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Ecological research has been repeatedly criticized for its general lack of progress. While it has proved difficult to reveal scientific progress, from a subjective view trends in ecology seems evident. In order to objectively detect principal trends in this broad discipline during the past 25 years (1978–2002), we performed several word and co-word analyses on titles and abstracts of articles that appeared in five core journals of ecology: «Ecology», «Oecologia», «Oikos», «Journal of Animal Ecology» and «Journal of Ecology». A general time gradient in the use of words was evident and words with a positive trend dominated. Trend words derived from article titles were used to perform co-word analyses on abstracts available since 1991. Besides a trend towards the study of processes most important ecological fields found are landscape ecology, biodiversity, ecosystem research, modelling, and food-web/predator–prey interactions. A semantic map of trend words was built by ordination. In the map, words formed a continuous space with the three thematic directions «biotic», «abiotic» and «temporal & spatial» representing the classic aspects of ecological research. With respect to the obvious trends and features derived from our analyses, we suggest that the results represent real scientific progress in ecology as a pluralistic, multi-aspect and multiple-causation discipline. Such a progress could hardly be observed from details in sub-disciplines.