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Resolving Ecological Questions through Meta-Analysis: Goals, Metrics, and Models

Craig W. Osenberg, Orlando Sarnelle, Scott D. Cooper and Robert D. Holt
Ecology
Vol. 80, No. 4 (Jun., 1999), pp. 1105-1117
Published by: Wiley
DOI: 10.2307/177058
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/177058
Page Count: 13
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Resolving Ecological Questions through Meta-Analysis: Goals, Metrics, and Models
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Abstract

We evaluate the goals of meta-analysis, critique its recent application in ecology, and highlight an approach that more explicitly links meta-analysis and ecological theory. One goal of meta-analysis is testing null hypotheses of no response to experimental manipulations. Many ecologists, however, are more interested in quantitatively measuring processes and examining their systematic variation across systems and conditions. This latter goal requires a suite of diverse, ecologically based metrics of effect size, with each appropriately matched to an ecological question of interest. By specifying ecological models, we can develop metrics of effect size that quantify the underlying process or response of interest and are insensitive to extraneous factors irrelevant to the focal question. A model will also help to delineate the set of studies that fit the question addressed by the meta-analysis. We discuss factors that can give rise to heterogeneity in effect sizes (e.g., due to differences in experimental protocol, parameter values, or the structure of the models that describe system dynamics) and illustrate this variation using some simple models of plant competition. Variation in time scale will be one of the most common factors affecting a meta-analysis, by introducing heterogeneity in effect sizes. Different metrics will apply to different time scales, and time-series data will be vital in evaluating the appropriateness of different metrics to different collections of studies. We then illustrate the application of ecological models, and associated metrics of effect size, in meta-analysis by discussing and/or synthesizing data on species interactions, mutual interference between consumers, and individual physiology. We also examine the use of metrics when no single, specific model applies to the synthesized studies. These examples illustrate that the diversity of ecological questions demands a diversity of ecologically meaningful metrics of effect size. The successful application of meta-analysis in ecology will benefit by clear and explicit linkages among ecological theory, the questions being addressed, and the metrics used to summarize the available information.

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