The scientific literature on climate change adaptation has become too large to assess manually. Beyond standard scientometrics, questions about if and how the field is progressing thus remain largely unanswered. Here we provide a novel, inquisitive, computer-assisted evidence mapping methodology that combines expert interviews (n = 26) and structural topic modelling to evaluate open-ended research questions on progress in the field. We apply this to 62 191 adaptation-relevant scientific publications (1988–2020), selected through supervised machine learning from a comprehensive climate change query. Comparing the literature to key benchmarks of mature adaptation research, our findings align with trends in the adaptation literature observed by most experts: the field is maturing, growing rapidly, and diversifying, with social science and implementation topics arising next to the still-dominant natural sciences and impacts-focused research. Formally assessing the representativeness of IPCC citations, we find evidence of a delay effect for fast-growing areas of research like adaptation strategies and governance. Similarly, we show significant topic biases by geographic location: especially disaster and development-related topics are often studied in Southern countries by authors from the North, while Northern countries dominate governance topics. Moreover, there is a general paucity of research in some highly vulnerable countries. Experts lastly signal a need for meaningful stakeholder involvement. Expanding on the methods presented here would aid the comprehensive and transparent monitoring of adaptation research. For the evidence synthesis community, our methodology provides an example of how to move beyond the descriptive towards the inquisitive and formally evaluating research questions.