The species–abundance distribution (SAD) describes the abundances of all species within a community. Many different models have been proposed to describe observed SADs. Best known are the logseries, the lognormal, and a variety of niche division models. They are most often visualized using either species richness – log abundance class (Preston) plots or abundance – species rank order (Whittaker) plots. Because many of the models predict very similar shapes, model distinction and testing become problematic. However, the variety of models can be classified into three basic types: one that predicts a double S-shape in Whittaker plots and a unimodal distribution in Preston plots (the lognormal type), a second that lacks the mode in Preston plots (the logseries type), and a third that predicts power functions in both plotting types (the power law type). Despite the interest of ecologists in SADs no formal meta-analysis of models and plotting types has been undertaken so far. Here we use a compilation of 558 species–abundance distributions from 306 published papers to infer the frequency of the three SAD shapes in dependence of environmental variables and type of plotting. Our results highlight the importance of distinguishing between fully censused and incompletely sampled communities in the study of SADs. We show that completely censused terrestrial or freshwater animal communities tend to follow lognormal type SADs more often than logseries or power law types irrespective of species richness, spatial scale, and geographic position. However, marine communities tend to follow the logseries type, while plant communities tend to follow the power law. In incomplete sets the power law fitted best in Whittaker plots, and the logseries in Preston plots. Finally our study favors the use of Whittaker over Preston plots.