Why do some bandwagons in ecology get rolling much faster than others?

In comments recently, Jeff Ollerton asked an interesting question: why does scientific interest in certain topics take off suddenly, while interest in others builds over an extended period? You might think it would have something to do with a key triggering event, such as publication of a pathbreaking paper or book, prompting a step change in interest in the topic. Sometimes that happens. But in other cases it’s not clear why some bandwagons get rolling quickly while others take time to build momentum.

(Aside: for purposes of this post, “bandwagon” just means “topic lots of people work on”. No negative connotations.)

Topics that took off like a rocket:

Microcosms” took off suddenly in 1996, the same year as an Ecology special feature on the topic. Thought I suspect that the special feature was more of a symptom of imminent take-off than a cause of it. Note that it’s still a sudden jump, albeit a smaller one, if you omit the special feature papers themselves from the count.

microcosm papers in leading fundamental ecology journals

“Microcosm” papers in leading fundamental ecology journals, 1902-2016.

The number of papers on pollination ecology in the leading journals publishing on that topic jumped suddenly in 1991 for no obvious reason, though the number of papers grew steadily both before and after that as well. The figure below is from Jeff Ollerton’s post on this:


Pollinat* papers in 7 leading journals publishing on pollination ecology.

Topics in which interest built more slowly:

Simon Leather suggests that interest in beetles feeding on dead wood took off rapidly, either without any obvious trigger or as a very delayed reaction to some trigger. But I’m not so sure, I’d call it more of a gradual takeoff rather than a step change. You be the judge: below is Simon’s data on the number of papers per year in all journals on “saproxylic” or “saproxylic beetles”:


Papers on saproxylic or saproxylic beetles, all journals

Interest in eco-evolutionary dynamics has grown fast since what I would guess was the triggering event (the work of Nelson Hairston Jr., Steve Ellner, and colleagues), but there’s no obvious step change, at least to my eye:


Papers on eco-evolution* in leading fundamental ecology and general science journals.

Interest in macroecology has an obvious triggering event: Jim Brown’s 1995 book. But the annual number of papers on the topic in leading fundamental ecology and general science journals grew more or less linearly for almost a decade before plateauing at 30-40ish papers/year. Unless you want to argue for a step change in 2007 maybe?


Papers on macroecolog* in leading fundamental ecology and general science journals

The annual number of papers on mesocosms has been growing steadily for over 20 years with no plateau in sight. But this might be bad data. Henry Wilbur, Peter Morin, and others would doing what would now be called mesocosm work back in the 70s and 80s, but apparently without using the term “mesocosm”. Well, either that, or we’re running up against the limits of Web of Science records, which don’t record abstracts that far back.


Papers on mesocosm* in leading fundamental ecology and general science journals.

Interest in the Moran effect dates from Royama’s classic 1992 book, Analytical Population Dynamics. But it didn’t trigger a sudden burst of publications. Rather, interest has grown steadily-ish since 1992, with no sign of a plateau (though you could argue for a sudden jump in 1999 too):

moran effect

Papers on the “Moran effect” in all journals, 1967-2016.

Intermediate cases:

Interest in the Price equation grew very slowly following publication of Price’s now-classic 1970 Nature paper, as measured this time by number of citations to Price 1970. But it looks to me like there was an increase the growth rate of citations following Steve Frank’s 1997 Evolution paper on the Price equation:

price equation

Annual number of papers citing Price 1970, all journals.

Your mileage may vary on whether there was a sudden jump in interest in metacommunities in the wake of the Leibold et al. 2004 review of metacommunity theory, or whether it was more like stochastic exponential growth from the late 90s to the mid-oughts.


metacommun* papers in leading fundamental ecology, biogeography, and general science journals

The bottom line:

After this exhaustive* research, it looks to me like true step changes in interest in a topic are fairly rare, at least as manifested in the publication record. No doubt that’s in large part because, even if a bunch of people suddenly become interested in a topic, they’re not likely to all suddenly publish on it at exactly the same time. Which makes the rare step changes like microcosms and pollination ecology all the more striking.

It would be interesting to compare the growth rates of interest in various topics. If you were doing it right, you’d also want to correct for growth in the overall literature, which I haven’t bothered to do here. It’d also be interesting to compare how long growth is sustained. I’m struck that interest in some of these topics has grown steadily for decades, whereas others plateaued in a decade or less.

Looking forward to your comments. What do you think governs the rate at which interest in a topic takes off, the length of time for which growth in interest is sustained, and the level at which interest plateaus?

*Seriously, I’ve been search WoS for 10 minutes and I’m totally whipped. 🙂

12 thoughts on “Why do some bandwagons in ecology get rolling much faster than others?

  1. You must be shattered 🙂 Seriously, though, rather than eyeballing the data it strikes me that one could use piecewise regression to statistically assess whether there are sudden breaks in the rate of change.

    • You get the background research and statistical analysis you pay for on this blog. Well, unless it’s one of Meg’s posts, in which case you also get pretty figures thrown in for free. 🙂

  2. You _could_ use piecewise regression; but having checked a bunch of topics looking for breaks, post-hoc testing wouldn’t be valid. Another snarky way of saying this is: what is the probability of inspecting 9 curves each of which is produced by steady growth with superimposed noise, and finding at least two events somewhere in the curves that look like sudden increases?

    So I’m not even sure if sudden bandwagons exist… although intuitively I’m “sure they just have to”!

      • “You _could_ use piecewise regression; but having checked a bunch of topics looking for breaks, post-hoc testing wouldn’t be valid.”

        Not sure that I follow you Steve; I was suggesting that every topic could be analysed this way, not just the ones that looked as though there was a break. Plus they could all be compared against other regression models to see which had the best fit. Or have I missed your point?

      • Even if you just checked a bunch of topics at random (which I didn’t–I only searched on topics that I thought might exhibit step changes in interest), and then ran them all through the same set of pre-planned regressions, I doubt you’d find much convincing evidence for break points. Just because the time series are so short and noisy. Even if you do find a few significant break points, would you really be confident that those weren’t just unusual realizations of a noisy exponential growth process?

      • Perhaps if you a priori decided what scale of magnitude defined the break, e.g. a jump of x%? I’m _pretty_ convinced that my “cliff” for pollination ecology is a real break, but haven;t tested it.

  3. I suppose that for a lot of attractive ideas there would be an exponential growth phase. Lags at getting grants and grad student support would eventually lead to dramatic increases in citations when the community grew big enough. Sometimes the lags can be short (polywater and cold fusion for example). It might be interesting to look at the curves that go down rapidly as well. I’m not sure that threshold events could be identified for either end in most cases.

  4. Perhaps one reason some bandwagons take off so quickly is that sometimes a bandwagon comes along and provides a cool new name for research people were already doing. If Gauss had performed his experiments after 1996, he probably would have called his experiments microcosms too.

    • Interesting suggestion–what takes off suddenly isn’t production of new wine, it’s production of new bottles in which to put old wine! Not sure that necessarily leads to very rapid bandwagon take-off, though. New terminology *could* be widely adopted very quickly, but not necessarily. As I noted in the post, I suspect “mesocosm” is a term that was only widely adopted after a fair bit of mesocosm research was already underway. But even if that’s right, the term “mesocosm” seems not to have taken off extremely rapidly, so there’s not much sign of a step change in the number of papers using the term.

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