Concept Maps

Ecological interactions are complex, and thus it may help you think more carefully about your research questions if you attempt to represent your understanding of an ecological question as a web of interacting components rather than a linear set of connected hypotheses.  If you haven't done much concept mapping before this may seem challenging at first, but not to worry, we'll be doing a lot of this together in class as we come up with our collective questions.  

Why are we drawing concept maps?  Because this helps us formalize, challenge and share our understanding of science in ways that words cannot.  A nice recent paper explores the value of science drawing - "Drawing to Learn in Science" Science 333: 296-297

What is a concept map?  Read this article by the education reformer who introduced them, Dr. Joseph Novak.  "Concept maps: What the heck is this?"

You can do this in lots of ways, try various approaches out to figure out what is most efficient and useful for you.  Paper and pencil are great, but if you find yourself erasing as much as you're adding, you might try tools like 
  • Google Drawing (you need a free gmail account. then click on Documents and then make a drawing).  
  • Prezi, a really new way of making presentations and an easy way to draw, free software at
  • Cmap Tools software, specifically designed for concept mapping, free download at

Try them all and figure out what approach works best for you.  Or add your ideas/discoveries here in the comment box.

Comment by Alison, 9/21/11:

You can also use concept maps to reverse-engineer papers and understand how they're put together. Here's an example where I dissect the introduction to this modeling paper (keep in mind that modeling papers look different from field/lab experiment papers):

Porporato, A., P. D’Odorico, et al. (2003). "Hydrologic controls on soil carbon and nitrogen cycles. I. Modeling scheme." Advances in Water Resources 26(1): 45-58. Link

Then I identified the main points in each paragraph and built this outline of the introduction.

Finally, I took the outline and made it into a complete concept map with less heirarchy and more links among more concepts. This concept map leads to a few insights:
  • The authors justify their modeling efforts in three general ways, marked with red bubbles: they discuss the big ecological picture, they identify a hole in the literature, and they identify some interesting things that are partially addressed in the literature but remain interesting and worth of exploring.
  • Many of the key arrows in this concept map point to relationships (yellow bubbles, which I'm using as the equivalent of labeled lines in other concept maps). Relationships! Not single concepts or entities. I suspect this is a theme in much of science.
  • The authors of this paper allocate some of their introduction to describing and justifying their particular model. I think there's a fine line here -- an introduction should make the reader comfortable with everything that comes next, so sometimes some methods discussions are necessary, but you'd obviously like to have most of your methods in the Methods section.
  • Their introduction is obviously publishable, but I don't think it's perfect. 
    • I'd like to see more discussion of which long/medium/short-term dynamics in the water & N cycles are well understood in the literature, and where the gaps in the literature are with respect to these dynamics. The concept map makes the absence of these discussion points more apparent. 
    • I also sometimes found it difficult to pull out the main points from each of the paper's paragraphs. Topic sentences may have been more straightforward to write in middle school, but they remain essential in college and beyond.
That's what I see so far. This was an enlightening exercise, and I recommend that you do it for yourself at some point if you have any questions about what a successful introduction looks like. If you'd like to add any comments to this page, either about the paper introduction or about how my concept map could be improved, please feel free!