Agent-based models are helpful to investigate complex dynamics in coupled human–natural systems. However, model assessment, model comparison and replication are hampered to a large extent by a lack of transparency and comprehensibility in model descriptions. In this article we address the question of whether an ideal standard for describing models exists. We first suggest a classification for structuring types of model descriptions. Secondly, we differentiate purposes for which model descriptions are important. Thirdly, we review the types of model descriptions and evaluate each on their utility for the purposes. Our evaluation finds that the choice of the appropriate model description type is purpose-dependent and that no single description type alone can fulfil all requirements simultaneously. However, we suggest a minimum standard of model description for good modelling practice, namely the provision of source code and an accessible natural language description, and argue for the development of a common standard.