First Monday

Investigating digital sustainability: A retrospective bibliometric analysis of literature leading to future research directions by Gagan Deep Sharma, Dimitrios Reppas, Glenn Muschert, and Vijay Pereira

This paper provides a bibliometric analysis of the digital sustainability literature from four angles: economics, management/business, information systems/IT, and sociology/communication. The core contribution is to map the development of the literature in digital sustainability over time and across various clusters. Through VOSviewer analysis, we identify the main keywords used by the literature; the countries from which most of the literature is emerging; the most influential authors working in the field; and, their impacts by observing their citations and networks. Moreover, through CitNetExplorer analysis, we track the development of the field over time, i.e., identify key publications and divide those into clusters. The analysis finds a much more developed coverage of digital sustainability in the scholarship of management/business and therefore reveals a clear need for greater exploration of the sociological and economic aspects of digital sustainability. We argue that more robust collaboration patterns should be established among all four considered disciplines to achieve progress in digital sustainability. We envisage that digital sustainability as a field of study will mature as publications and ideas will become consolidated. Such integration strengthens the evolution of the field and topics across all four considered disciplines.


1. Introduction
2. Methodology
3. Development of research in digital sustainability
4. Key authors and networks
5. Keyword analysis
6. Co-citations and bibliographic coupling
7. Evolution of digital sustainability literature across time
8. Key directions of the literature and future research agenda
9. Conclusions



1. Introduction

The meaning of sustainability involves the integration of environmental, social, and economic objectives. The United Nations (2015), for instance, has broadly defined sustainability by setting 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) that countries should reach by the year 2030. Some of those goals refer to economic and social objectives (such as “SDG1: end poverty”, “SDG4: obtaining quality education”, “SDG8: decent work and economic growth”, “SDG11: reducing inequalities”), and others to environmental objectives (such as “SDG6: clean water and sanitation”, “SDG12: responsible consumption and production”, “SDG14: life below water”). In short, the above multi-dimensionality of sustainability, as finding a balance between economic, social, and environmental objectives, makes research in the topic inevitably interdisciplinary.

Over the past few years, this interdisciplinary production of knowledge in sustainability has accelerated tremendously. Therefore, it has made it difficult for researchers to keep up with the latest advances in this interdisciplinary field. Adopting a holistic approach is critical for the scholarship in sustainability to inform the policy towards attaining the SDG agenda (Sharma, et al., 2021). Understanding the following topics is vital for consolidating the current work in the field and preparing its future course: topics that have been under- or over-researched, identities of authors instrumental in advancing the sub-domain-specific scholarship, and methods used. For this reason, a bibliometric analysis of sustainability seems more relevant now than ever.

Our article attempts to provide an overview of the digital sustainability literature, on a meta-level, from the following four central angles: economics, sociology/communication, management/business, and information technology/systems. We identify the development of literature in those four fields because the development of sustainability (across time and clusters) in these fields seems to be more closely related to each other than to the natural sciences. For instance, most business people today think of sustainability in terms of what economists typically define as “weak sustainability,” meaning to allow future generations to experience sustained prosperity per capita. (For a more formal interpretation of sustainability in economic terms, see Stavins, et al. [2003]). This definition of sustainability contrasts the notion of “strong sustainability” that natural scientists have historically adopted (the latter tend to reject substitutability among different forms of capital, i.e., among natural, human, manufactured, and social capital). Most business people today will consider the two aspects of their activities. First are the environmental aspects of their activities (e.g., impacts of pollution, energy use, waste management). Second, the economic and social aspects of their behavior (i.e., how their businesses may thrive in a competitive marketplace and their firms’ obligations towards their communities in reducing poverty and improving education and other social institutions). Much of the work on sustainability by natural scientists focus on purely environmental aspects of sustainability. In contrast, much of the research by economists, business, and other social scientists focus on alleviating poverty and maintaining natural capital for our future well-being; nevertheless, making progress on sustainable development requires integration of social and natural scientists (Polasky, et al., 2019).

