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Towards the systematic simplification of mechanistic models

Cox, G.M.; Gibbons, J.M.; Wood, A.T.A.; Ramsden, S.J.; Crout, Neil J.M.


G.M. Cox

J.M. Gibbons

A.T.A. Wood

S.J. Ramsden

Professor of Environmental Modelling


Mechanistic models used for prediction should be parsimonious, as models which are over-parameterised may have poor predictive performance. Determining whether a model is parsimonious requires comparisons with alternative model formulations with differing levels of complexity. However, creating alternative formulations for large mechanistic models is often problematic, and usually time-consuming. Consequently, few are ever investigated. In this paper, we present an approach which rapidly generates reduced model formulations by replacing a model’s variables with constants. These reduced alternatives can be compared to the original model, using data based model selection criteria, to assist in the identification of potentially unnecessary model complexity, and thereby inform reformulation of the model. To illustrate the approach, we present its application to a published radiocaesium plant-uptake model, which predicts uptake on the basis of soil characteristics (e.g. pH, organic matter content, clay content). A total of 1024 reduced model formulations were generated, and ranked according to five model selection criteria: Residual Sum of Squares (RSS), AICc, BIC, MDL and ICOMP. The lowest scores for RSS and AICc occurred for the same reduced model in which pH dependent model components were replaced. The lowest scores for BIC, MDL and ICOMP occurred for a further reduced model in which model components related to the distinction between adsorption on clay and organic surfaces were replaced. Both these reduced models had a lower RSS for the parameterisation dataset than the original model. As a test of their predictive performance, the original model and the two reduced models outlined above were used to predict an independent dataset. The reduced models have lower prediction sums of squares than the original model, suggesting that the latter may be overfitted. The approach presented has the potential to inform model development by rapidly creating a class of alternative model formulations, which can be compared.


Cox, G., Gibbons, J., Wood, A., Ramsden, S., & Crout, N. J. (2006). Towards the systematic simplification of mechanistic models. Ecological Modelling, 198,

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Jan 1, 2006
Deposit Date Mar 3, 2008
Publicly Available Date Mar 3, 2008
Journal Ecological Modelling
Print ISSN 0304-3800
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 198
Public URL
Publisher URL
Related Public URLs
Copyright Statement Copyright information regarding this work can be found at the following address:


Cox_et_al_Ecomod_Simplification_Accepted.pdf (239 Kb)

Copyright Statement
Copyright information regarding this work can be found at the following address:

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