In the cut-throat industry of academic publishing, some journals barely survive a decade, let alone a century, but in October 2023, Journal of Experimental Biology is celebrating 100 years at the forefront of comparative physiology, neuroethology and biomechanics. In this Commentary article and the accompanying poster, I explore the journal's history from its inception, through the guidance of nine Editors-in-Chief, to achieving its aims of championing the comparative approach, disseminating and promoting high-quality research and supporting our community of researchers. I discuss technological developments in publishing and classic articles that have cemented the journal in its position at the forefront of comparative physiology.
How it all began
In the aftermath of the First World War, men and women returned to civilian life, resuming careers and university educations that had been thwarted by the hostilities. At the time, a young researcher, Lancelot Hogben – a lecturer in the Department of Zoology at Imperial College, London, UK (Fig. 1A) – was becoming increasingly intrigued by the modern experimental approach to biology being championed by Julian Huxley (Fig. 1B), who had returned to the UK after the war, having taught at Rice University, USA, between 1912 and 1916 (Hogben, 1966). In the UK, zoology had become trapped in the morphological doldrums of comparative anatomy, deriving evolutionary family trees from physical similarities. But the tide began to turn during animated discussions about the exciting new approach, including one in Huxley's rooms in Oxford in 1921 involving his colleagues Hermann Muller and Edgar Altenburg from Rice University, Alfred Sturtevant from Columbia University, USA, and Hogben (Hogben, 1966). With momentum gathering and no natural outlet for Huxley's novel experimental style of zoology – which was based on strategies routinely used in physics and chemistry – Hogben began to speculate about the possibility of launching a journal dedicated to the new field of experimental biology, even securing funding for the scheme from the famous author H. G. Wells, who he had met through his son, G. P. Wells, when a student at Imperial College (Hogben, 1966). Yet, the idea only truly began to take form after Hogben joined Francis (Frank) Crew (Fig. 1C) as his second-in-command at the newly founded Animal Breeding Research Laboratory (University of Edinburgh, UK).
Together with Huxley and Alexander Carr-Saunders, then at the University of Oxford, UK, the duo recruited like-minded researchers from across the UK to form the Editorial Board of the proposed journal (Erlingsson, 2013). Having secured an Edinburgh-based printing company, Oliver and Boyd, for the journal (Erlingsson, 2013), Crew also volunteered to underwrite the printing with his compensation for war wounds (Hogben, 1966). Bearing Crew's generosity in mind, Hogben and Huxley agreed that he should take leadership of the journal (Hogben, 1966) and, together with the members of the first Editorial Board, Crew published letters first in Nature in July (Crew et al., 1923a) and then in Science in August (Crew et al., 1923b) asking researchers to submit ‘authoritative résumés of recent progress in various fields of inquiry’ to the British Journal of Experimental Biology (BJEB) (Crew et al., 1923a). Subscriptions began to come in (Fig. 2) and 2 months later, the fledgling journal appeared, publishing its first issue in October 1923, featuring papers by Hogben, Crew and Huxley, Charles Yonge and Honor Fell from the University of Edinburgh, UK, and Guy Robson and Harry Carleton from the University of Oxford, UK (Hankins and Rutledge, 2023). For a graphical overview of the history of the journal from the earliest days to the present, including key events and papers, refer to the poster (Fig. S1).
A rocky start, rescue and renaissance
Despite the optimism of the launch, Hogben, Huxley and Crew's creation soon ran into difficulties. At the same time as the first issues of BJEB were being produced, the Cambridge Philosophical Society established a competitor, Biological Proceedings, under the leadership of an up-and-coming Cambridge zoologist, James Gray (Erlingsson, 2013). Even with the foundation of the Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) in 1923 to provide a source of publishable research (Hogben, 1966; Erlingsson, 2013), the BJEB continued to lose money (Skaer, 2001). Concluding that success would only be possible if the BJEB were to merge with the Cambridge publication, Hogben asked Crew to contact George Parker Bidder, a founding member of the SEB and Cambridge academic, in the hope that he could encourage Gray to consider the plan (Erlingsson, 2013). Bidder responded to Crew's enquiry encouragingly in May 1925, but with the condition that the journal should be owned by a company specifically founded for the purpose, ‘[which] does not die, and does not become senile and out of touch with the generation’ (Erlingsson, 2013). Shortly after, in November 1925, Bidder founded The Company of Biologists, with 38 friends and colleagues buying £5 shares in the new Company (Skaer, 2001). Gray assumed the role of Editor of the BJEB in October 1925 and, on 14 November 1926, Crew, Hogben and Huxley officially transferred ownership of the journal to the newly established company for the sum of £150 (Skaer, 2001).
