The growth of Ecology Letters, and scope of the journal


Ecology Letters is continuing to grow as a journal. I wanted to take a brief opportunity to describe some of our successes, explain some of our growing pains and to help authors target appropriate journals for their work. The ISI Journal Citation Reports®Ranking for 2009 placed Ecology Letters as number 2 of 127 journals in ecology, and ahead of all other ecological journals publishing predominantly empirical research (as opposed to literature reviews). This ranking reflects the speed of making decisions and support of everybody associated with the journal, from our publisher to peer reviewers. Our average time to make a first decision on manuscripts was 22 days, and all decisions in 2009 and 2010 were within our published limits. The journal received over 1300 manuscript submissions in 2010, which represents an increase by over 17% compared to 2009. The number of pages we can publish has not yet increased, and so we have been trying to squeeze a bit more into the available pages by changing page layouts and text sizes. To maximize the number of articles we could publish, we decided to make the text size slightly smaller and to reduce the size of page margins. Unfortunately, the initial result was more drastic than we had intended, as seen in Ecology Letters 14:1 (January), which was printed with unusually small font sizes. I want to assure our readers and authors that we do not intend to publish future articles using such small text sizes. I would also like to offer an apology to our readers and authors for this inadvertent mistake. A miscommunication with the journal’s production staff led to the problem. Page numbering, and hence font sizes, cannot be changed after an article is published with a digital object identifier number, and we cannot therefore correct the articles published with small font sizes. We are making these articles freely available online, and encourage our readers to make full use of them. It may assist readers to be reminded that the full text of articles is available online without the font size problem, and that on a computer screen PDF files may be zoomed in on to make them a readable size. The issue you are now reading (14:2), represents our new layout as we had originally intended.

I also want to discuss the fact that Ecology Letters continues to receive a large number of manuscripts that are a long way from being competitive for publication space in the journal. To help authors target their manuscripts towards appropriate journals I would like to offer some advice that goes a little beyond our Instructions for Authors. As a general comment, authors should evaluate the appropriateness of their manuscript for a journal in subject area, breadth, novelty and strength of findings. In particular, with regard to Ecology Letters authors should consider the following:

Subject area: Ecology Letters is a general ecology journal, and manuscripts need a strong nexus with ideas, theories, methods or common empirical knowledge in ecology. We rarely publish manuscripts lacking such a nexus, or that are purely about evolution, management or behaviour. Ecology involves interactions among living organisms and with the environment and humans; purely environmental studies that lack living organisms are not published in Ecology Letters. Topical and newsworthy manuscripts about major conservation or environmental issues need to relate to broad ecological themes. We usually do not publish commentaries about the practice of ecology (e.g. about authorship, peer review), other than in occasional short editorial pieces like the one you are reading.

Breadth: We aim to publish manuscripts that are of general interest to our readership. Papers that are about a particular taxon, biome, sub-discipline of ecology or geographic area, need to have broad interest to our readership. This can come from bringing new findings that are surprising and likely go beyond the study system, from describing and using a new method to advance ecological knowledge, or perhaps from changing our thinking about a commonly understood phenomenon. Clearly there are other ways of making new contributions. We less commonly publish articles that describe major developments that are only of relevance to particular sub-disciplines of ecology, which reflects our prioritization of articles of broadest interest.

Novelty: New findings typically need to be more than incremental, and should represent qualitative rather than quantitative advances. Studies that transform our knowledge of ecology are therefore given the highest priority. In general, manuscripts that merely reproduce published results with another species, or in another habitat or area do not fare well in our selection process. Manuscripts about new methods and models typically need to describe the gain in knowledge from using the method, rather than just describing a method or model. We recognize the value of a plurality of approaches to ecology, and that standards for novelty differ depending on the methods used, taxa and study system. Of course there is also an element of opinion, for which we rely on reviewers and our editorial board members for advice where needed. A literature review spanning all kinds of study organism and system, and not limited to just the more recent references is advised to accurately assess novelty. Avoid using current themes and buzzwords (e.g. climate change) as ways of trying to add value unless you have something substantial to say about such topics.

Strength of findings: Standards of evidence necessarily differ among different disciplines of ecology, depending on factors like the methods used and ease of replication. Nonetheless, I would encourage an honest comparison of the details of study design, replication and methods with leading works in a relevant discipline of ecology prior to submitting a manuscript. If there are limiting factors, such as the amount of replication, or if unwanted factors complicate interpretation, this might mean that a journal with less pressure on its page space is a more appropriate publication venue. A frequent criticism of manuscripts is that the results are oversold in the opinion of editors or reviewers. A targeted, deep and reflective literature review is therefore needed to accurately assess the most suitable home for a particular study.

Despite these apologetic and seemingly critical remarks, it is clear that Ecology Letters continues to excel, and in large part because of the support of authors, editors, reviewers and readers – in short, all of you. We sincerely thank you for your continued support during our period of growth. We welcome feedback about the journal, and look forward to seeing more exciting new developments in ecology.