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Although the impacts of exotic plant invasions on community structure and ecosystem processes are well appreciated, the pathways or mechanisms that underlie these impacts are poorly understood. Better exploration of these processes is essential to understanding why exotic plants impact only certain systems, and why only some invaders have large impacts. Here, we review over 150 studies to evaluate the mechanisms underlying the impacts of exotic plant invasions on plant and animal community structure, nutrient cycling, hydrology and fire regimes. We find that, while numerous studies have examined the impacts of invasions on plant diversity and composition, less than 5% test whether these effects arise through competition, allelopathy, alteration of ecosystem variables or other processes. Nonetheless, competition was often hypothesized, and nearly all studies competing native and alien plants against each other found strong competitive effects of exotic species. In contrast to studies of the impacts on plant community structure and higher trophic levels, research examining impacts on nitrogen cycling, hydrology and fire regimes is generally highly mechanistic, often motivated by specific invader traits. We encourage future studies that link impacts on community structure to ecosystem processes, and relate the controls over invasibility to the controls over impact.