With the academic and financial future of the journal assured, it flourished, marking the turn of the new decade with a nod to its increasingly international outlook by removing ‘British’ from the journal title, becoming simply The Journal of Experimental Biology (JEB). Gray steered the journal for the next 26 years, initially with the support of the Editorial Board and then the Honorary Secretaries of the Society for Experimental Biology, through a second World War and the associated paper rationing, which saw the journal dwindle to a single issue of just 12 articles in 1943. Donald Parry (University of Cambridge, UK) recalled that ‘Gray's control over the Journal was that of a wise and beneficent autocrat’, responsible for the journal's editorial policy, overseeing the peer review and editing each manuscript while remaining ‘warmly encouraging to the young’ (Parry, 1974). As Gray was approaching the end of his tenure in 1952, he was joined by another Cambridge zoologist, J. Arthur Ramsay, who took responsibility for the detailed editing of each article. Gray eventually stepped down fully at the end of 1954 when he was succeeded by Vincent B. Wigglesworth, on the condition that Ramsay remained as co-Editor (Pantin, 1955). Over the next 19 years, the pair ‘developed a close and effective partnership’, expanding the scope of the journal to include the study of insects to address general questions of biology in addition to the questions regarding osmoregulation and ion transport about which Ramsay was so passionate (Parry, 1974). This expanded scope is still evident today. And reflecting the journal's increasing influence, the number of issues per year increased from four to six in 1965.
The second half-century begins and JEB continues to expand
By the early 1970s, Ramsay was nearing retirement and Wigglesworth was 10 years older. Faced with the dilemma of whether the journal should specialise in a restricted field of experimental biology or maintain its broad comparative approach, The Company of Biologists appointed John Treherne (University of Cambridge) as the fifth Editor in 1974 (Parry, 1974). This move heralded a change in editorial style, as Treherne recruited a team of Assistant Editors to aid with the editorial load. William Foster (University of Cambridge, UK) recalls: ‘our job was to read through the manuscripts to check that the referees’ comments had been attended to and to check that there wasn't anything wildly inaccurate they'd missed. We also did a fair bit of subediting and some rewriting to make things a little clearer to the non-expert reader'. Sandra Ray became the journal's first full-time copyeditor, with Jean Wallis smoothing articles through peer review as Treherne's Administrator. Treherne also reinstated the Editorial Board, inviting 16 members, including Joan Abbott, the first female member of the Editorial Board, and long-time friends of the journal, George Hughes (University of Bristol, UK), Simon Maddrell (University of Cambridge, UK) and John Shaw (University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK).
But Treherne's true innovation and legacy was the establishment of the JEB Symposia, each dedicated to an area of comparative physiology and organised by a specialist in the field with the intention of publishing a themed issue to ensure that the ‘proceedings of the workshop should be made available to all biologists as soon as possible’ (Crompton, 1979). Collaborating with Michael Berridge (University of Cambridge, UK) and P. E. Rapp (Gonville and Caius College, UK), Treherne designed the first meeting, a symposium on ‘Cellular Oscillators’ held in Titisee, Germany, 22–24 March 1979, with the review volume published 5 months later (Berridge et al. 1979a,b). Nobel Prize winning physiologist, Bernard Katz (University College, London, UK) then contributed to the second symposium (Katz, 1980), ‘Neurotransmission, Neurotransmitters and Neuromodulators’, a year later in Woods Hole, USA (Kravitz and Treherne, 1980). Since that time, members of the Editorial Board and/or Guest Editors have commissioned themed symposia almost every year, bringing together scientists from diverse areas, reviewing the current knowledge in a field, encouraging the cross-fertilisation of ideas and also fostering new collaborations to promote developing fields and techniques within experimental biology. The resulting Special Issue review series (Table 1), dedicated to topics ranging from homeostasis and navigation to epigenetics in comparative physiology, has continued to provide inspiration for those looking for an introduction to a topic and experts alike.
Toward the end of the 1970s, the Company of Biologists also began investigating the possibility of establishing its own printing press, eventually bringing the entire process of journal production in-house, from peer review to typesetting and the production of printed editions of the journal. And, as the personal computing revolution kicked off in the early 1980s, the Company encouraged journal authors to submit floppy disks containing their manuscripts, alongside the heavy hard copies that were then being couriered around the globe for peer review, ready for subsequent typesetting (Skaer, 2001).
