Tansley’s vision for Journal of Ecology, and a Centenary Celebration


Correspondence author. E-mail: m.j.hutchings@sussex.ac.uk

Journal of Ecology was the first ecological journal in the world. It was established as the official publication of the newly formed British Ecological Society (BES) in 1913 under the leadership and guidance of the Society’s first President, Sir Arthur Tansley FRS (1871–1955; see Godwin 1977). Tansley’s vision for Journal of Ecology was presented in its first issue (Tansley 1913), in his two Presidential Addresses (Tansley 1914, 1939), and in a paper about the early history of modern plant ecology in Britain (Tansley 1947). Sheail (1987) also presents information about the thinking behind the establishment of Journal of Ecology in his book ‘Seventy-five Years in Ecology: the British Ecological Society’. Now, as the Journal celebrates its Centenary, Tansley’s vision remains relevant because he identified several important areas that, through the pages of Journal of Ecology, have been of fundamental importance in advancing the ways in which we study plant ecology, and our understanding of the subject.

Tansley specified two aims for the Journal of Ecology at its establishment. These were to “foster and promote in all ways the study of ecology in these islands”, and to “endeavour to present….a record of and commentary on the progress of ecology throughout the world” (Tansley 1913). These aims were to be conveyed to the ecological community through numerous publication formats, including what were described as general articles, articles and notes on current work in the British Isles, articles and notes on methods, reviews and notices of publications on British vegetation, answers to questions from members of the British Ecological Society, general correspondence, reports and notices of meetings of the Society, and notices of work on foreign vegetation. Each annual volume of the Journal originally consisted of four issues.

Readers familiar with Journal of Ecology will know that the types of articles published have changed considerably over the years. Initially, papers were strongly centred on the ecology of the British Isles. Given that Journal of Ecology has had an international reach and international flavour almost from the outset, it is surprising to find that it had originally been proposed that it would not publish foreign work. Tansley (1913) wrote that the view had been expressed that the inclusion of work from overseas might cause British work to be “smothered”! Good sense prevailed, however, and it was decided before publication of the first issue that foreign work should be included so that “the Society would be really furthering the interests of ecologists throughout the world” (Tansley 1913). Full length papers on foreign vegetation appeared in the Journal almost immediately, the first being Rübel’s (1914) study of forests in the Western Caucasus, and, following a visit to the United States, Tansley (1914) reported that submission of articles to the Journal had already been pledged by several leading American ecologists. A paper by Shantz (1917) on succession was probably the first of these to appear in print. The importance of publishing international research was soon fully accepted by the BES, and the international community of ecologists was encouraged to regard the Journal of Ecology as the natural venue for its best research.

The range of research fields published in Journal of Ecology has always been comprehensive. From the outset it accepted work on general principles, concepts, methods and surveys, and displayed a strong focus on synecological and autecological studies related to geography, geology, meteorology and climatology, plant physiology and anatomy, and floristic phytogeography (Tansley 1913). Autecological studies have remained a particular strength of the Journal throughout its first century of publication (e.g. Clapham 1956; Harper 1967), as reflected in the long-running series of detailed accounts of ecological knowledge about individual plant species published under the banner of the Biological Flora of the British Isles (http://www.britishecologicalsociety.org/journals_publications/journalofecology/biologicalflora.php ). The Journal has also been at the forefront in publishing research in new fields of study, including ecosystem ecology, a term that was introduced by Tansley (1935), genecology – a topic Tansley foresaw as of growing importance in his second Presidential Address (Tansley 1939) – quantitative ecology (Greig-Smith 1979), and chemical ecology (e.g. McCall & Fordyce 2010; Ali, Alborn & Stelinski 2011; Rassmann et al. 2011). As time has passed, the fields of research represented by papers in the Journal have increased in number, and the published output has become less dominated by single fields (Table 1). Tansley (1913) correctly predicted that study of the ecology of soil and other substrates, and above- and below-ground interactions, would become important topics of research activity although, despite several early papers on the topic in the Journal (e.g. Skene 1913; Blackman 1914) it has taken a long time for these fields to become fully established in the literature (Fitter 2005; Bardgett, de Deyn & Ostle 2009; Heil 2011).

