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Peer-Review Record

Transfer for Sustainable Development at Higher Education Institutions—Untapped Potential for Education for Sustainable Development and for Societal Transformation

Sustainability 2020, 12(7), 2925; https://doi.org/10.3390/su12072925
Reviewer 1: Anonymous
Reviewer 2: Anonymous
Reviewer 3: Anonymous
Reviewer 4: Anonymous
Sustainability 2020, 12(7), 2925; https://doi.org/10.3390/su12072925
Received: 17 February 2020 / Revised: 1 April 2020 / Accepted: 2 April 2020 / Published: 7 April 2020

Round 1

Reviewer 1 Report

The paper approaches an interesting topic, with the aim to introduce a new perspective of sustainability related issues in the field of HEIs.

However, before it can be accepted for publishing, a few things are worth considering, in order to bring an improvement on the overall quality of the article.

First of all, both the introduction section and the abstract could benefit of a better underline of the specific purpose of the article also in terms of practical implications and potential benefits that may be expected (as these issues are rather vague and too general).

Although it was mentioned, more clarity is needed to be added on the originality aspect, on what exactly this article brings new to the scene, in comparison to what was already written on the topic.

Also, a better connection with the previous work of the authors that may include the mentioning of some case studies, can prove to be beneficial, with specific examples on the practical implications of the findings. 

By doing these, the overall value of the research and the results obtained can also be further emphasized in the conclusion (discussion) section.

Bottom line: the article is generally well written, has some value, but it contains too much theory and somehow becomes diluted. It needs more support from the practical implications' perspective in order to have a better (and real) scientific value. Unless this objective is achieved, in my opinion the paper remains on a too much theoretical level. Drawing of the simple scheme from Fig. 1 (which maybe can be further enhanced with details) and mentioning those six characteristics or analytical categories for describing sustainability transfer are fine, but not enough for a high and relevant scientific value required for a journal such as Sustainability. The paper needs to be more convincing, it needs more "weight" in this respect.

One last thing: in the Reference section, there are plenty of titles in German language, so as Sustainability Journal uses English, maybe would be a good idea they should be translated as well (or titles placed in brackets), in order for the international readers to comprehend them.

Author Response

Please find attached our responses to the critics.

We have revised large parts of the manuscript, especially the sections introduction, methods, results (completely revised) and conclusion.

Author Response File: Author Response.pdf

Reviewer 2 Report

Overall, this paper is well formulated.  There are a number of areas for improvement:

1.  The authors contend (line 64-66) that few activities have been carried out explicitly described as practitioner-university partnerships; however, that is not accurate.  The work of research-practice partnerships is well established in the research literature.  While they may not be as prevalent in this new area of sustainable development, they are well established in many fields including medicine, education, engineering, and business.  Using forms of participatory research approaches research-practice partnerships are thriving in many parts of the world.  This paper would benefit from the inclusion on the work of research-practice partnerships and the participatory forms of research arising from such collaborations.

2.  The authors contend they conducted a mixed-methods study through three phases: i) expert discussions and workshops, ii) survey of experts, and iii) empirical study on the implementation of sustainability transfer in teaching to identify a concrete teaching format.  No analysis or evidence of any research is presented.  Therefore claims and conclusions are presented with no supporting evidence from the research that the authors claim they undertook.  

I have rated the overall merit as low because no evidence is presented to support the claims or to guide the reader's understanding of the discussion beginning at line 618.  The topic is most timely and relevant; however, major revisions are required.

Author Response

Please, find attached our responses to the comments.

We revised large parts of the manuscript especially the sections introduction, methods, results (completely rewritten) and conclusion.

Author Response File: Author Response.pdf

Reviewer 3 Report

The authors undertook to address education for sustainable development in higher education institutions (HEI) and specifically focus on what they term “sustainability transfer” as a central concept for the link between the university and society at large. The paper outlines the characteristics of sustainability transfer, considers input from the authors’ research to support their analytical categories, and describes the instantiation of the ideas in project-based learning in courses. The subject of the paper is important and timely. Its strength is the explicit consideration of the transfer mechanisms and impacts in the university setting. The topics in the methodology, lines 248-255 and the paragraph lines 386-395 are important in framing the TD perspective for the educational practice.

Comments and suggestions on the significant problems in the paper:

  • Survey data and protocol should be presented more clearly. The information obtained is dispersed piecemeal in several sections of the paper, making it difficult to judge how widely applicable and valid the study is.
  • The ambiguity in the use of the term ”sustainability transfer” throughout the paper is problematic, perhaps this is particularly a problem in its use in English. The authors use the term to refer to a bidirectional exchange of knowledge at a minimum and at best along the lines of transdisciplinarity (TD). However, the term itself evokes the outmoded of knowledge transfer as a top-down or technocratic process. Throughout the paper, the notion of transfer is weakly related to TD and not sufficiently distinguished from the old discredited deficit model of knowledge transfer. The paper does talk about a mutual benefit, but not about mutual process of making meaning of the knowledge.
  • Important and clarifying literature would be advisable to better link this paper to existing work that addresses the role of HEI in regard to sustainable practice internally and in its educational responsibility. For example:

Marcus, Jean, Nicholas C. Coops, Shona Ellis, and John Robinson. 2015. “Embedding Sustainability Learning Pathways across the University.” Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 16 (October): 7–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2015.07.012.