However, tragedy struck in 1989 when John Treherne died unexpectedly. Cambridge biomechanist Charlie Ellington was appointed quickly as Treherne's successor (Shelton, 1990) and he remembered being greeted by Jean Wallis with a mountain of manuscripts waiting for editorial attention (Phillips, 2004). Shortly after, Robert (Bob) Boutilier joined the Zoology Department at the University of Cambridge, and Ellington soon asked him to bring his expertise in comparative physiology to assist as joint Editor. Two years later, Ellington stepped down, leaving Boutilier to develop the journal independently. After 70 years of guidance by Editors based exclusively in Cambridge, Boutilier started to expand the geographical diversity of the Editorial team, initially recruiting Hans Hoppeler (University of Bern, Switzerland) and Malcolm Burrows (University of Cambridge) as ‘European Editors’, while George Somero (Stanford University, USA) and Nathan Nelson (Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, USA) contributed from the USA, before Nelson returned to his native Israel and the Department of Biochemistry at Tel Aviv University. Completing Boutilier's expansion of the journal, Margaret Clements joined the Cambridge office as the administrator, building a formidable and supportive team with Boutilier and deftly managing hundreds of manuscripts as they passed through the Cambridge office each year before her retirement in 2011 (Knight, 2011).
Nurturing early-career researchers in the Boutilier and Hoppeler eras
In 1996, The Company of Biologists took the decision to expand its Travelling Fellowship scheme – allowing early-career researchers (ECRs) to make collaborative visits to other laboratories – to young comparative physiologists, initially announcing the scheme offering five $1500 fellowships in February 1996. ‘I clearly remember the letter that came in the mail from Bob [Boutilier] congratulating [Terry Chadwick] on receiving the award’, smiles Pat Wright (University of Guelph, Canada) – Chadwick's Master's advisor at the time – recalling how Chadwick headed off to join Paul Anderson at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, USA, to learn the urea cycle enzyme assays that were critical for their subsequent JEB publication (Chadwick and Wright, 1999). At the time that Rohini Balakrishnan (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore) received her fellowship, she was finishing a postdoc at McGill University, Canada. With the funding, she visited Axel Michelsen at University of Southern Denmark for 3 months to test whether the vibrations produced by male field crickets during courtship played an important role in attracting females to mate with them. ‘It was an exciting and valuable experience where I learned how to handle, calibrate and use a lot of acoustic and vibrational instrumentation’, she says, adding that the opportunity helped her to found her own lab a few years later. And Holly Shiels (University of Manchester, UK) recalls how her first travelling fellowship allowed her to visit Hawaii to work with Richard Brill (Kewalo Research Station, USA), going on her first NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) expedition working in the high seas of the South Pacific to investigate fish heart rate limits while she was a PhD student with Tony Farrell (then at Simon Fraser University, Canada). After receiving a second fellowship to visit Matti Vornanen at University of Eastern Finland a few years later, Shiels says, ‘Both of those Travelling Fellowships were instrumental in my success as a PhD student and set me on research collaborative pathways that are still ticking!’.
With submissions continuing to increase and journal issues expanding, The Company of Biologists doubled the number of issues printed each year from 12 to 24 in 1997, while also launching the journal's first website, providing downloadable PDFs of newly published research articles. Four years later, the Company decided to move the websites of all of its journals to Highwire Press, producing the first full-text online issues of the journal.
Toward the end of the decade, Boutilier suggested that the Company should employ science journalists to expand the outreach of its journals. Consequently, I (Kathryn Knight née Phillips) joined the Editorial team in 2001, launching the News & Views section with ‘In This Issue’ articles – rebranded as ‘Inside JEB’ shortly after – summarising research from the journal in easily accessible digests. In 2003, the News & Views section expanded to include the ‘Outside JEB’ section, a community service highlighting research from other journals for JEB readers, providing early-career researchers with a training in science communication. The journal also began promoting newly published research to the media, distributing embargoed press releases ahead of publication and supporting researchers through their interactions with journalists to bring their research to the widest possible audience through high-profile outlets such as the New York Times, the BBC and The Economist.
Sadly, Boutilier died in 2003 after his health began declining earlier that year, leaving the journal briefly in the hands of Hans Hoppeler and Peter Lutz (Florida Atlantic University, USA) before Hoppeler was appointed as the eighth – and first non-UK-based – Editor-in-Chief in 2004. Shortly after, the journal launched the annual Outstanding Paper Prize in memory of Boutilier, celebrating the shortlisted ECRs that made the most significant contributions to exceptional pieces of research, congratulating the ultimate winner, and recognising the diversity and research interests of the journal's early-career community. Reflecting on her award in 2008, Audrey Dussutour (Université Toulouse III, France) says, ‘I remember like it was yesterday’, adding, ‘I was so proud at the time and my co-author Steve [Simpson, The University of Sydney, Australia] was also very proud’. Dussutour attributes some of her early success to the recognition. ‘When I applied to the CNRS I was only 30 and having this award was seen as an accomplishment by my colleagues’, she says.
