Relationships fade with time: a meta-analysis of temporal trends in publication in ecology and evolution

Michael D. Jennions, Anders P. Møller

Abstract

Both significant positive and negative relationships between the magnitude of research findings (their ‘effect size’) and their year of publication have been reported in a few areas of biology. These trends have been attributed to Kuhnian paradigm shifts, scientific fads and bias in the choice of study systems. Here we test whether or not these isolated cases reflect a more general trend. We examined the relationship using effect sizes extracted from 44 peer-reviewed meta-analyses covering a wide range of topics in ecological and evolutionary biology. On average, there was a small but significant decline in effect size with year of publication. For the original empirical studies there was also a significant decrease in effect size as sample size increased. However, the effect of year of publication remained even after we controlled for sampling effort. Although these results have several possible explanations, it is suggested that a publication bias against non-significant or weaker findings offers the most parsimonious explanation. As in the medical sciences, non–significant results may take longer to publish and studies with both small sample sizes and non–significant results may be less likely to be published.