The term digital sustainability describes how societies may use digitalization for the benefit of sustainable development (Stuermer, et al., 2017), i.e., how the accumulation of knowledge may support environmental, economic, and societal development goals. The influence of technology in the creation, documenting, and usage of such knowledge may be a way to promote sustainable growth (Melville, 2010; Seele, 2016). For example, digital knowledge management can occur in ways that allow societies to optimize production processes (and therefore reduce natural resources) or change their consumption patterns (that is, become more environmentally conscious through better access to digital media). That is, the digital transformation of our societies is facilitating the recently increased production of knowledge in sustainability. The term digital transformation refers to the embedding of digital technologies for information in business and the increased integration of digital technologies in social and economic relations. That is, digital transformation refers to the increased adoption of digital technologies to replace manual or analog information technologies with computer-based electronic technologies. (For reviews of the literature on the migration and expansion of information into the digital sphere, see Reis, et al., 2018; Vial, 2019). Digital transformation can be traced back to the mid-1990s, with the launch of the World Wide Web as a global information network. It seems to have occurred quickest in high-income nations, mainly as their post-industrial economies emerged as reliant on information technology. In the 2000s, digitization reached a broader meaning beyond IT, as it became clear that digital transformation also occurred in economic relations beyond computing and information processing. In the last decades, a wide range of social relations would migrate into the digital sphere, including government relations, education, communications, supply chains, healthcare, and transportation (Westerman, et al., 2014). Overall, it seems that digital transformation as a macrosocial phenomenon has roughly emerged in parallel with discussions of sustainability. Thus, the focus on the digital and its sustainability aspect has become an increasing area of discussion and analysis.

Nevertheless, it is also clear that digital technologies, skills, and rewards follow patterns of unequal distribution in society, which has led to the discussion of the so-called digital divide, whose inequality brings an added aspect to the discussion of digital sustainability. That is, digital knowledge could have adverse ecological, social, and economic effects and may therefore be potentially detrimental to sustainable development (Stuermer, et al., 2017). Digital divide research examines three levels of inequalities: These are the first-level digital divide, which focuses on accessibility vs. non-accessibility of digital technologies (e.g., van Dijk, 2005, 2002); second-level digital divide, which focuses on differential levels of skill development among those having access (e.g., van Deursen and van Dijk, 2011; van Dijk, 2013); and, third-level digital divide which focuses on the extent to which those with access and digital skills can derive tangible advantages from their use of digital technologies (e.g., Ragnedda, 2016). Given persistent inequalities in digital access, digital skills, and the benefits derived, the discussion of digital sustainability is inseparable from analysis of the digital divide, which appears accelerated in many cases by digital transformation.

Our primary contribution is to propose ways in which previously unused or underutilized ideas and principles from economics, management/business, information systems/IT, and sociology/communication can advance research on digital sustainability. We fill knowledge gaps in digital sustainability by conducting novel, systemic, and rigorous scientific studies of the field’s structure and content. Through integrating two bibliometric approaches of network-based co-citation analysis and text mining, this review elucidates both the theoretical foundations and core concepts that underpin the digital sustainability model.

In doing so, we identify the seminal publications in digital sustainability within the above mentioned four disciplinary domains from 1989 till 2020; and also map the development of the literature across various clusters (such as clusters in terms of main keywords used, geographic locations of research groups, influential journals, and authors). Overall, our analysis attempts to predict how the body of knowledge may develop in digital sustainability in the future. Our bibliometric analysis finds a much more developed coverage of digital sustainability in the scholarship of management/business, compared to the remaining three disciplines. The scarcity of articles focusing on digital sustainability in both the top-ranked sociology/communications journals and purely economics journals suggests that digital sustainability is a new evolving topic. Progress in the academic field of digital sustainability requires more robust collaboration among all four considered disciplines.

The organization of the paper is as follows: Section 2 discusses methodology, i.e., our selection of data of publications in the field of sustainability, along with the two software tools (namely CitNetExplorer and VOSviewer) utilized to cluster our selected publications; Sections 3-7 present our findings of the resulting clustering solutions through visualizations; Section 8 provides the critical directions identified and the future research agenda from the literature for each of the four disciplinary domains (economics, management/business, information systems/IT, and sociology/communication); and Section 9 offers concluding reflections about the current and future state of scholarship in digital sustainability.



2. Methodology

Digital sustainability literature encompasses various domains spread over the field of social sciences and communication. More specifically, scholars focusing on digital sustainability work in various scholarly fields such as business, economics, communication, sociology, and information technology. This study explores the past, present, and future of research on digital sustainability (within economics, management/business, information systems/IT, and sociology/communication) from 1989 to 2020. We use a bibliometric method of analyzing the literature. Some bibliometric studies may focus on a specific journal (e.g., Burton, et al., 2020; Gammelgaard, et al., 2020; Kataria, et al., 2020), limiting the perspective to a relatively confined range of scholarship.

