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How the ICE Civil Engineering journal helped me go bold on sustainability

Date
11 December 2023

Paula McMahon, editorial panel chair of the ICE flagship journal, reflects on her unexpected publishing legacy.

How the ICE Civil Engineering journal helped me go bold on sustainability
The first and last special issue that Paula championed. Image credit: Paula McMahon

In 2018, I was surprised to be invited to 'put my hat in the ring’ for a position on the panel of the ICE’s flagship journal, Civil Engineering.

Publishing was something I hadn’t dreamed of doing. I even wondered if the invite was sent to the wrong person!

I was delighted and terrified in equal measure when I received the opportunity.

At my very first meeting, my bubble was burst a little as I found out that my invite was sent to recent female ICE Fellows (I’d become one about a year before).

Wondering whether my position on the panel wasn’t necessarily on merit made me uncomfortable.

Wanting to prove myself

On reflection, maybe it was the need to prove myself that caused me to sheepishly volunteer to write an editorial for the May 2019 issue.

At the time, I’d never been one for shining a bright light on gender. So, when asked to thread the INWED theme, #TransformTheFuture, into my editorial, I was initially uneasy.

In writing my editorial, I started to see the true value of being part of the panel: influence.

This publication is wide reaching, and part of our collective legacy as civil engineers as reference material for generations to come.

Writing about diverse teams

In my editorial, I wrote more generally about the advantages of diverse teams in their entirety, as everyone should be valued and made welcome.

We are all key in working towards building diverse, inclusive and collaborative teams regardless of our project role. Each of us can make small but significant steps towards change every day.

Let us encourage the very best from our current teams and work towards future successes with project teams that more closely reflect the diverse society we serve.

Paula McMahon

Gaining confidence in the role

In my second meeting, with the enthusiasm from realising the potential of the platform, my volunteering went a little mad.

I not only volunteered to review a whole issue but somehow ended up agreeing to represent the editorial panel at the bi-annual ICE Editor Convention.

I also pitched an idea for a special issue on the climate change challenge to industry.

Talking climate change

Writing this in 2023 it may sound crazy, but in 2019 the collective enthusiasm for climate change as a topic was low.

I drafted a mock call for papers:

Civil Engineering is widely distributed to ICE members, and as such, it’s the ideal forum to implement positive change.

As engineers we tend to rely on codes which tell us what to do, this is no longer good enough. As ICE Publishing we need to face this critical issue head on.

Paula McMahon

The panel was still unconvinced that it would gain enough author enthusiasm, but by December that year, the slot for ‘Climate change challenge to industry’ was secured.

By then, others were waking up, and the 2020 State of the Nation theme of ‘Infrastructure and the 2050 Net-Zero Target’ was creating wider discussion.

We received enough interest and accepted enough abstracts to be confident in the success of the special issue.

The world of civil engineering was about to change for good.

Becoming chair

In February 2021, the panel was seeking applications to take over from Philippe Bouillard as chair when his term ended.

Having been on the panel since 2017, Philippe had left big shoes to fill.

The next chair would have to have a vision, and I hoped this would include a link to sustainability in everything we did.

Encouraged by other panel members, I applied and presented my aims as panel chair for the next three years in May 2021.

I was keen we consider our impact through metrics. Our readership numbers indicated out potential impact, which averaged 6,000 article downloads each month.

Making changes

It was clear to me that the wheels of publishing turn slowly. However, the world view was changing rapidly.

The pending introduction of a new editorial system opened the opportunity to make some radical changes.

I believed that the panel should include more than ICE Fellows to aid forward thinking and decision making, so we diversified beyond gender equality.

While being trained, we took the opportunity to fully update the guidance and asked panel members to look beyond their specialisms and consider the wider ICE vision.

Aligning with the UN SDGs

However, even I was surprised when my suggestion to catalogue papers against the UN SDGs was met with enthusiasm.

The staff grasped the sustainable and inclusive approaches with open arms, making guidance accessible and mocking up graphics to go with the SDG cataloguing.

This approach was met with such unexpected enthusiasm by the Civil Engineering Panel that I presented this as good practice at the 2021 Editors Convention, where all international editors agreed to adopt it.

This exceeded my wildest expectations.

Lessons learned

As I reach the end of my five years on the panel, three as honorary editor and panel chair, there are lessons from this experience that every Civil Engineering reader can take:

  • Have big sustainable ideas and share them: the world is changing fast and what seemed crazy a short time ago is potentially tomorrow’s new normal.
  • Purposeful and deliberate step changes creates diverse teams: wider thinking helps with positive actions, so park the discomfort and create a transparent process.
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge inaction through persuasive arguments: make it relatable to the audience and address their objections.
  • You may be surprised at the speed that others will follow and even super-size the idea: someone has to be the first.
  • Make the most of your platform: review your current and potential impact to make positive changes.

I’ve seen how having a sustainable vision and being bold has helped me to leave a publishing legacy I’m proud of.

I’m certain the incoming co-chairs, Claudia Currie and Meshi Taka, will have their own vision and be bold enough to leave a legacy of their own.

Read the Civil Engineering journal online

Reading the journal can help members keep up to date with research and practice in civil engineering worldwide.

It’s free for ICE members to download.

Access the journal
  • Paula McMahon, #TheLine founder and regional supervising officer at Sir Robert McAlpine