Table 1.   Analysis of the percentage of published papers in different fields of ecological research during five 20-year segments from the first one hundred years of the Journal of Ecology
Research fieldVolumes 1–20Volumes 21–40Volumes 41–60Volumes 61–80Volumes 81–99
Vegetation ecology46.728.021.67.8 
Freshwater and marine ecology5.
Seed ecology5.6
Edaphic ecology5.62.01.7 2.1
Terminology5.4  0.8 
Methodology3.6 9.52.4 
Evolutionary ecology3.6   1.6
Root ecology1.9   1.5
Experimental ecology1. 
Water relations and hydrology1.96.7   
Wetland ecology 3.4  3.7
Reproduction ecology 3.4 5.33.7
Plant diseases 2.0 0.82.7
Physiological ecology 2.010.314.04.0
Forest ecology, including tropical ecology 2.00.9 8.1
Plant/animal interactions
Population ecology and competition  2.615.512.1
Fungal ecology  1.7 3.0
Phenology  0.9 0.7
Lichens  0.90.8 
Bryophytes   1.60.9
Functional traits   1.53.9
Dispersal    5.8
Climate change    2.8
Clonal plants    4.2
Invasion ecology    3.0
Pollination ecology    1.9

The pages of Journal of Ecology have hosted many of the most influential papers in plant ecology. As early as volume 9, Arrhenius (1921) published his paper entitled “Species and area”, which has been cited 470 times. Watt’s (1947) paper on “Pattern and process in the plant community” in volume 35 has been cited well over 1100 times. Other classic and highly-cited papers from the first fifty years of Journal of Ecology are those by Mortimer (1941, 1942) on exchange of dissolved substances between substrates and water in lakes, Chu (1942) on the growth of planktonic algae, the classic study of the relationships between soil, vegetation development and time since glacial retreat at Glacier Bay, south-east Alaska (Crocker & Major 1955), the nature of the climax (Clements 1936), classification of Australian rain forests by Webb (1959), intertidal zonation on rocky shores (Stephenson & Stephenson 1949) and the first important publication on multivariate methods for the analysis of plant communities (Williams & Lambert 1959).

The Journal’s second half-century of publication has seen it strengthen its status as the premiere venue for research on all aspects of plant ecology. At the time of writing, Journal of Ecology has its highest ever Impact Factor (5.260), placing it eleventh out of 129 ISI-listed ecology journals and ninth out of 187 ISI-listed plant sciences journals, and it consistently achieves a half-life of over 10 years for citation of the papers it publishes. Many papers that have been published during this period have extremely high rates of citation per annum (Table 2). The most cited paper over the whole publication history of the Journal is Tennant’s (1975) classic method for estimating root length (cited 1380 times at the time of writing this article), and the papers with the highest per annum citing rates are those of Davis, Grime & Thompson (2000) on resource fluctuations and invasibility in plant communities, Brooker et al. (2008) on facilitation in plant communities, and, once again, Tennant’s (1975) methodological classic.

Table 2.    (a) The ten most highly-cited papers, and (b) the ten papers with the highest rates of citation per annum, published in Journal of Ecology since its establishment in 1913
Author (year)TitleTotal number of cites
Tennant (1975)Test of a modified line intersect method of estimating root length1380
Watt (1947)Pattern and process in the plant community1134
Mortimer (1941)The exchange of dissolved substances between mud and water in lakes902
Davis, Grime & Thompson (2000)Fluctuating resources in plant communities: a general theory of invasibility885
Thompson & Grime (1979)Seasonal variation in the seed banks of herbaceous species in 10 contrasting habitats867
Mortimer (1942)The exchange of dissolved substances between mud and water in lakes704
Hill (1973)Reciprocal averaging: eigenvector method of ordination703
Botkin, Wallis & Janak (1972)Some ecological consequences of a computer model of forest growth687
Grime & Hunt (1975)Relative growth rate – its range and adaptive significance in a local flora672
Frankie, Baker & Opler (1974)Comparative phenological studies of trees in tropical wet and dry forests in lowlands of Costa Rica628
  Mean number of citations per annum
Davis, Grime & Thompson (2000)Fluctuating resources in plant communities: a general theory of invasibility73.75
Brooker et al. (2008)Facilitation in plant communities: the past, the present and the future57.50
Tennant (1975)Test of a modified line intersect method of estimating root length37.41
Bobbink, Hornung & Roelofs (1998)The effects of air-borne nitrogen pollutants on species diversity in natural and semi-natural European vegetation35.00
Hierro, Maron & Callaway (2005)A biogeographical approach to plant invasions: the importance of studying exotics in their introduced and native range31.43
Blossey & Notzold (1995)Evolution of increased competitive ability in invasive non-indigenous plants – a hypothesis26.82
Grime (1998)Benefits of plant diversity to ecosystems: immediate, filter and founder effects26.64
Thompson & Grime (1979)Seasonal variation in the seed banks of herbaceous species in 10 contrasting habitats26.39
Aerts (1996)Nutrient resorption from senescing leaves of perennials: are there general patterns?24.12
Maestre et al. (2009)Refining the stress-gradient hypothesis for competition and facilitation in plant communities23.33

