Fun with Google Ngrams: what’s the most popular subfield of ecology?

The Google Ngram viewer lets you search Google’s huge corpus of scanned English-language books for mentions of any word or phrase. It’s a fun way to track the rise and fall of words, people, and ideas.

Below are the results you get if you search on various subfields of ecology: population ecology, community ecology, ecosystem ecology, evolutionary ecology, behavioral ecology, physiological ecology, landscape ecology, and restoration ecology. Click the image for a larger version.

ecology subfield ngram

Apparently, none of these subfields existed before 1945. And landscape ecology replaced population ecology as the most popular field of ecology in 1996. And physiological ecology has been slowly dying since about 1990. At least in book form. You can totally tell all that just from eyeballing ngrams, right? 😉

While I haven’t shown it, “ecology” shows up far more than any subfield, not surprisingly.

I looked at “macroecology” too, but I didn’t have the heart to include the results, because Brian would find them too depressing. 😉

Playing with Google Ngrams is one of the world’s great timewasters. Don’t click through if you’re trying to have a productive day!

15 thoughts on “Fun with Google Ngrams: what’s the most popular subfield of ecology?

  1. This is a really neat tool for making informal comparisons of different research fields over time. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. It reminds me of a tool on the The SCImago Journal & Country Rank website that can be used to compare article publication and citation patterns among different fields. See the following link for a post on how I used it to look at the citation patterns of ecological modeling papers over time, relative to other bodies of environmental research:

      • I read that, and also this:
        The results are going to be biased based on how they make their book selections over different time periods. For example they note in reference to the collection titled “English One MiIlion”:

        “All are in English with dates ranging from 1500 to 2008. No more than about 6000 books were chosen from any one year, which means that all of the scanned books from early years are present, and books from later years are randomly sampled. The random samplings reflect the subject distributions for the year (so there are more computer books in 2000 than 1980).”

        That’s going to bias the results, to some unknown degree.

      • Correction to the above. There are actually two distinct sources of potential bias here. The first is how Google decides exactly which books to scan into Google Books, (except for the really old stuff, for which they apparently scanned everything) which one could probably find out with some investigation. The second is the fact that the number of books in different topical categories that are even available to be scanned by Google, can (and does) change over time. Both potential biases are unknown without further research.

      • I have no idea why I’m spending time on this, but In the interest of getting it right, they did not in fact scan all early books, they rather *include* all the early books that were scanned, in the analysis, instead of a sample thereof.

    • Doesn’t make me feel better about declining though. There are those who say ecology had its peak moment (as defined by public mindshare) with the environmental movement of the 1970s and downhill since. I haven’t seen anything in yours and Jim’s analyses that disprove this claim.

      • If I’d known you’d take this so seriously, I wouldn’t have kidded you about the rarity of the “macroecology” n-gram! Go to the follow-up post and focus on the “good ecology vs. bad ecology” n-gram instead. You’ll feel better. 😉

  2. Having had a productive day I feel I can justify playing with this 🙂 A comparison of “biogeography” and “macroecology” from 1800 to 2008 is very interesting and I’ll leave it to others to work out what it means. But “ecology” seems to be declining as a word from the mid-90s. Can that be true? Is it symptomatic of greater specialisation in the field?

    • Not sure. Many terms I looked at, though not all, seem to decline over the last few years, which could be part of the explanation, and I suppose could have something to do with how the results are scaled.

      I’ll throw up another post with a bunch of them soon, and then leave others to puzzle out whether they’re looking at meaningful data, or the time series equivalent of Rorschach blots. 😉

  3. Macroecology is the subdiscipline for the 21st century. I have to claim that because it is clearly not the subdiscipline of the 20th century. 😉

    Seriously though, macroecology is a weird little word for a discipline. Does it include biogeography or paleocology? Because both those terms are among the top fields in ecology by google N-gram. I know almost nobody (except me and about 4 other people) who identify primarily as a macroecologist which is a rather strong contrast with say community ecologist or ecosystem ecologist, which are identity defining words. Most people I know who are macroecologists call themselves community ecologists or global change ecologists or biodiversity scientists or spatial ecologists or …Notwithstanding the name, anybody who went to the International Biogeography Society or the Gordon Conference on Metabolic Ecology saw tons of posters that are clearly macroecology (also true even at ESA or BES).

    I think there is probably an interesting sociology of science question about what makes for identity defining labels. I think you could argue behavioral ecology is in a somewhat similar in-between state as macroecology (although clearly further along the curve). Why do some fields get strong convergence on a shared label, while others don’t? Is it because of strong personalities leading the coalescence. Ecosystem ecology and population biology both had really big charismatic names pushing them (MacArthur & Wilson for the former, Odum, ONeill, Mooney for the latter). Is it timing – most of the major recognized subdisciplines of ecology emerged by the 60s or 70s at the latest. Only more conservation oriented fields (conservation biology, landscape ecology, restoration ecology) have emerged since. Or – does it just take 50 years for a field to truly coalesce and become identity defining, by which time it is already on its way out?

    • Interesting, I never really thought about people not self-identifying as macroecologists.

      I have an old related post, pushing back against Jarrett Byrnes’ suggestion that “synthesis ecology” might be a distinct scientific discipline, in part because some people want to self-identify as “synthesis ecologists”.

      Your example of macroecology is interesting in that it suggests that there can be a distinct subfield of scientific inquiry, pursued by many people, without those people self-identifying as practitioners. On the other hand, I’d deny that the same could be said of “synthesis ecology”. A lot of people may do things that could be called “synthesis ecology”, but I’d deny that it constitutes a distinct subfield, no matter whether anyone self-identifies as a “synthesis ecologist” or not. All of which just means that boundary-setting and self-identification in science is a complicated business, I guess.

  4. Pingback: April Flump’s Day! | BioDiverse Perspectives

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