Tranfield, et al. (2003) suggested a clear roadmap for conducting reviews by maintaining, “Prior to beginning the review a review panel is formed encompassing a range of experts in the areas of both methodology and theory. Efforts should be made to include practitioners working in the field on the panel. The review panel should help direct the process through regular meetings and resolve any disputes over the inclusion and exclusion of studies ... Such studies need to consider cross-disciplinary perspectives and alternative ways in which a research topic has previously been tackled” [1]. In line with this guideline, we formed a reviewers’ panel comprising the four authors of this paper (each specializing in one sub-domain), one theoretical expert per sub-domain, and one practitioner specializing in each sub-domain. The reviewers’ panel held constant meetings to decide the modalities of various steps as required.

For example, some highly cited studies (for example, Ramos-Rodríguez and Ruíz-Navarro, 2004) suggested using a representative collection from domain-specific journals. Using the reputed journals from the covered fields saved us the arduous task of sifting through other journals, searching for articles relating to the disciplines under reference. Our strategy was consistent with Randhawa, et al. (2016), who selected journals related to their domain of open innovation, and with Zupic and Čater (2015). They recommended creating a domain-specific database if required. At the same time, while it was critical to be focused, a broader perspective helped readers comprehend the developments in academic research in an integrated manner. Thus, we adopted a balanced stance to minimize spreading ideation, arguments, and fields too thinly to allow a meaningful scholarly contribution.

We selected the top ten journals in each of these disciplines from the SCImago journal rankings (for the selected journals, see Appendix). Among these journals, we searched for papers published between 1989 and 2020 with the terms “digital” and “sustain” in the subject. This search returned 314 papers, which the authors manually screened for fitness to the theme of this paper. Manual screening led to the exclusion of 113 papers from the list; therefore, 201 papers were the basis for this review.

To map the literature on digital sustainability, we carried out a bibliometric analysis in two ways. First, we used the Web of Knowledge platform analysis and mapped publications, citations, citing sources and journals, and authors’ countries. Second, following the recommendations of some highly cited works (Boyack and Klavans, 2010; Üsdiken and Pasadeos, 1995; van Eck and Waltman, 2017), we used VOSviewer, and CitNetExplorer to intellectually map the evolution of related literature, identify key themes in the literature, and suggest a future research agenda.

More specifically, our analysis dealt with the following six points:

  1. identifying key journals where the literature on our theme was published and cited;
  2. mapping the country network of authors publishing on our theme;
  3. studying the network of prominent authors in the field;
  4. identifying and clustering prominent keywords in the domain;
  5. using co-citation and bibliometric coupling analysis to explore emerging themes in this field of study; and,
  6. Mapping the evolution of digital sustainability literature over time.



3. Development of research in digital sustainability

Our data set was extracted from the SCImago database from 1989 until 2020. Our bibliometric search resulted in a total of 201 articles among four considered disciplines. Collectively these publications were cited 13,557 times, and the mean citation number per item was 67.45 (more specifically, 11 of the selected articles were cited zero times, over the reference period; the maximum number of citations from our data was 1,203 [2], and only six of the selected 201 articles had more than 400 citations).

Figure 1 shows the sum of citations that the selected 201 articles garnered per year. Note that from the year 2006 onwards, the selected publications were cited more than 200 times per year, with the increase being close to exponential (for instance, in the year 2020, the selected 201 publications were cited more than 2,000 times, as opposed to just around 200 times in the year 2006). This increase in the number of publications may be explained partly by three events taking place: first, the introduction of smartphones/iPhones in 2007 and their widespread use, connecting hundreds of millions worldwide; second, the advent of Web 2.0 characterized by platform participation user-created content which reduced technical barriers to Internet participation; and, third the global financial crisis of 2008 that may have increased international cooperation between countries on topics related to sustainability. Such advances in communication technologies may have enabled international collaboration among authors and increased the overall number of publications.


Citations per year for 201 selected articles
Figure 1: Citations per year for 201 selected articles.


Figure 2 illustrates the distribution of the 201 selected publications over the past two decades. A scant 12 of the articles appeared before 2003, and this period does not appear in Figure 2. Only 16 publications appeared from 2003 to 2008, which is less than eight percent of the dataset. Fifty-six articles, approximately one-quarter, appeared between 2009 and 2015. The remaining 117 publications (i.e., more than half of the 201 publications) appeared since 2016.


