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A Topic Network Analysis of the System Turn in the Environmental Sciences

Rabitz, F., Olteanu, A., Jurkevičienė, J., & Budžytė, A. (2021). A Topic Network Analysis of the System Turn in the Environmental Sciences. Scientometrics, online first.


The concept of Earth system science denotes a shift in the scientific discourse from disciplinary accounts of isolated components of the global environment towards the holistic and interdisciplinary treatment of their complex, functional interactions. We measure to what extent the environmental scientific literature of the past three decades reflects this system turn. Our initial dataset consists of 133,670 articles published in 95 relevant journals since 1990. We apply a combination of topic modelling and network analysis. Correlated Topic Models identify latent themes (“topics”) in the scientific discourse as well as intertopic correlations. This allows the generation of topic networks and thus the application of network-analytic techniques. We generate and analyze 2 topic networks. The first network focuses on climate linkages in a subset of our corpus consisting only of environmental journals without a climate-specific orientation: as the climate system is constitutional for the notion of Earth system science, a system turn should reflect itself in strong linkages between climate- and non-climate environmental topics. The second network, based on the full dataset, applies community detection to identify broader topical clusters. Here, we expect the system turn to manifest itself in communities with high topical diversity regarding the components of the global environment as well as types of human-nature interactions, rather than reflecting the boundaries between broader research fields. Our results show that climate topics are comparatively weakly connected and less integrated into broader thematic packages than other topics; that linkages frequently reflect conceptual debates rather than functional interactions between substantive environmental components; and that the scientific discourse splits into 4 broader domains, two of those being topically homogeneous and the other two comprising only marginally diverse topics. We conclude that the concept of Earth system science is primarily aspirational in nature rather than reflecting an empirical shift in the structure of the scientific discourse.

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