  • Page 2, lines 58-60: “They operate in a field that is determined by societal problems and requirements and where they are confronted with “real life”, which is usually at odds with specialized disciplines and scientific theories.” I would argue that real life situations are not at odds with disciplines and scientific theories in general, rather that the disciplines and discipline limited theories are necessary but insufficient in addressing the complexity of real social-ecological systems.
  • Page 2, lines 64-66: “How can practitioner-university partnerships be described, analyzed and, if necessary, further developed? To date, few activities have been carried out explicitly described as such, there are hardly any well-founded scientific concepts and very few empirical studies available.” The latter sentence is a surprising and unsubstantiated claim. There is abundant literature, especially in the past 5+ years that directly presents concepts and case studies of TD research studies that involve university or research institute teams working in close collaboration with practitioners in specific contexts. In most of these cases, students (primarily graduate students, but also some undergrads and some postdocs) are key actors in the research. A couple of recent examples:
    • Brink, Ebba, Christine Wamsler, Maria Adolfsson, Monica Axelsson, Thomas Beery, Helena Björn, Torleif Bramryd, et al. 2018. “On the Road to ‘Research Municipalities’: Analysing Transdisciplinarity in Municipal Ecosystem Services and Adaptation Planning.” Sustainability Science 13 (3): 765–84. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-017-0499-0.
    • Papenfuss, Jason, and Eileen Merritt. 2019. “Pedagogical Laboratories: A Case Study of Transformative Sustainability Education in an Ecovillage Context.” Sustainability 11 (14): 3880. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11143880.
  • Page 5, lines 214-217: “Both the overview of practices and discourse at universities and an evaluation of academic literature show that sustainability transfer has so far hardly been explicitly addressed as an issue and does not play a significant role in university governance. There is not yet a science-based concept that can be used as a reference by the actors involved and for further empirical research.” While I agree that much more can and should be done in regard to the university governance toward integration of sustainability science in the broadest sense including humanities and arts, I also see and applaud the efforts and successes of Leuphana University, Arizona State University, University of British Columbia, University of Toronto, and Earth Institute of Columbia University, NY.
  • Page 10 lines 429-431: “At a minimum, explicit sustainability goals for the respective transfer activities must be formulated and the contribution may not be negative; no sustainability problems may arise or be compounded by sustainability transfers.” The latter clause in this sentence is problematic, first of all because it is stated as an imperative, and second because the uncertainty and potential for unintended consequences inherent in dealing with complex systems. This needs to be rewritten to be clear.
  • Page 14 lines 640-647: This paragraph is made up of poorly expressed and incomplete ideas. “Failure”, “mistakes” and learning from such experiences must therefore be framed differently in teaching, which shows the limits of the approach.” How does it show the limits of the approach?

 

 

Author Response

Please, find attached our responses to the comments.

We revised large parts of the manuscript especially the sections introduction, methods, results (completely rewritten) and conclusion.

Author Response File: Author Response.pdf

Reviewer 4 Report

Correct the error on page 6, line 242 - "netzwerk n".

The methodology is unclear as to the interviewees (experts and students). The text states that the interviews were conducted with seven transfer experts. What kind of experts? Why seven?
Working groups of four to six students are also referred to. How many working groups? What kind of students?

As mentioned in the paper, the non-university partners are transfer actors, but the study does not incorporate its inputs. At least they are not highlighted enough.

 

Author Response

Please, find attached our responses to the comments.

We revised large parts of the manuscript especially the sections introduction, methods, results (completely rewritten) and conclusion.

Author Response File: Author Response.pdf

Round 2

Reviewer 1 Report

Most of the suggestions have been addressed, the paper has now improved.

Author Response

Dear reviewer,

Thank you very much for your valuable and inspiring comments!

Reviewer 2 Report

I would like to commend the authors for the extensive revisions they have made to this paper.  I found myself captivated by the ideas and wanting a further discussion with them regarding their findings and discussion.  

The ways the authors have incorporated "sustainability transfer" is unique. I appreciated the ways in which they worked with the ideas from research-practice partnerships incorporating them into the sustainability literature. 

As the authors indicate, the methods section has undergone major revisions.  It is now evident how the findings and conclusions were arrived at.  With the presentation of analyzed data to support findings, scientific soundness has been established.

Congratulations on a strong revision. 

Author Response

Dear reviewer,

Thank you very much for your valuable and inspiring comments that motivated a major revision which was necessary!

Reviewer 3 Report

The authors' revisions are extensive, clear, and effective in addressing the my concerns with the initial manuscript. I think this paper is now in shape to make a good contribution to the literature and thinking about HEI and sustainability in education, research, and practice.

Author Response

Dear reviewer,

Thank you very much for your valuable and inspiring comments!

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