Total number of publications by year
Figure 2: Total number of publications by year.


Figure 3 gives the top journals citing the selected 201 publications; Figure 4, the top authors citing our selected publications; while Figure 5, the top citing countries. For instance, Figure 3 tells us that the journal Sustainability contained publications that gave reference to (any of) our 201 selected articles for a total of 440 times (likewise, the Journal of Cleaner Production cited 370 times (any of) our selected 201 articles). Figure 4 reveals that “J. Sarkis” was the top citing author (n.b., not “cited author”), as the researcher referred to (any of) our 201 selected articles more times (40 times) than any other scholar. A more careful examination revealed that J. Sarkis was a co-author for one of the 201 selected articles; this article was cited frequently: 523 times over the period 1989-2020. Figure 5 reveals that, for instance, 78 authors with U.S. affiliations cited (any of) our 201 selected articles, immediately followed by almost half (31) authors with English-based affiliations.


Top-citing journals
Figure 3: Top-citing journals.



Top-citing authors
Figure 4: Top-citing authors.



Top-citing countries
Figure 5: Top-citing countries.


As a next step, we clustered our selected 201 publications using two software tools, VOSviewer and CitNetExplorer. Both tools provided visualizations for clustering solutions, but the former analyzed clusters at an aggregate level, however the latter at the level of individual publications. Therefore, the two analyses complemented each other (van Eck and Waltman, 2017). In what follows, we first provide visualizations by VOSviewer (Sections 4-6) and then by CitNetExplorer (Section 7). Both clustering techniques assigned each of the 201 selected publications to precisely one cluster each time, without overlapping. More specifically, VOSviewer generated clusters by determining the relatedness of the 201 selected publications in terms of keyword relations (see Section 5) and citation relations. Regarding citation relations, bibliometric literature typically distinguished between direct citation relations (see Section 4) and indirect citation relations, meaning bibliographic coupling relations and co-citation relations (see Section 6).



4. Key authors and networks

The VOSviewer carried out analyses at an aggregate level by creating cluster visualizations in terms of different characteristics. For instance, Figure 6 presents clusters in terms of direct citation relations; Figure 7 captures the collaborating networks of authors; and, Figure 8 the collaboration patterns in terms of countries publishing in sustainability.

Figure 6 depicts 11 clusters (each with a different color), and the size of each cluster reflects the number of citations for specific publications belonging to that cluster. The four articles (of Oliver, Butler, Mandi, and Tingey-Holyoak) in the light blue cluster, appearing as “Oliver (1997)” on the left side of Figure 6, received more citations than the articles (of Minton, Banbury, and Azmat) contained in the purple cluster, appearing as “Minton (2015)” and “Banbury (2012)” on the right side of Figure 6. The curved lines (distances) between clusters reflect how the clusters relate in terms of citations, as clusters closely positioned to each other are strongly related in terms of citations. For instance, the red cluster (of “Watson (2010)”, on the left side of the figure) and the light blue cluster (of “Oliver (1997)”) have many citations in common.


Visualization of 11 clusters in terms of citation relations
Figure 6: Visualization of 11 clusters in terms of citation relations.


Figure 7 gives the co-authorship network visualization (with six distinct clusters appearing), while Figure 8 shows the co-authors’ regional collaborating patterns (with 12 regional clusters emerging). For instance, Figure 7 exhibits that while there are clusters of co-authorship in the scholarship related to digital sustainability, Kim Kh has worked as “a bridge” between several co-author networks. Figure 8 conveys that a larger circle reflects more documents/publications co-authored from that particular country/region. Therefore, the red cluster in the right part of the figure assembles five regions (i.e., England, India, Wales, Nigeria, and Colombia). England has co-authored a considerable number of papers. The most significant number of co-authored articles comes from the U.S. (i.e., 75 out of the 201 selected articles). Israel, Portugal, and Thailand form another regional cluster (depicted as light blue in Figure 8). Moreover, the U.S. and England, Australia, and China have all kept a wide range of cooperation with other countries and regions.


Visualization of six clusters in terms of co-authors
Figure 7: Visualization of six clusters in terms of co-authors.



Visualization of 12 clusters in terms of co-authors' countries
Figure 8: Visualization of 12 clusters in terms of co-authors’ countries.




