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April 14, 2023

Say Where You Sample: Increasing Site Selection Transparency in Urban Ecology

Dyson, Karen; Dawwas, Emad; Poulton Kamakura, Renata; Alberti, Marina; Fuentes, Tracy L. (2023). Say Where You Sample: Increasing Site Selection Transparency in Urban Ecology. Ecosphere, 14(3).

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Urban ecological studies have the potential to expand our understanding of socioecological systems beyond that of an individual city or region. Cross-comparative empirical work and synthesis are imperative to develop a general urban ecological theory. This can be achieved only if studies are replicable and generalizable. Transparency in methods reporting facilitates generalizability and replicability by documenting the decisions scientists make during the various steps of research design; this is particularly true for sampling design and selection because of their impact on both internal and external validity and the potential to unintentionally introduce bias. Three interdependent aspects of sample design are study sample selection (e.g., specific organisms, soils, or water), sample specification (measurement of specific variable of interest), and site selection (locations sampled). Of these, documentation of site selection—the where component of sample design—is underrepresented in the urban ecology literature. Using a stratified random sample of 158 papers from 12 major urban ecology journals, we investigated how researchers selected study sites in urban ecosystems and evaluated whether their site selection methods were transparent. We extracted data from these papers using a 50-question, theory-based questionnaire and a multiple-reviewer approach. Our sample represented almost 45 years of urban ecology research across 40 different countries. We found that more than 80% of the papers we read were not transparent in their site selection methodology. We do not believe site selection methods are replicable for 70% of the papers read. Key weaknesses include incomplete descriptions of populations and sampling frames, urban gradients, sample selection methods, and property access. Low transparency in reporting the where methodology limits urban ecologists' ability to assess the internal and external validity of studies' findings and to replicate published studies; it also limits the generalizability of existing studies. The challenges of low transparency are particularly relevant in urban ecology, a field where standard protocols for site selection and delineation are still being developed. These limitations interfere with the fields' ability to build theory and inform policy. We conclude by offering a set of recommendations to increase transparency, replicability, and generalizability.


external validity, field ecology, generalizability, internal validity, replication, reproducibility, sampling design, site selection, theory building, transparency