Celebrating the golden jubilee of the Journal of Applied Ecology


Correspondence author. E-mail: e.j.milner-gulland@imperial.ac.uk

The first 50 years

In our time, as the need to expand the output of food for the rapidly rising population of the world becomes more acutely felt, and as development accelerates throughout the world, the scope and tasks of applied ecology cannot but increase. Ours is an age in which ecological thinking and methods have more than ever before to contribute to the progress of mankind: the Journal of Applied Ecology hopes to play a useful part in the common effort.

These aspirations represent the closing statement of the very first Editorial published in the first issue of Journal of Applied Ecology in 1964 (Bunting & Wynne-Edwards 1964), and yet are still highly relevant today. It was with considerable vision that the British Ecological Society (BES) launched a new journal that not only spanned plant and animal ecology but addressed issues of relevance to human well-being.

The Journal of Applied Ecology was founded to publish the results of original research, particularly of a quantitative and experimental kind, on ecological subjects that are of economic or social importance. Fifty years ago, applied ecology was widely viewed as the poor relation of the more glamorous fundamental areas of this young science. Scientific research relating to the conservation of biological diversity was in its infancy, journals such as Conservation Biology were not even on the horizon, while it would be more than a decade before the integration of agriculture and the environment became a recognized area of research with the launch of the journal Agriculture, Ecosystem and Environment in the 1970s. The Journal of Applied Ecology had already celebrated a quarter of a century of publishing the best applied ecological research when the Ecological Society of America launched Ecological Applications. Few applied journals can compete with the Journal of Applied Ecology in terms of its heritage and its contribution to establishing applied ecology as an important discipline in its own right.

To celebrate our golden jubilee, we have launched a virtual issue online (http://www.journalofappliedecology.org/view/0/virtualissues/fiftyyearsvirtualissue.html) that reviews some of the key articles we have published over the last five decades. Much of the focus of the first decade was on improving the productivity of agricultural ecosystems rather than addressing agriculture's potential impact on species conservation. Nonetheless, the Journal had a global outlook from the start, drawing its examples from ecosystems around the world. Surprisingly, given the launch of the journal less than 2 years after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (Carson, Darling & Darling 1962), studies describing the impact of agrochemicals on wildlife only appeared towards the end of the 1960s. These studies did, however, include early classics in the field. Work published at this time continues to have impact today. For example, Newman's (1966) article, on a method for estimating the total length of root in a sample, is still heavily cited more than four decades later, with 62 citations listed in Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.co.uk/) from January 2011 to November 2012. These recent citing articles include authors estimating carbon stocks in Amazonia, understanding the effects of mycorrhiza for coffee in Puerto Rico, and investigating the potential for biocontrol of tomato root rot in Denmark.

During the 1970s, much of what was published reflected the need for basic information about the biology of pest species that had large economic effects. This was a period of rapid agricultural expansion and modernization, exemplified by the so-called ‘green revolution’, and researchers were acutely concerned with pests that lowered crop productivity. By the 1980s, while pests of agriculture were still an important focus, models of their population dynamics became increasingly more realistic and included crop phenology in assessments of the likely damage from defoliating insects. Furthermore, the management of agricultural crops as ecosystems led to increasing attention to the role of beneficial insects that might prey on pests. A key theme of the 1990s stemmed from increasing evidence that the management of agricultural land could have consequences for biodiversity and nature conservation. Although it had been realized since the 1960s that agriculture could negatively affect the distribution and abundance of species and composition of ecological communities, only during the 1990s was this perception supported by multiple lines of quantitative evidence. In the first decade of the 21st century, the Journal of Applied Ecology was characterized by studies on biodiversity, reflecting the global interest in conserving biodiversity in landscapes that are increasingly dominated by human activities. The decade featured many articles that evaluated schemes introduced to maintain or enhance biodiversity in agricultural landscapes.

It is clear that applied ecology has seen major shifts in its focus over the last five decades. Comparing the period 1964–69 with the more recent 2010–11 reveals a shift towards increased use of the terms ‘policy’ (3% vs. 37%) and ‘conservation’ (17% vs. 89%), while over the same periods the uses of agricultural terms such ‘crop’ (53% vs. 25%) and ‘pesticide’ (23% vs. 8%) decline. New terms have emerged, such as ‘biodiversity’ (mentioned in 74% of articles today but first mentioned only in the early 1990s), and ‘invasive’, which was at very low levels until the end of the 1990s, and now appears in 34% of articles. The fact that all our articles now contain either ‘policy’, ‘management’ or ‘recommendation’, compared with 28% in the early years, reflects the ongoing drive by successive Editors to ensure that the Journal really does publish the best applied ecological science with clear management relevance. This editorial stance was particularly clearly stated by Pienkowski & Watkinson (1996), whose editorial marked the beginning of a much stronger emphasis on articles addressing the Journal's core mission.

The next 50 years

So, how will the Journal develop over the next few years, while still remaining true to the core values so eloquently expressed by the first Editorial, and reinforced by Editorials since then? We see three areas where changes will occur: subject coverage, application and publishing.

