Synthesis has become ubiquitous in ecology. Despite its widespread application to a broad range of research topics, it remains unclear how synthesis has affected the discipline. Using a case study of publications (n = 2304) from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis compared with papers with similar keywords from the Web of Science (n = 320,000), we address several questions about the comparative impact of synthesis, the role of synthesis in driving key research themes, and whether synthesis is focused on different topics than is the broader ecological literature. We found much higher citation rates for synthesis papers overall (fivefold more) and within eleven key topic themes (e.g., species richness, biodiversity, climate change, global change). Synthesis papers often played key roles in driving, redirecting, or resolving core questions and exhibited much greater cross-theme connectivity. Together, these results indicate that synthesis in science has played a crucial role in accelerating and advancing ecological knowledge.

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