Freshwater Biology– looking back, looking forward


Alan G. Hildrew, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary, University of London, London E1 4NS, U.K.

In 1981 we were in our early thirties and still in the early phase of university careers when Bob Campbell (later President of Blackwell Publishing) was looking out for a new journal editor and approached us. We felt that Freshwater Biology was rather too big a task unless we took it on together. Bob was happy with that but the journal had been associated with the Freshwater Biological Association (FBA) since its inception in 1971 and by agreement Blackwell sought their advice about the appointments. As a consequence we took the ferry across Lake Windermere in late October 1981, for a visit to the famous Ferry House laboratory during which, somewhat daunted, we tried to make light conversation with FBA Director David Le Cren before we met the retiring editor D. W. Sutcliffe. A few days later we heard from Bob that our appointment had been approved and thus started our long association with the journal. Freshwater Biology was first published in 1971 with three distinguished freshwater biologists as previous editors (T.T. Macan, 1971–73; P.S. Maitland, 1973–75 and Sutcliffe himself, 1975–82). David Sutcliffe provided some very useful early advice and our first effort as editors was the final issue of 1982. On this basis, the final issue of 2006 equated to our 25 years anniversary.

Until 1982 the number of papers published annually had varied from 28 to 46, taking up 430–602 journal pages. We increased the number of pages to 1247 by 1990, 1782 by 2000 and 2360 by 2006, when we received the largest number of submissions ever, 509 manuscripts of which 178 papers were published (Table 1). The increase in published pages has not resulted in a lowering of standards but rather they have undoubtedly risen. Since 1988, when our records begin, the rejection rate has increased from 41% to 63% and is still rising. When we took over the journal the turnaround time was 12 months from acceptance to publication: this had been cut in half within 10 years and currently stands at 2–3 months. The overall good quality of service to authors, the strategic directions in which we have tried to push the journal, and dare we say the hard work undoubtedly put in on so many manuscripts, probably help to account for the rise in the journal's reputation and impact factor.

Table 1.   Papers published per year and percentage of published papers in various categories. Mean values are given for the period prior to 1982
YearPapers published% lentic% U.K.% North America% rest of Europe% Australia and NZ

The blend of subject areas by type of organism has not changed much since 1971, but there has been a trend in the proportions of papers dealing with lentic and lotic ecology. Some questioned why two editors should be chosen from the same research area (predominantly stream and river ecology). Until 1982, the number of papers on lakes and ponds exceeded those on streams and rivers, but since then the distribution has been much more even (Table 1). Rather than resulting from some bias in submissions or acceptances, however, we believe this reflects a real change in the amount of high quality research in lotic ecology, catching up with lentic research that had led the way in the early period of freshwater ecological science.

A much more dramatic trend has occurred in papers published from different regions of the world. On becoming editors, many freshwater researchers viewed the journal as an organ of the FBA (which it was not) and one associated with the U.K. in particular, and we were keen that this perception should change. As a consequence Freshwater Biology has become progressively more international, and this occurred in a definite sequence. In the 1980s we saw an increase in the number of papers from North America, from (non-U.K.) Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and from Australia/New Zealand in the 1990s (Table 1). A trend we did not envisage or want, however, was that not only would the proportion of papers from the U.K. diminish over the same period, but that the absolute number of papers published would go down (Table 1)! Papers from the FBA (and its descendent organizations the Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) numbered 5–15 per year (11–32%) up to 1982 and 0–9 (0–13%) since then, seeming to reach a nadir around the end of the 1990s. Even papers from the U.K. universities have declined somewhat from their heyday in the 1980s.

Innovations to the make-up of Freshwater Biology have included an Applied Issues section, introduced in 1994, and the publication of whole or part issues dedicated to special topics where one or more guest editors plays an important role. As the journal has grown, it became necessary to make Associate Editor appointments, with Richard Johnson taking on the Applied Issues section, Mark Gessner overseeing all Special Issues, Roger Jones assisting with standard papers, and Simon Rundle dealing with book reviews. The other key people are our referees. Many hundreds of ecologists have assisted with one or more reviews, but of particular note are the members of our editorial board who act as trusted reviewers of up to 20 or more papers per year. The success of the journal depends on all these people.

It has been a pleasure to assemble an anniversary edition of the journal, with each year of our editorship represented by the paper that has achieved the highest citation rating so far. You can access this special ‘virtual issue’, entitled ‘Key articles in Freshwater Biology– 25 years of editing with Alan Hildrew and Colin Townsend’ at For papers published more than a handful of years ago, the citation rating is a true reflection of their significance, with most still being cited at a high rate today. For papers published more recently, the rating is not without value but whether they will have the historical staying power remains to be seen.

When it comes to contributions to general ecological theory, freshwater ecology has sometimes led, sometimes followed, but always contributed. The 25 papers in the ‘virtual’ issue represent a diversity of top quality freshwater science. The first, Ten Winkel & David's (1982) paper, concerned the ecology of a single species, part of an autecological tradition that has waned in the past quarter century, although the single species was, in this case, the zebra mussel, perhaps the most famous of all freshwater invasive species.

Townsend, Hildrew & Francis's (1983) paper was the first to use a multivariate approach to ordinating and classifying stream communities, methods borrowed from plant ecologists. This was a major departure in the field and such methods have been widely adopted both in the exploration of community patterns and in application to bioassessment. In this group, Moss et al. (1987) and Parsons & Norris (1996) appear as representatives of a series of highly cited papers in the journal about the use of benthic communities in bioassessment, culminating in the RIVPACS and, in Australia, AUSRIVAS methodologies.