5. Keyword analysis

The VOSviewer provided a cluster analysis in terms of keywords. Figure 9 depicts keywords (approximately 60) identified with at least five occurrences in our selected publications. A circle represents each keyword in this figure, with a larger size representing more occurrences of those keywords in the sample. For instance, the keywords “sustainability” and “performance” were the most commonly included keywords (the former appeared in 48; while the latter in 41 of our 201 selected publications). Moreover, the distance between keywords reflects topics’ similarity. Therefore, Figure 9 clusters keywords in four groups, with each color (blue, green, yellow, and red) representing a group of terms strongly related to each other. For instance, publications belonging to the blue cluster seemed to approach sustainability from the viewpoint of firms/industries/businesses/organizations, while publications belonging to the red cluster appeared to deal with sustainability from the perspective of consumers.


Visualization of four clusters in terms of keyword co-occurrence
Figure 9: Visualization of four clusters in terms of keyword co-occurrence (minimum five occurrences).




6. Co-citations and bibliographic coupling

Co-citation examines the relationship or link between two articles and provides an analysis of publications frequently cited in other studies or publications to explain the historical evolution of a specific field (Bamel, et al., 2020; Martínez-López, et al., 2018). For instance, if a third publication cites both author A’s publication and author B’s publication, then authors A and B have one co-citation. Therefore, the more two papers receive co-citations by a given community, the more a connection exists between those articles. It is possible that similar subjects are from the same field of expertise or because their fields are closely linked (van Nunen, et al., 2018).

Figure 10 gives the co-citation references visualization, with a minimum of five citations. The scale of the circles reflects the total amount of publications by the respective author; the shorter gap between nodes represents a higher score of co-citations. The higher number of co-citations indicates more closeness and similarity between studies, while the longer distance implies lower co-citations, suggesting lesser commonality (Fouroudi, et al., 2020). For instance, out of the five identified clusters in Figure 10, the yellowish one contains publications from management/business — a co-citation strength of typically five to seven (thus, minor nodes). In contrast, red and purple clusters contain publications from management, economics, and sociology/communication, which have higher co-citation scores. For instance, “Fornell 1981”, from the red cluster, has a co-citation score of 14; while “Barney 1991”, from the purple cluster, has the largest (23) co-citation score from our dataset).


Co-citation references
Figure 10: Co-citation references (minimum five citations).


The bibliometric coupling citation analysis somewhat contradicts the commonly used co-citation analysis method (Boyack and Klavans, 2010). Two papers couple bibliographically if they both cite one or more documents in common. The bibliographic approach to researching a subject relies on primary documents to identify the most current and contentious issues in a field; whereas the co-citation approach focuses on secondary records to explain historical focus and advancement of a field (van Nunen, et al., 2018; Vogel, et al., 2021). Eventually, bibliographic pairing will primarily cluster more recent papers to the exclusion of older articles. Figure 11 provides bibliographic coupling visualization for the dataset (in our analysis, we have specified that bibliographically coupled publications may have received as few as zero citations). Larger nodes in this figure reveal prominent authors; therefore, “Oliver (1997)” (from the purple cluster) received the most citations (1,203), followed by “Batillana (2010)” (from the blue cluster, with 971 citations), “Vorhies (2005)” (with 647 citations) and “Sharma (2005)” (with 567 citations).


Bibliometric coupling
Figure 11: Bibliometric coupling (minimum zero citations).




7. Evolution of digital sustainability literature across time

We also used CitNetExplorer to develop insights into the literature’s evolution by forming clustering solutions at the individual publication level. Figure 12 provides a visualization of the 39 most frequently cited of the 201 publications by placing them in five clusters: the color of each publication indicates the cluster (orange, blue, purple, green, or yellow) to which each publication belongs. Time, in Figure 12, is measured along the vertical axis (with the more recent publications featuring in the bottom part of the figure). In contrast, the relatedness of publications (in terms of citations) appears in the horizontal dimension, reflecting publications strongly related to each other in terms of citations. Alternately, weakly related publications (in terms of citations) appear farther away from each other. Figure 12 reveals that the five generated clusters cover relatively independent bodies of literature. The yellow cluster is the most independent. The blue cluster was developed mainly from 2010 to 2015 but originated from Fornell’s 1981 paper. In comparison, the purple cluster strongly connects to other clusters, as Wagner’s 2015 article (from the purple cluster) is related to Fornell’s 1981 and Podsakoff’s 2003 articles (both from the blue cluster); to Freeman’s 1984 article (from the orange cluster); as well as to Hart’s 1995 article (from the green cluster).


