The swelling of polyelectrolyte hydrogels has been often explained using simple models derived from the Flory-Rehner model. While these models qualitatively predict the experimentally observed trends, they also introduce strong approximations and neglect some important contributions. Consequently, they sometimes incorrectly ascribe the observed trends to contributions which are of minor importance under the given conditions. In this work, we investigate the swelling properties of weak (pH-responsive) polyelectrolyte gels at various pH and salt concentrations, using a hierarchy of models, gradually introducing various approximations. For the first time, we introduce a three-dimensional particle-based model which accounts for the topology of the hydrogel network, for electrostatic interactions between gel segments and small ions and for acid-base equilibrium coupled to the Donnan partitioning of small ions. This model is the most accurate one, therefore, we use it as a reference when assessing the effect of various approximations. As the first approximation, we introduce the affine deformation, which allows us to replace the network of many chains by a single chain, while retaining the particle-based representation. In the next step, we use the mean-field approximation to replace particles by density fields, combining the Poisson-Boltzmann equation with elastic stretching of the chain. Finally, we introduce an ideal gel model by neglecting the electrostatics while retaining all other features of the previous model. Comparing predictions from all four models allows us to understand which contributions dominate at high or low pH or salt concentrations. We observe that the field-based models overestimate the ionization degree of the gel because they underestimate the electrostatic interactions. Nevertheless, a cancellation of effects on the electrostatic interactions and Donnan partitioning causes that both particle-based and field-based models consistently predict the swelling of the gels as a function of pH and salt concentration. Thus, we can conclude that any of the employed models can rationalize the known experimental trends in gel swelling, however, only the particle-based models fully account for the true effects causing these trends. The full understanding of differences between various models is important when interpreting experimental results in the framework of existing theories and for ascribing the observed trends to particular contributions, such as the Donnan partitioning of ions, osmotic pressure or electrostatic interactions.
This is a second version of the manuscript with some minor changes in the text.