1. Feedback between plants and soil organisms has become widely recognized as a driving force of community composition and ecosystem functioning. However, there is little uniformity in quantification and analysis of plant–soil feedback effects. Meta-analysis suggested that the various experimental methods tend to result in different feedback values. Yet, a direct comparison of the different experimental approaches and their statistical analyses is lacking.
2. We used currently applied methods to calculate plant–soil feedback value ranges and compared their statistical analyses to those based on actual biomass data. Then, we re-analysed a case study to compare plant–soil feedback values obtained under the same environmental conditions, but using different experimental approaches: soil sterilization, addition of soil inoculum, and soil conditioning by ‘own’ vs. ‘foreign’ plant species.
3. Different measures to calculate plant–soil feedback values were more variable in positive than in negative feedback values. Analysis of calculated feedback values that are based on treatment averages can lead to a serious inflation of type I errors.
4. In our case study, both the strength and the direction of the feedback effects depended on the experimental approach that was chosen, leading to diverging conclusions on whether feedback to a certain soil was positive or negative. Soil sterilization and addition of soil organisms yielded larger feedback than comparison of own and foreign soil.
5. Synthesis. The ecological interpretation of plant–soil feedback effects strongly depends on the experimental procedure. When the research question focuses on the strength and the sign of plant–soil feedback, soil sterilization (presumed that the side effect of increased nutrient availability can be controlled) or addition of soil inoculum is to be preferred. When the research question concerns the specificity of soil feedback effects, plant performance can be better compared between own and foreign soil. We recommend that when using calculated feedback values, the original data need to be presented as well in order to trace the cause of the effect.