Thirty-nine most frequently cited of the 201 publications in five clusters
Figure 12: Thirty-nine most frequently cited of the 201 publications in five clusters.


Figures 13 through 17 further illustrate that each of the five clusters refers to the same body of literature, in management/business. We found that the same journal published publications in each of these five clusters. Our data ranged from 1981 to 2020. In terms of the number of relevant publications (out of 212 observations), we saw a progressive and upward trend over time. Hence, for 1981-2000, publications ranged from one to five in 1997, with a maximum of five relevant publications. In comparison, during 2001-2010, there was an average rise as the relevant publications ranged from one to ten, with the notable years being 2003 — six publications; 2009 — seven publications; and 2010 — 10 publications. In the last decade, 2011-2020, there was a massive rise in relevant publications, ranging from five to 41, with considerable numbers for 2016 — of 23 publications; 2018 — 24 publications; 2019 — 19 publications and 2020 with 41 publications. The overall business and management field was broad and spread across different disciplines. In the business strategy field, the leading journal where the more significant numbers appeared in the Strategic Management Journal (SMJ) — 19 publications. In terms of general management, the Academy of Management Journal (AMJ) — five publications; Journal of Business Research (JBR) — 83 publications; Journal of Knowledge Management — six publications. For operations management, the European Journal of Operational Research (EJOR) — 38 publications. For marketing, the Journal of Marketing (JoM) — six publications. For information management, International Journal of Information Management (IJIM) — nine publications; MIS Quarterly (MISQ) — eight publications. Lastly, for economics, American Economic Review (AER) — five publications. We noted seminal and classical work in each field, by authors such as Fornell, Hart, Wernerfelt, Freeman, and Munda, were very significant and still cited.


Cluster #1
Figure 13: Cluster #1 (articles from management/business).



Cluster #2
Figure 14: Cluster #2 (articles from management/business).



Cluster #3
Figure 15: Cluster #3 (articles from management/business).



Cluster #4
Figure 16: Cluster #4 (articles from management/business).



Cluster #5
Figure 17: Cluster #5 (articles from management/business).




8. Key directions of the literature and future research agenda

Following the visualization of our results from Sections 3 through 7, this section assesses the quality of clustering solutions, providing an in-depth interpretation of different clusters.

Regarding the literature on digital sustainability in economics, only nine of the selected 201 publications in the dataset (i.e., less than five percent) appeared in top-ranked journals (American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy, Review of Economic Studies, and Quarterly Journal of Economics). The most cited of economics paper was Kremer and Miguel (2007) [3], with 208 citations. The least cited was Kenen (1997) [4], with seven citations. Overall, the average number of citations per economics article was close to the average for the whole data set (73 for the economics, compared to 67, for the whole data set of 201 articles). None of the economics journals appeared in Figure 6 (i.e., in terms of citation relations) or Figure 7 (i.e., co-author networks). Such a pattern was somewhat expected, given the minimal number to begin with of economics publications identified in the sample. Nevertheless, several of the keywords of Figure 9 (particularly those contained in the yellowish cluster, e.g., “markets,” “risk,” “policy,” “economics,” and “model”) were common within economics publications.

Overall, our dataset’s small number of economics publications could reflect the overlapping of several topics between economics and management/business. For instance, some commonly discussed topics between these two scholarly fields were consumer perceptions, firms’ performance, green behavior, sustainable consumption, information, strategies, efficiency, and data analysis). In other words, it seemed that economists may sometimes choose to publish their work in more interdisciplinary (rather than in purely economics) journals, such as those in business/management, to have their work cited both in and outside their field. Furthermore, formal mathematical and statistical analysis, typically encountered in economics articles, makes economics publications less accessible (or appealing) to scholars from other disciplines (as opposed to business/management articles, which attract a higher number of citations).

Nevertheless, this underrepresentation in the dataset of the contribution of economics may have had in digital sustainability does not give justice to the extensive and systematic work undertaken by economists during the past four decades in the more general field of sustainability. For economic thinkers, the origins of sustainability relate to classical economists in the nineteenth century (such as T.R. Malthus and J.S. Mill) and continue to contributions in the twentieth century of A. Pigou and R. Coase, about externalities and the possibility of resolving these through Pigouvian taxes, or side payments). Nevertheless, sustainability became more formalized in economics after the 1970s, when two sub-fields having emerged, environmental economics and natural resource economics [5]. These now well-developed fields established their premier journals, separate from other flagship economics journals. In other words, the traditional/core economics discipline appeared to be detached from sustainability. For instance, the American Economic Review published, in 2018, only two papers related to sustainability (Polasky, et al., 2019). Overall, environmental and resource economists have diversified and made their research more interdisciplinary over time. For a detailed review on the evolution of the literature within environmental and resource economics, see Polyakov, et al. (2018), Kube, et al. (2017), and Drupp, et al. (2020); for some of the critical challenges for future economic research related to sustainability, see Bretschger and Pittel (2020) and Elliott, et al. (2020).

Regarding the literature of digital sustainability in aociology/communication, only six publications in the dataset (less than three percent) appeared in top-tier sociology/communications journals (two articles in the Journal of Advertising, and one each in Big Data and Sociology, Digital Journalism, Journal of Communication, and New Media & Society). The most highly cited of the six sociology/communications publications was by Minton, et al. (2012) [6], with 64 citations, and the least-cited was Hyun and Sung (2017) [7], with six citations. The mean citations for sociology/communications fell well below the average for the whole data set (24 for sociology/communication, compared to 67 for the whole data set). Furthermore, none of the sociology/communication papers appeared in the clusters of Figure 6 (citation relations) or those of Figure 7 (co-author networks). As in the case of economics, such a pattern was somewhat expected, given the minimal number of sociology/communications publications identified in the sample. Several of the keywords of Figure 9 (notably, some in the red cluster along with “sustainability,” “behavior,” “information,” “perceptions,” “values,” and “work”) were typical within sociology/communications.

The scarcity of articles focusing on digital sustainability in the top-ranked sociology/communications journals suggests that, while the fields may examine sustainability and digital society in-depth, sociology and communication have not yet engaged as profoundly in the overlapping area of digital sustainability. This finding was apparent compared to the more developed coverage of digital sustainability in in business and management. Beyond economic and financial benchmarks, the SDGs contain many areas of social development for a sustainable future, including education, health, gender equity, and the overall development of civil society. Therefore, the need is clear for greater exploration of the sociological and communications (technical or otherwise) aspects of digital sustainability.

Looking at the 186 articles published in the business and management domains and journals, our findings established that the field and publications were scattered and fragmented. For instance, finance-related topics (in finance journals) measured the impact or effects of digital sustainability from a financial perspective. Operations-related journals concentrated on operational challenges and solutions. Similarly, marketing, strategy, and general management journals were inclusive of scholarship on digital sustainability, as scholars successfully framed research questions as relevant to those fields.



9. Conclusions

This article used two tools, VOSviewer and CitNetExplorer, to identify groups (clusters) of related publications, authors, and journals from four disciplines — economics, management/business, sociology, and information systems) — in digital sustainability. Visualizations from both tools demonstrated a low number of sociology-related articles and a low count of economics papers related to digital sustainability. Instead, we found much more developed coverage of digital sustainability in management/business.

The reasons for this narrower focus in economics and sociology are manifold. In economics, the small number was because almost all business and management subjects borrowed heavily from economics or had a strong base in economics. There was a heavy overlap on the topic of digital sustainability. It was always challenging to publish in pure economics journals compared to business and management. In addition, the primary reliance on the economics grounded theoretical lenses and foundations of the topic, such as digital sustainability, strengthened our argument for an overlap. For example, the central tenets of sustainability relied on the allocation of resources; economists argued that such allocation of scarce resources would be managed better by businesses and end-users stakeholders. However, not many scholars based their research in economics solely. Hence, a higher number of papers appeared in mainstream business and management journals, as opposed to pure economics journals. Even environmental or natural resources topics were framed in a multi-disciplinary manner. That said, economists should strive to publish more digital sustainability-related work in purely economics journals.

For a low count of sociology-related articles, the same arguments could be made. Business and management disciplines borrowed from sociology, mainly as digital sustainability affected many sections of society. The case of overlapping between domain areas of sociology and business and management was also evident. One could argue that digital sustainability was a new evolving topic, and its impact and implication on society have been and will be profound. Hence, sociology-based journals need to be targetted by sociologists as well as business and management scholars. The extent to which the process of building new knowledge as a means for supporting sustainable development goals needs further investigation. Research on the sustainability of digital artifacts appears to be in its infancy (Stuermer, et al., 2017).

