paper FWCI, weighted at 30 percent (a measure of the average relative per paper impact of papers published by an institution in the given SDG field)
  • Share of papers in top academic sources, weighted at 40 percent (a further measure of the impact of the research being produced and the visibility it attracts, although it measures the impact of the destination, rather than the paper)

The adjustments

All three indicators are adjusted on a sliding scale up to four times the global median paper output per SDG. This method is an adaptation of the similar approach used in the QS World University Rankings by Subject. The intent of this is to establish a dependency between the visibility and impact indicators we use in the methodology, and a university's expertise (in the form of its research footprint) in the given SDG.

In other words, the more expertise a university has, the more credibility its indicators have, and vice versa - universities with a low research footprint but high visibility and impact numbers will be penalised in their scoring.

It is quite common that a university's impact metrics may be influenced by several anomalous papers, which do not reflect their regular research output. Although we acknowledge that any improvements and new initiatives may result in some positive results significantly different from the historical ones, we'd like to reward those universities which demonstrate stability and robustness in their SDG commitment.

One of the indicators of this is how close the average per paper citation and average per paper FWCI are to the median values for a given university: the closer to those medians, the more credibility the first two indicators have.


A score was created for each individual SDG before being aggregated into its parent category. To arrive at the score, the z-score was calculated and then scaled from one to 100.

Once the score for each SDG was calculated, it was then aggregated with the scores of the other SDGs in each parent category to arrive at an average overall score. In order to be scored in a category, an institution must score in more than 50 percent of the corresponding SDGs constituting a parent category.

As an example, for the parent category Social Impact, institutions should have a score of at least five in two distinct SDGs. For the parent category Environmental Impact, institutions should have a score of at least five in four out of the six distinct SDGs.

The medals

Institutions and students will be able to see a variety of medals based on the information above: Gold, Silver, Bronze and Candidate. Where data has not been sufficient, institutions will be ‘unrated’.

The top 20 percent of the best scored institutions within each group are the Gold medalists. The next 30 percent are labelled Silver, the next 30 percent Bronze, and the last 20 percent as Candidate.

This article was originally published in August 2021 . It was last updated in October 2022

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