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Understanding ‘it depends’ in ecology: a guide to hypothesising, visualising and interpreting statistical interactions

Spake, R. ORCID:, Bowler, D. E., Callaghan, C. T., Blowes, S. A., Doncaster, C. P., Antao, L. H., Nakagawa, S., McElreath, R. and Chase, J. M. (2023) Understanding ‘it depends’ in ecology: a guide to hypothesising, visualising and interpreting statistical interactions. Biological Reviews, 98 (4). pp. 983-1002. ISSN 1469-185X

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1111/brv.12939


Ecologists routinely use statistical models to detect and explain interactions among ecological drivers, with a goal to evaluate whether an effect of interest changes in sign or magnitude in different contexts. Two fundamental properties of interactions are often overlooked during the process of hypothesising, visualising and interpreting interactions between drivers: the measurement scale – whether a response is analysed on an additive or multiplicative scale, such as a ratio or logarithmic scale; and the symmetry – whether dependencies are considered in both directions. Overlooking these properties can lead to one or more of three inferential errors: misinterpretation of (i) the detection and magnitude (Type-D error), and (ii) the sign of effect modification (Type-S error); and (iii) misidentification of the underlying processes (Type-A error). We illustrate each of these errors with a broad range of ecological questions applied to empirical and simulated data sets. We demonstrate how meta-analysis, a widely used approach that seeks explicitly to characterise context dependence, is especially prone to all three errors. Based on these insights, we propose guidelines to improve hypothesis generation, testing, visualisation and interpretation of interactions in ecology.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Life Sciences > School of Biological Sciences > Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
ID Code:110540


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