Ensuring identifiability in hierarchical mixed effects Bayesian models

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23 Scopus citations


Ecologists are increasingly familiar with Bayesian statistical modeling and its associated Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) methodology to infer about or to discover interesting effects in data. The complexity of ecological data often suggests implementation of (statistical) models with a commensurately rich structure of effects, including crossed or nested (i.e., hierarchical or multi-level) structures of fixed and/or random effects. Yet, our experience suggests that most ecologists are not familiar with subtle but important problems that often arise with such models and with their implementation in popular software. Of foremost consideration for us is the notion of effect identifiability, which generally concerns how well data, models, or implementation approaches inform about, i.e., identify, quantities of interest. In this paper, we focus on implementation pitfalls that potentially misinform subsequent inference, despite otherwise informative data and models. We illustrate the aforementioned issues using random effects regressions on synthetic data. We show how to diagnose identifiability issues and how to remediate these issues with model reparameterization and computational and/or coding practices in popular software, with a focus on JAGS, OpenBUGS, and Stan. We also show how these solutions can be extended to more complex models involving multiple groups of nested, crossed, additive, or multiplicative effects, for models involving random and/or fixed effects. Finally, we provide example code (JAGS/OpenBUGS and Stan) that practitioners can modify and use for their own applications.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere02159
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • MCMC
  • crossed effects
  • equifinality
  • fixed effects
  • hierarchical model
  • identifiability
  • multi-level model
  • nested effects
  • prior distribution
  • random effects
  • sum-to-zero
  • sweeping

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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