Shapiro & Wright (1984) was one of the first papers dealing with the nascent industry related to biomanipulation (a term that one of us tried to suppress at the time as unnecessary jargon!). Restoration and recovery of communities have since been growing themes in the journal, further represented by Osborne & Kovacic's, 1993 article dealing with stream restoration and the importance of riparian vegetation and by Jeppesen et al. (2005), who collated an important series of case studies of the response of lakes to reduced nutrient loading.

Howard-Williams’ (1985) paper was a review that we solicited in a strategic attempt to widen the journal's subject matter to include work on wetlands and ecosystem processes. Subsequently we witnessed a shift towards ecosystem studies, with further top citations concerning the development of a sophisticated understanding of organic matter dynamics in flood plains and headwater streams (Cuffney, 1988; Cuffney, Wallace & Lugthart, 1990) and river–groundwater exchanges (Brunke & Gonser, 1997). The application of ecosystem science to a broader assessment of river ‘health’ was the focus of Bunn, Davies & Mosisch (1999).

Statzner & Higler's, 1986 paper was one of the first of the journal's ‘Opinion’ articles, contributing to the then active debate over the river continuum concept. They claimed, somewhat controversially, that stream hydraulics was the primary determinant of longitudinal distribution and that natural break points in hydraulics could in some circumstances bring about zonation. Sand-Jensen (1998) further represents this growing attention on ecological hydraulics in their paper on the ecosystem engineering of flow structures and sediment retention by submerged macrophytes in lowland streams.

The paper by Biggs & Close (1989) was important as one of the first to show that disturbance history could determine the distribution of biomass (in this case of periphyton). Hall & Smol (1992) also had an historical focus, though with a longer time scale, providing a method for recreating the time course of phosphorus concentrations in lakes. The longer history of disturbance was represented in Townsend & Hildrew's (1994) river habitat templet, in which temporal heterogeneity was juxtaposed with the provision of refugia to predict species traits in contrasting settings. More recently, Lake (2003) shifted focus from disturbances caused by spates and floods to the, perhaps increasing, role of droughts.

Food-web science, and its application, has been a recurring theme. The 1991 paper by Wickham & Gilbert reflected a burgeoning interest in the contribution of microbial elements to food webs, a theme taken up again in Saabe et al.’s (2004) treatment of microbial mats in Antarctic lakes. The food webs of shallow lakes are particularly well-known and have been the subject of experimental studies (Schriver et al., 1995) and extensive surveys (Jeppesen et al., 2000). Such basic understanding of food webs, of course, has underpinned our growing ability to restore lake communities.

Finally, a notable trend, particularly evident since the turn of the millennium, has been a new focus on scale and landscape ecology. Sponseller, Benfield & Valett (2001) dealt with the scale at which relationships between land use and stream community structure becomes apparent, while Ward et al. (2002) dealt with the relationship between physical habitat diversity and biological diversity in river basins. Most recently, Latterell et al. (2006), returning to the theme of spatially distributed disturbance, focussed on patch mosaics in dynamic river valleys.

In closing, we are tempted to consider how far a scientific journal is just a compendium of papers that have been submitted to it. To an extent this is self evidently true – one cannot publish what is not submitted. However, we did have at the outset a clear vision of what we wanted to achieve and this included widening the international authorage of Freshwater Biology, raising its scientific reputation, and moving it into subject areas that had not previously been seen as appropriate or relevant to fresh waters. We believe these changes are evident in the 25 highly cited papers in our virtually reprinted compendium. This strategy has been realized in a variety of ways. Perhaps most important was the careful choice of our Editorial Board, bringing in well-known scientists in emerging areas of freshwater ecological science. We also solicited reviews in areas that were underrepresented in Freshwater Biology at the time, and opened our pages to Opinion articles, with the objective of seeking an extra level of speculation and debate that had not yet characterized the journal. Particularly effective were Special Issues, providing convenient and up-to-date collections of papers on new and important areas of freshwater biology and ecology, and which allowed us to ‘colonize’ neighbouring areas of science, such as the physical environmental sciences of hydrology and landscape ecology. We are gratified that a disproportionate number of the most highly cited papers in Freshwater Biology over the last 25 years have been non-standard in one or more of these categories.

So what lies ahead? We foresee a further widening of the subject areas perceived as relevant to Freshwater Biology. This must include the many factors, social and economic, that determine the use of water and catchments by humans. We want freshwater science to become a subject that can provide some solutions, or at least sticking plasters, to the rising environmental crisis and to the mitigation of climate change. We recognized some years ago, in the Applied Issues section of the journal, the increasing contribution of applied papers to our output. The gulf between the enormous amounts of science in an academic journal and its uptake in environmental management remains profound, however, and we are considering ways of addressing this. In a neatly symmetrical return to the roots of this journal, in collaboration with a renascent FBA, we are embarking on a series of workshop-style conferences on the application of freshwater environmental research in increasingly crucial areas. We plan to publish these ‘FBA Conferences in Aquatic Biology’as free-access, electronic only, extra issues of the journal. Our publishers have supported us in this and we hope these extra issues and the workshops will add further to the reputation of both the journal and to the FBA.

The freshwater landscape may have changed, but the editors have stayed the same. This work has been a major component of the careers of two good friends. We have enjoyed it immensely and hope to continue to do so for some time yet.