Research Article: Where communities intermingle, diversity grows – The evolution of topics in ecosystem service research

Date Published: September 28, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Nils Droste, Dalia D’Amato, Jessica J. Goddard, Wolfgang Glanzel.


We analyze how the content of ecosystem service research has evolved since the early 1990s. Conducting a computational bibliometric content analysis we process a corpus of 14,118 peer-reviewed scientific article abstracts on ecosystem services (ES) from Web of Science records. To provide a comprehensive content analysis of ES research literature, we employ a latent Dirichlet allocation algorithm. For three different time periods (1990–2000, 2001–2010, 2011–2016), we derive nine main ES topics arising from content analysis and elaborate on how they are related over time. The results show that natural science-based ES research analyzes oceanic, freshwater, agricultural, forest, and soil ecosystems. Pollination and land cover emerge as traceable standalone topics around 2001. Social science ES literature demonstrates a reflexive and critical lens on the role of ES research and includes critiques of market-oriented perspectives. The area where social and natural science converge most is about land use systems such as agriculture. Overall, we provide evidence of the strong natural science foundation, the highly interdisciplinary nature of ES research, and a shift in social ES research towards integrated assessments and governance approaches. Furthermore, we discuss potential reasons for observable topic developments.

Partial Text

The ecosystem services (ES) concept was developed in the 1970s and 1980s by conservation biologists and ecological economists to encourage decision-makers to recognize and attend to socio-ecological linkages [1–2]. The field has grown exponentially since the late 1990s [3–6]. The concept was quickly adopted as a research frontier and boundary object for evaluating social-ecological systems and as a basis for managing environmental change [3,7–8]. Generally, ecosystem services describe contributions from ecosystems to human well-being, and they have been categorized into ‘provisioning’, ‘regulation and maintenance’, and ‘cultural’ services [9]. The concept thus covers topics as wide-ranging as agricultural production (a provisioning service), control of erosion rates (a regulating service), and amenities of a cultivated landscape (a cultural service), to name just a few.

Several reviews on ES exist, and we employ several of their insights to structure our analyses and relate our results to their findings. Gómez-Baggethun et al. [6] articulated four stages of ES research, practice, and economic theory: utilitarian framing (1960s – 1990s), monetization (begun 1960s – accelerating in 1990s), appropriation, and exchange (both began in the 1970s – accelerating in 2000s). They find that the utilitarian framing of the initially rather metaphorically used ES concept could open up the way for “market logics in the field of nature conservation” (pp. 1215 in [6]). Dempsey and Robertson (pp. 773 in [28]) furthermore point out that tensions between rather neoliberal doctrines and “other elements of global development strategy” can be found in ES research, and that these create entry points for critical scholars who aim to engage and change the discourse. Similarly, Raymond et al. [8] argue that while a focus on direct use and economic quantification is sometimes appropriate, a more diverse set of metaphors for human–environment relationships broadens the scope and would allow for a better deliberation between perspectives.

This article is based on a reproducible quantitative analysis of the abstracts of ES literature available in the Web of Science, from which we qualitatively evaluate the evolution of research topics over time. We aimed to capture and display the internal, thematic diversity of ES research through an innovative method, and thus we focus our discussion on both the content and development of topics in ES research (section 5.1) and the value and limitations of the LDA method (section 5.2).

We have analyzed the Web of Science core collection for the search term “ecosystem service*”, resulting in a dataset of over 14,000 articles We used a computational science method, latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA) analysis to derive main topics from the articles’ abstracts. We analyzed three periods of ES research, from 1990 to 2016 and qualitatively linked the topics between the periods in order to display research (dis-)continuities.




0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments