1. Recently, interest in species distribution modelling has increased following the development of new methods for the analysis of presence-only data and the deployment of these methods in user-friendly and powerful computer programs. However, reliable inference from these powerful tools requires that several assumptions be met, including the assumptions that observed presences are the consequence of random or representative sampling and that detectability during sampling does not vary with the covariates that determine occurrence probability.
2. Based on our interactions with researchers using these tools, we hypothesized that many presence-only studies were ignoring important assumptions of presence-only modelling. We tested this hypothesis by reviewing 108 articles published between 2008 and 2012 that used the MAXENT algorithm to analyse empirical (i.e. not simulated) data. We chose to focus on these articles because MAXENT has been the most popular algorithm in recent years for analysing presence-only data.
3. Many articles (87%) were based on data that were likely to suffer from sample selection bias; however, methods to control for sample selection bias were rarely used. In addition, many analyses (36%) discarded absence information by analysing presence–absence data in a presence-only framework, and few articles (14%) mentioned detection probability. We conclude that there are many misconceptions concerning the use of presence-only models, including the misunderstanding that MAXENT, and other presence-only methods, relieve users from the constraints of survey design.
4. In the process of our literature review, we became aware of other factors that raised concerns about the validity of study conclusions. In particular, we observed that 83% of articles studies focused exclusively on model output (i.e. maps) without providing readers with any means to critically examine modelled relationships and that MAXENT's logistic output was frequently (54% of articles) and incorrectly interpreted as occurrence probability.
5. We conclude with a series of recommendations foremost that researchers analyse data in a presence–absence framework whenever possible, because fewer assumptions are required and inferences can be made about clearly defined parameters such as occurrence probability.
Additional publication details
Presence-only modeling using MAXENT: when can we trust the inferences?