The early history of the Journal of Applied Ecology had a strong focus on productive ecosystems, their management and the potential economic gains that might be achieved through the application of ecological knowledge. Research published over the years has seen a shift away from productive ecosystems, and we expect this shift to continue. We do not expect to publish studies documenting pest or weed impacts on horticulture, agriculture or plantation forestry or related studies that address improvements in yield through genetic modification, crop rotation, biological or chemical control. Similarly, the environmental footprint of cultivated and highly managed ecosystems, whether direct or indirect, is a more appropriate topic for other journals. Instead, we see our journal focusing increasingly on the sustainable management of natural and semi-natural ecosystems, where these can sustain human livelihoods or bring benefits in the form of ecosystem services, the protection of threatened species and conservation of biodiversity. The study of individual species, whether unwanted pest or charismatic icon, will only be considered when viewed through this wider lens of sustainable natural environments.

A significant mismatch still remains between research published in the academic ecological literature and on-the-ground management of natural systems (Ormerod et al. 2002; Hulme 2011); the reasons and solutions are not straightforward but include a dearth of communication and collaboration in both directions. Effective and sustainable management of the planet's finite natural resources requires a substantial and rapid improvement in this situation. In our jubilee year, many of our initiatives focus on improving communication between practitioners and academics; through events at the 11th International Association for Ecology (INTECOL) Congress, publishing a Special Profile on the UK's National Ecosystem Assessment, commissioning reviews of applied ecology in emerging economies (e.g. Ferreira et al. 2012; Singh & Bagchi 2013), and gaining perspectives from practitioners involved in a range of capacities in the management of natural systems world-wide (e.g. Hill & Arnold 2012).

The rapidly changing publication landscape has created new opportunities for attracting readers and disseminating research and has resulted in healthy discussion about how science is communicated and who has control over research findings. Journals do not need to be published in print copies to reach their full audience, and electronic publishing is relatively inexpensive and accessible. Funding agencies increasingly require scientists make the results of their research freely available. Most recently, the UK government's research councils announced that publications resulting from their funding must be freely accessible to the public (Research Councils UK 2012). Open access (OA) has influenced publication in all sectors, with clear benefits for society. However, there has been an explosion in the number of OA journals (Laakso & Bjork 2012), with the vast majority being created to profit from author payments. This financial reward has obvious ethical implications, as profit-driven journals have an incentive to publish as many article as possible, sometimes with limited editorial rigour (Basken 2009; O'Hara 2012).

The Journal of Applied Ecology has been constantly developing its publishing philosophy. British Ecological Society members receive a substantial discount on the fees charged to publish OA articles in the journal. Further, the Journal and the BES have partnered with the new OA journal published by Wiley-Blackwell, Ecology and Evolution (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1002/(ISSN)2045-7758). Authors submitting articles to the Journal that are scientifically sound, but do not meet the threshold for management impact or broad general relevance, may receive an option to have their article and reviews forwarded to Ecology and Evolution with an offer of reduced publication fees.

Our evolving publication model must continue to find new ways to communicate the best applied ecological research more efficiently. Our online presence is rapidly becoming more dynamic and interactive, enabling the Journal to promote communication between interest groups. Prediction makes us hostages to fortune, but fairly safe suggestions are that in 10 years, the Journal will only be published online, and the concept of an ‘article’ in an ‘issue’ for which people pay a subscription will be replaced by a range of freely available material presenting a particular piece of research to different audiences; graphics and pictures, text, original data and source code, video presentations by authors, linked to ongoing discussions throughout the web in a multitude of languages. Research material will be packaged up in different formats and groupings for different users, and the Journal will act as a facilitator and mediator for interactions between these groups. All these are already becoming reality, as we strive to ensure that the Journal has impact beyond the narrow academic sphere (Milner-Gulland et al. 2012).

Despite these huge advances in content delivery, our commitment is to remain true to the core vision of the Journal, providing a vehicle for the publication of top-quality applied ecological science with relevance for ecological management and policy. In contrast to other OA models, the Journal will continue with rigorous peer review to publish research that has high impact. The likely changes in publishing methods offer the potential to deliver a scientific evidence base for end-users (e.g. practitioners and policy makers) in new ways that may be easier to digest, and thus to provide easily understood and scientifically accurate outputs. The Journal has been, and will continue to be, at the forefront of taking advantage of the latest opportunities in publishing to maximize the quality of knowledge flow (in both directions) between scientists and practitioners.

Current predictions suggest that in 50 years, a substantial number of species will have become extinct and ecosystems irreversibly altered, with the sixth mass extinction well underway (Barnosky et al. 2011). Our hope is that scientific knowledge can be used to minimize these effects, but our best guess is that, despite having the appropriate answers, the political cost of sustainable environmental management will remain too high over the next 50 years for the massive changes in lifestyle that it will entail (as has been demonstrated by our comprehensive failure to meet the Convention on Biological Diversity's 2010 targets; Butchart et al. 2010). Despite these fears, should true sustainable living become politically acceptable, it is our belief that much of the ecological guidance required will be found in the papers published by the Journal over the forthcoming 50 years.


We thank Joshua Schwartz for compiling the statistics used in this Editorial. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all the previous Editors, past and current Associate Editors of the Journal and the unsung heroes (the referees), without whose dedication and commitment the Journal would not be in the leading position that we have inherited. We also recognize the enormous contribution made by the Editorial Office within the British Ecological Society over the last 50 years, and particularly Gill Kerby, who guided the Journal through its transformative years in the 1990s and 2000s. Finally, we thank all the authors whose work we have published in the last 50 years, for entrusting us with your insights.