Article | Published:

Logarithmic scales in ecological data presentation may cause misinterpretation

Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 2pages13931402 (2018) | Download Citation

Abstract

Scientific communication relies on clear presentation of data. Logarithmic scales are used frequently for data presentation in many scientific disciplines, including ecology, but the degree to which they are correctly interpreted by readers is unclear. Analysing the extent of log scales in the literature, we show that 22% of papers published in the journal Ecology in 2015 included at least one log-scaled axis, of which 21% were log–log displays. We conducted a survey that asked members of the Ecological Society of America (988 responses, and 623 completed surveys) to interpret graphs that were randomly displayed with linear–linear or log–log axes. Many more respondents interpreted graphs correctly when the graphs had linear–linear axes than when they had log–log axes: 93% versus 56% for our all-around metric, although some of the individual item comparisons were even more skewed (for example, 86% versus 9% and 88% versus 12%). These results suggest that misconceptions about log-scaled data are rampant. We recommend that ecology curricula include explicit instruction on how to interpret log-scaled axes and equations, and we also recommend that authors take the potential for misconceptions into account when deciding how to visualize data.

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Acknowledgements

We thank all the respondents whose efforts created these data, the volunteers who participated in pilot surveys and K. McCarter for helping to distribute the survey to the Ecological Society of America member list. Feedback from the Menge laboratory and J. Lubchenco improved this work.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

    • Duncan N. L. Menge
    • , Thomas A. Bytnerowicz
    • , Andrew W. Quebbeman
    • , Naomi B. Schwartz
    • , Benton N. Taylor
    •  & Amelia A. Wolf
  2. American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY, USA

    • Anna C. MacPherson
  3. Department of Plant Sciences, University of California, Davis, CA, USA

    • Amelia A. Wolf

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Contributions

All authors conceived of the project. D.N.L.M. and A.C.M. designed the survey. T.A.B., A.W.Q., N.B.S., B.N.T. A.A.W. and D.N.L.M. conducted the bibliometric analysis. D.N.L.M. analysed data and wrote the paper. All authors edited the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Duncan N. L. Menge.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information 1

    Supplementary Table 1

  2. Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Information 2

    Supplementary Tables 2–6, Supplementary Figures 1–7

  4. Supplementary Information 3

    Online survey

  5. Supplementary Data 1

    Dataset from the bibliometric analysis

  6. Supplementary Data 2

    Survey data, with demographic information removed

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https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0610-7