Overall, we feel that although each domain played a central role in meeting sustainable development challenges, they have been insufficiently developed to achieve the desired sustainable outcomes. In other words, to achieve progress in digital sustainability, more robust collaboration patterns need to be established among all four disciplines. We envisage that digital sustainability as a field of study will mature over time as ideas, and their appearance in print, converge. End of article


About the authors

Dr. Gagan Deep Sharma teaches in the University School of Management Studies (USMS) of Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University (GGSIPU) in New Delhi, India.
E-mail: gagan [dot] is [dot] sharma [at] gmail [dot] com

Dr. Dimitrios Reppas is an assistant professor of economics in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi (UAE).
E-mail: dimitrios [dot] reppas [at] ku [dot] ac [dot] ae

Prof. Dr. Glenn Muschert is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences at Khalifa University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, UAE.
E-mail: glenn [dot] muschert [at] ku [dot] ac [dot] ae

Prof. Dr. Vijay Pereira is Full Professor of International and Strategic Human Capital Management at NEOMA Business School in Reims, France.
E-mail: vijay [dot] pereira [at] neoma-bs [dot] fr



1. Tranfield, et al., 2003, p. 214.

2. That was for an article from the Management discipline: C. Oliver, 1997. “Sustainable competitive advantage: Combining institutional and resource-based views,” Strategic Management Journal, volume 18, number 9, pp. 697–713.

3. M. Kremer and E. Miguel, 2007. “The illusion of sustainability,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, volume 122, number 3, pp. 1,007–1,065; doi:

4. P.B. Kenen, 1997. “Preferences, domains and sustainability,” American Economic Review, volume 87, number 2, pp. 211–213.

5. A third, more interdisciplinary field of reserch, named ecological economics, has also emerged in parallel with environmental and resource economics. Ecological economics is also concerned with sustainability; nevertheless, the seminal work of ecological economics departs from that of environmental and resource Economics (most ecological economists tend to have been trained as ecologists rather than as economists).

6. E. Minton, C. Lee, U. Orth, C.-H. Kim, and L. Kahle, 2012. “Sustainable marketing and social media: A cross-country analysis of motives for sustainable behaviors,” Journal of Advertising, volume 41, number 4, pp. 69–84; doi:

7. Y. Ryoo, N.K. Hyun, and Y. Sung, 2017. “The effect of descriptive norms and construal level on consumers’ sustainable behaviors,” Journal of Advertising, volume 46, number 4, pp. 536–549; doi:



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Table 1: List of top 10 journals, per SCImago ranking, for each discipline.
Top journals in economicsTop journals in management/businessTop journals in IT/ISTop journals in sociology/communication
Quarterly Journal of EconomicsJournal of FinanceMIS Quarterly: Management Information SystemsPolitical Communication
Journal of Political EconomyReview of Financial StudiesBig Data & SocietyJournal of Advertising
Journal of FinanceAcademy of Management AnnalsInformation Systems ResearchJournal of Communication
EconometricaJournal of Financial EconomicsInternational Journal of Information ManagementBig Data & Society
Review of Economic StudiesJournal of Labor EconomicsJournal of Management Information SystemsApplied Linguistics
American Economic ReviewAcademy of Management JournalJournal of Strategic Information SystemsCommunication Methods and Measures
Review of Financial StudiesPersonnel PsychologyIEEE Internet of Things JournalNew Media & Society
Journal of Financial EconomicsJournal of MarketingOmegaHuman Communication Research
Journal of Labor EconomicsStrategic Management JournalInformation and ManagementPublic Opinion Quarterly
American Economic Journal: Applied EconomicsJournal of Consumer ResearchEuropean Journal of Operational ResearchDigital Journalism



Editorial history

Received 10 September 2021; accepted 8 October 2021.

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”Investigating digital sustainability: A retrospective bibliometric analysis of literature leading to future research directions” by Gagan Deep Sharma, Dimitrios Reppas, Glenn Muschert, Vijay Pereira is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Investigating digital sustainability: A retrospective bibliometric analysis of literature leading to future research directions
by Gagan Deep Sharma, Dimitrios Reppas, Glenn Muschert, and Vijay Pereira.
First Monday, Volume 26, Number 11 - 1 November 2021