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Research on ESG is among the most downloaded © Thana Prasongsin/Getty Images

In the most widely read research into sustainability from business school academics, three letters dominate: ESG.

Articles on environmental, social and governance factors were the most popular of all the pieces downloaded by organisations over the past three years, according to an analysis by the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) for the FT.

SSRN’s data provides an indicator of interest in research, and its impact, beyond academia. It also reflects a diverse range of critical perspectives focused on topics including investment performance and disclosure. The papers themselves highlighted a good deal of scepticism about writing on ESG.

Across the top 50 most downloaded papers since the start of 2020 written by researchers in schools of business, management and economics around the world, most cite ESG in their titles and nearly all refer directly to the topic in their contents — with a notable focus on the “E” of environment and climate change.

Topping the list of downloaded work was Valuing ESG: Doing Good or Sounding Good? by Bradford Cornell at UCLA Anderson Graduate School of Management in California and Aswath Damodaran at the Stern School of Business at New York University, subsequently published in the Journal of Impact and ESG Investing, in 2020.

FT Business School Insights: Sustainability

Research by leading professors, features and academic and business opinion. Read the report here.

Cornell and Damodaran caution that “the hype regarding ESG has vastly outrun the reality of both what it is and what it can deliver”. Despite “cheerleaders” among consultants, bankers and investment managers with potential to make money from the concept, “claims of the payoffs [are] based on research that is ambiguous and inconclusive, if not outright inconsistent”.

ESG discussion dominates even in far more recently produced papers, which might be expected to have not yet accumulated such significant downloads. In second place is The End of ESG, in the journal Financial Management, by Alex Edmans at London Business School, only released late last year.

“ESG doesn’t need a specialised term,” writes Edmans. “It’s nothing special since it’s no better or worse than other intangible assets that create long-term financial and social returns, such as management quality, corporate culture, and innovative capability.”

In third place, Philip Krueger at the University of Geneva and his co-authors argue in The Effects of Mandatory ESG Disclosure Around the World, that “ESG disclosure regulation improves the information environment and has beneficial capital market effects.”

The fourth-place paper on SSRN, led by Zacharias Sautner at Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, and titled Firm-level Climate Change Exposure, uses machine learning to identify the attention paid to climate change exposure by participants in earnings calls — conference calls between company managements, analysts, investors and the media about financial results. Sautner et al generate insights useful in predicting important outcomes, including job creation in disruptive green technologies and green patenting.

Top 20 SSRN papers on ESG by downloads
RankTitle of research
1Valuing ESG: Doing Good or Sounding Good? (2020) Cornell, Damodaran
2The End of ESG. (2023) Edmans
3The Effects of Mandatory ESG Disclosure Around the World. (2023) Krueger, Sautner, Tang, Zhong
4Firm-level Climate Change Exposure. (2023) Sautner, Van Lent, Vilkov, Zhang
5Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainable Finance: A Review of the Literature. (2020) Liang, Renneboog
6Why is Corporate Virtue in the Eye of the Beholder? The Case of ESG Ratings. (2021) Christensen, Serafeim, Sikochi
7Handbook of Sustainable Finance. (2023) Roncalli
8ESG: Hyperboles and Reality. (2021) Serafeim
9ESG Confusion and Stock Returns: Tackling the Problem of Noise. (2023) Berg, Kölbel, Pavlova, Rigobon
10Global Pricing of Carbon-Transition Risk. (2022) Bolton, Kacperczyk
11Does Sustainability Generate Better Financial Performance? Review, Meta-analysis, and Propositions. (2022) Atz, Van Holt, Liu, Bruno
12Applying Economics — Not Gut Feel — To ESG. (2023) Edmans
13Stock Price Reactions to ESG News: The Role of ESG Ratings and Disagreement. (2021) Serafeim, Yoon
14Do Responsible Investors Invest Responsibly? (2022) Gibson, Glossner, Krueger, Matos, Steffen
15The Making and Meaning of ESG. (2022) Pollman
16War and Policy: Investor Expectations on the Net-Zero Transition. (2023) Deng, Leoppold, Wagner, Wang
17ESG Ratings: A Compass without Direction (2022) Larcker, Pomorski, Tayan, Watts
18Who Pays for Sustainability? An Analysis of Sustainability-Linked Bonds. (2023) Kölbel, Lambillon
19Analyzing Active Fund Managers’ Commitment to ESG: Evidence from the UN Principles for Responsible Investment. (2021) Kim, Yoon
20ESG Lending (2023) Kim, Kumar, Lee, Oh

Most uploaded papers were subsequently published in peer reviewed academic journals or policy papers produced by academic institutions. They they include the Handbook of Sustainable Finance by Thierry Roncalli from Amundi Asset Management and the University of Evry — signalling demand for learning about a fast-evolving field.

Taken on their own, downloads from SSRN’s platform are an imperfect measure of research impact. They are not comprehensive, since they require authors to voluntarily upload their papers. To respect copyright, they should be original unpublished work rather than the final edited versions in journals after going through peer review, which may also be updated or corrected.

In addition, they are only a partial sampling of readership: they record papers downloaded fully rather than simply abstracts read online; readers may also consult the papers elsewhere, including in the final published version rather than on SSRN; and they may include readers drawn because of effective promotion such as on social media, rather than because of the merits of the work itself.

However, for the FT analysis, SSRN identified download data for readers based in organisations more likely to have influence or to be in decision-making roles — whether in government, business or non-profit organisations. Many of those examining the sustainability research were in banks, investment institutions, rating agencies and regulators.

Given the lengthy delays between submitting a paper and its publication in a journal — sometimes three or more years — the SSRN platform has the advantage of providing a much fresher snapshot of recent insights. Its data offers other applications, too. It identifies the individual business school academics writing about sustainability whose papers are most downloaded. Alongside the authors of the top individual papers cited above, others whose contributions to multiple-author papers featured prominently include George Serafeim at Harvard Business School and Aaron Yoon at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Illinois.

SSRN also signals the universities to which the downloaded authors were affiliated, providing an indicator of those institutions that are producing some of the most widely read research in the field. These include the European Corporate Governance Institute, the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the Swiss Finance Institute.

Downloads may be only a partial indicator of impact, but they can offer clues for those seeking to filter the vast amount of academic research — and find a relevant subset that resonates with fellow practitioners.

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