Deciding on an appropriate celebration for the Journal on the one-hundredth anniversary of its establishment fell to the current Editorial and Management team. We decided to hold a Centenary Symposium within the British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting in Sheffield, UK, in September 2011. We invited a group of internationally-renowned researchers to talk on topics in which the Journal has published major contributions over the last century. The brief that the speakers agreed to also included producing written versions of their papers for peer-review, revision and final acceptance before the Symposium took place, so that online publication could follow almost immediately, and print publication could be achieved in the first issue of Volume 100 of the Journal of Ecology. Despite the heavy demands we made of the authors in asking them to write about the topics we selected, and the very strict deadlines imposed on them at each stage of the peer review process, all adhered to the schedule set for them (even, in one case, while having to cope with the additional major distraction of giving birth to a baby daughter less than 3 weeks before the Symposium took place!). The Journal team thanks all contributors for fulfilling our hopes for the Symposium, and for making the process of working from the initial idea for the Symposium to the published product, a very easy and enjoyable collaboration. We also wish to express our gratitude to all the reviewers who assessed the submitted manuscripts, again under strict time constraints. We are confident that the papers presented in this published Special Feature are significant contributions to the literature, and that they will be widely-read and cited for many years to come.

The papers commence with an examination by de Kroon et al. (2012) of root distributions in soil, and their reactions and responses, apparently to different soil biotic communities, when growing in monocultures and mixtures. Hypotheses about the influence of these effects on species coexistence and community productivity are developed and discussed. Wardle et al. (2012) then describe how data collected from a 5000-year chronosequence, represented by 30 islands of different size in northern Sweden, demonstrates inter-linked changes in vegetation, above- and below-ground biota, soil fertility and carbon sequestration. This ‘natural experiment’ yields significant insights into ecological processes operating over time-scales that are far too long to study experimentally. Next, Beerling et al. (2012) utilize data and analytical approaches that are outside the toolkit of most plant ecologists to investigate the relationship between terrestrial vegetation, historical atmospheric CO2, and the rate of weathering of silicate mineral, which is the long-term sink for CO2.

The next two papers continue to examine carbon and its sequestration. First, Coomes et al. (2012) explore the influences of tree size structure, competition, and disturbance on sequestration of carbon in forests, and, by examining a long-term database of changes in a very large number of forests, highlights the importance of mortality as a force driving carbon cycling. Malhi (2012) uses a large and very impressive database, collected from many lowland tropical forests, to examine the link between the photosynthesis, productivity and biomass of tropical forests, and the way in which variation of forest growth rates is affected not only by photosynthesis, but also by carbon use efficiency and the allocation of biomass.

The next group of papers addresses various ecological issues associated with habitat fragmentation and isolation. Jacquemyn et al. (2012) consider plant traits that may be under strong selection as a consequence of habitat fragmentation, and review a variety of studies in which rapid evolutionary responses to fragmentation can be discerned. Alexander et al. (2012) address the monumental task of applying metapopulation and metacommunity concepts to plants, including examining the influence of dispersal and seed banks on population behaviour, and the relative importance of spatial processes and environmental factors on community composition. Bullock et al. (2012) focus their contribution entirely on the subject of seed dispersal, examining in particular the capacity of dispersal to mitigate the effects of habitat losses and habitat displacements in the face of climate change, and to influence species invasions. Moles et al. (2012) survey how far we have progressed in our quest to understand why different species succeed or fail as invasives in different conditions, and examine whether disturbance itself, or change in disturbance regime, is a more important predictor of invasion success. Finally, Lavorel & Grigulis (2012) examine how plant functional diversity impacts upon the delivery of ecosystem services. They discuss how plant traits link environmental change and ecosystem functioning, and use data from mountain grasslands to illustrate how plant trait information can be used to support the management of landscapes for the delivery of multiple ecosystem services.

The papers in this Centenary Symposium Special Feature cover a wide range of topics. We believe that there is something here to interest every reader. Some of the topics and ideas dealt with in this set of papers were not even remotely within Tansley’s sphere of thought when Journal of Ecology was being launched by the British Ecological Society in 1913. Just as Tansley’s early articles in the Journal of Ecology shaped the course of the first century of published research in plant ecology, we expect the papers in this collection to influence the directions that the subject will take over the course of the next century. Challenging times lie ahead for the global environment, and for the subject of plant ecology and its practitioners, making it difficult to predict the shape and content of the Bi-Centenary Symposium that will be held in 2111. It is clear, however, that the subject of plant ecological research is in very good health, with impressive and important new knowledge being added to our understanding every year. We confidently predict that the Journal of Ecology is well-placed, going into its second century, to publish the best of this new work for the benefit of the ecological community and for the wider public interest.