Technology moves on, and Hoppeler hands over to Franklin
As the transition from print to online publication continued at pace, JEB embraced the opportunity to broaden and improve the services offered to the experimental biology community, from hosting supplementary data – which supports so many of our publications – at no charge to authors from 2006, to posting author manuscripts online as swiftly as possible after acceptance in 2012. Four years later, the journal partnered with bioRxiv, encouraging researchers to post their preprints during peer review to stake a claim to their results at the earliest point in the publication cycle. In 2018, the journal moved from issue-based publication (where all articles in an issue were published on the same day) to gradually filling issues as each paper becomes available. We are proud of our speed to publication, which is facilitated by each article proceeding through the publication process individually. With the advent of ‘play in place’ movies, allowing readers to see the ballistic instant when a snapping shrimp claw closes or the motion of the valves in a beating Drosophila heart, each article is now so much more than a simple paper communicating ideas; it is a multidimensional experience, providing visual insight, linked through hypertext to a network of related articles, sometimes dating back decades.
After 16 years as Editor-in-Chief, Hoppeler stepped down in August 2020, handing over the reins to Craig Franklin (University of Queensland, Australia) at a time when the journal staff and Editorial team were working remotely from home thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. For the first time since 1979, the JEB symposium was cancelled within days of the plenary session, but the Special Issue – on the theme of physiological and ecological responses to climate change and the role of comparative physiologists in tackling these challenges – was successfully published in February 2021 (Franklin and Hoppeler, 2021). One month before the pandemic took grip, the journal also demonstrated its commitment to Open Access publication by becoming one of the first three Transformative Journals, with the aim of gradually increasing our proportion of open access content over the coming years and the goal of transitioning to becoming fully open access (Moulton and Handel, 2020).
Shepherding the journal through its celebration of ‘100 Years of Discovery’ in 2023, Franklin and the Editorial team have gathered a collection of specially commissioned Reviews, Commentaries and Perspectives championing the journal's past but also looking to the future, in addition to a series of forward-looking Conversations, where the journal Editors discuss their views on the outlook for comparative physiology while also musing about the piece of equipment that they would most like to bring back with them from the future. In addition, the journal has celebrated ECRs who have published their research in the journal during 2023, producing a series of ECR Spotlights that discuss their career paths, current research and hopes for the coming century (Franklin, 2023). Spearheaded by Franklin, the journal also launched two new grants aimed specifically at supporting junior faculty at the outset of their careers, allowing them to visit a laboratory to cement a new collaboration for a grant proposal or invite an ECR to join their team to work on a research project for a 3-month period. ‘There are few funding opportunities directed specifically to supporting the research careers of junior faculty staff, a critical stage in an academic career when they have to not only design courses and teach but get a research group up and running and attract funding. The new grants aim to help this transition and I am excited that we are helping to alleviate a challenging time for young biologists’, says Franklin.
At the dawn of the journal's next 100 years
Since the journal's inception a century ago, its fortunes have ebbed and flowed. From the first Editorial Board of nine UK-based scientists led by Managing Editor Crew to the current team of Editors comprising 11 world-leading researchers and a wider Editorial Advisory Board of 53 researchers spanning both hemispheres and six continents, the journal is now a champion of international diversity and inclusivity, upholding the highest standards in publishing and research ethics. The Cambridge-based in-house Editorial team has expanded also, with three Administrators supporting the peer review process, three Production Editors meticulously copyediting each manuscript and overseeing issue compilation, and a team of three Editors producing and commissioning non-research content such as news, features and reviews: all overseen by Managing Editor, Michaela Handel. And 2025 will see a second milestone, as The Company of Biologists, established in 1925 to rescue the ailing BJEB, celebrates its own centenary.
For now, the journal is looking to the future, and the future is in your hands. With your support, we are excited about embarking on the next 100 years of discovery, taking on the big questions and revealing the extraordinarily curious worlds of the creatures that inhabit this planet. From the deepest hydrothermal vents to the highest mountains, from pole to pole and across all time zones, comparative physiologists go to the most extreme locations to understand the wonderful animals with which we share this planet, and the journal will be alongside too, disseminating your discoveries and inspiring the next generation to follow in the footsteps of Huxley, Crew and Hogben.
A high-resolution version of the poster is available for downloading at https://journals.biologists.com/jeb/article-lookup/doi/10.1242/jeb.246868#supplementary-data.
The author declares no competing or financial interests.