Researchers (also) caught in the adaptive cycle?

By Tibor Hartel

In the last days I scrolled Google Scholar profiles of various researchers. Looking to the citation metrics visualized by Google Scholar I was thinking about the possibility for interpreting citation metrics of researchers within the framework of the adaptive cycle of the resilience theory. If this trial makes you think and reflect – even for some short seconds – I consider this adventure successful.

Ecological systems are dynamic systems which go through four main phases: growth and exploitation (r), conservation (K), collapse or release (omega) and reorganization (alpha). E.g. ‘During the slow sequence from exploitation to conservation, connectedness and stability increase and a capital of nutrients and biomass (in ecosystems) is slowly accumulated and sequestered ’ (quoted from here, Figure 1).


Figure 1. Adaptive cycle (source:

There are many parallels between the above described phases of an ecological system and a researcher`s publication/citation metric and possibly career. For a researcher the wealth may be represented by the number of papers and citations, and the connectedness (i.e. how well known the researcher is at wider spatial or even disciplinary scales).

At the initial stages (PhD and young researcher/postdoc years) everybody starts with an ‘r’ phase: young researchers invest a lot in data collection and developing analytical and writing skills. Connectivity is typically low at this stage (i.e. they are largely unknown) and limited to the supervisor (if the student is lucky, the supervisor is well connected!) and some colleagues. There is a strong desire to ‘know and do everything’ and this sometimes (if the supervisor don`t control it well) can turn into a kind of ‘maniac’ behaviour (i.e. lots of ideas come but the huge enthusiasm makes the poor student unable to select one good idea and finalize it). It is the time of many good publications and the happiness if a paper ends up in a well established journal. Nothing is routine at this stage but a good reason for celebration and professional satisfaction (after each good paper, new citation, review request etc.). Figure 1 shows how the citation profile of a young researcher looks. Regardless the research field and the amount of papers and the h index, the trajectories are near similar suggesting the ‘r’ phase of the cycle.

Cit metrics_young researchers

Figure 2. Rapidly growing citation wealth of young researchers in different fields.

Being senior researcher and / or professor may coincide with the ‘K’ phase of the cycle. Wealth (including e.g. citations) and connectedness is maximized. Phones and invitations every day, administrative duties, meetings, teaching, review requests every week. Students come to the door and ask for working possibilities. Citations and papers are almost given. (Some professors may even read all the papers they publish!) With all these, the ‘K’ phase is the phase of stability and reputation. How wonderful words! Figure 3 shows the citation metrics for well established (i.e. all in the top five of their topics according to citations) researchers in different (less popular and more popular) fields.

Cit metrics_K

Figure 3. ‘K’ phases of a sample of well established researchers from different fields.

From Figure 3 it is obvious that there is an upper level of citations which is stable. For some researchers like Albert-László Barabási it stabilizes at ca 10,000 citations per year while for others at 600 papers per year. It may depend on the research field, connectedness, resources available etc. These are details – what is really interesting is that it doesn’t matter at which level the citation wealth ‘stabilizes’: it will stabilise (Figure 3)! No metter how obsessed we are with publications and citations, we will reach our limit. These shows that regardless the classical amount based citation metrics, in fact all good researchers are similar regarding their citation curve. I think this is fascinating and I would not be surprised if sometimes somebody will found that these citation curves have diagnostical value. Maybe a new scientific quality metric will be proposed based on the shape of these curves?:)

The omega phase should mean a strong decrease in citations. I don’t found omega phases on my quick Google Scholar survey. Besides the weakness of sampling, the reason for lack of omega phases may be multiple: (i) The ‘K’ stage of well established researchers and professors is permanently fueled by the ‘r’ phases of many enthusiastic young researchers. (ii) A well established researcher may have enough resources/wealth (e.g. innovation, connectedness) which could be mobilised to explore new research fields and opportunities and avoid major collapses. (iii) Last but not least, Albert Einstein`s citations reached an asymptote many decades after his death, showing that brilliant results, ideas and thoughts can survive and be influential long after the brain which created them passed away.

If the above thoughts are true, and we, researchers, are indeed caught in an adaptive cycle, what is to be done? Is the academia`s obsession with quantity an inherent feature of our (research, human) system which makes our scientific behaviour and trajectory quite predictable?

Thanks to Moritz Meyer for listening these argumentations.


6 thoughts on “Researchers (also) caught in the adaptive cycle?

  1. Hi Tibor
    Thanks for an interesting blog. I think the adaptive cycle is a useful metaphor to explain many trends around us. Buzz Holling, the founding researcher behind resilience thinking, reflected on this in Ecology and Society in 2004. One of the things he noted was:
    “Those adaptive cycles and their relationships are not limited to the dynamics of ecosystems. I see them even in my own life. I happen to have had a pattern of 7- to 10-yr cycles of unplanned intellectual growth, frustration, and renewal that has been both great fun and provided a great sense of discovery. Westley (2002) describes her interview of an outstanding resource manager in Wisconsin, showing how his successes and failures were very much part of the phases of his own personal cycle of change, which involved interorganizational groups, formal organizations, and politics. His plans and interventions both paced the vulnerability in each cycle of that hierarchy of cycles and, in some instances, created the vulnerability needed for change. ”
    You can read it at
    All the best

  2. Thank you very much! I also identified similar changes in my own life. For example I realized that if I want to remain useful for the society as ecologist and conservation biologist, I must depart (not totally) from my classic group – amphibians – because the society in Romania dont really value amphibian research. This means new fields of research, new networks etc. It is, as I feel, fascinating!

  3. Hi Tibor, thanks for an interesting article. You’ve illustrated the cycle at the scale of an individual researcher. Another way of considering it would be to go up a scale and consider the entire field of research in western society. (google scholar metrics probably wouldn’t help here). At this scale one might view the obsessive preoccupation with metrics and associated problems (which have been well described in other posts on your sites) as the inevitable outcomes of a ‘clogged up’ K phase. The adaptive cycle metaphor might suggest that there’s no real escape from these problems within the current system, and that a wholesale reorganization might be required to kick start alternative approaches. Best wishes Ian

  4. Thank you very much for this comment!

    The ‘K’ need to be maintained both at individual, team and whole society level. In western societies the density of brains which hunt informations (because this is the point: we are fed by informations, we act like predators for informations :)) ) is increasing. The technology (i.e. in terms of analytical tools) also is developing to help swallowing even more informations. Inter- and transdisciplinarity is nothing else but new ways to grab more informations to maintain the ‘K’ stage. This ever increasing crowding, coupled with limited resources may result in two things: (i) in obsession with quantity – the desire to be visible in this researcher megapopulation and (ii) searching for pan continental and newly even pan planetarty collaborations to allow evem more access for information – our critical food:) Strange to think about wanishing informations in a way as e.g. declinig fishstocks…I think soon we should think about protected areas for informations, information reserves…which should be protected from our information digestion machinery…

    People can do/and do many things to prolong the ‘K’ phase and avoid the omega. Unfortunately the way I see things, what we will do by this blind race to avoit failures, collapses and crisis will push further generation into a very big cr.p. They will pay a lot for this. But, lets not go to far from citation metrics:)))

    Nice greetings!

    • Just so I also get to say something: I think science as we know it WILL collapse, or let’s say, re-organise itself, quite fundamentally, within this century… how? Don’t know …

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