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A wide variety of data sets produced by individual investigators are now synthesized to address ecological questions that span a range of spatial and temporal scales. It is important to facilitate such syntheses so that ‘‘consumers’’ of data sets can be confident that both input data sets and synthetic products are reliable. Necessary documentation to ensure the reliability and validation of data sets includes both familiar descriptive metadata and formal documentation of the scientific processes used (i.e., process metadata) to produce usable data sets from collections of raw data. Such documentation is complex and difficult to construct, so it is important to help ‘‘producers’’ create reliable data sets and to facilitate their creation of required metadata. We describe a formal representation, an ‘‘analytic web,’’ that aids both producers and consumers of data sets by providing complete and precise definitions of scientific processes used to process raw and derived data sets. The formalisms used to define analytic webs are adaptations of those used in software engineering, and they provide a novel and effective support system for both the synthesis and the validation of ecological data sets. We illustrate the utility of an analytic web as an aid to producing synthetic data sets through a worked example: the synthesis of long-term measurements of whole-ecosystem carbon exchange. Analytic webs are also useful validation aids for consumers because they support the concurrent construction of a complete, Internet-accessible audit trail of the analytic processes used in the synthesis of the data sets. Finally we describe our early efforts to evaluate these ideas through the use of a prototype software tool, SciWalker. We indicate how this tool has been used to create analytic webs tailored to specific data-set synthesis and validation activities, and suggest extensions to it that will support additional forms of validation. The process metadata created by SciWalker is readily adapted for inclusion in Ecological Metadata Language (EML) files.