From the manual page on type declarations:

The type variables appearing as type parameters can optionally be prefixed by + or - to indicate that the type constructor is covariant or contravariant with respect to this parameter. This variance information is used to decide subtyping relations when checking the validity of :> coercions (see section 7.7.6).

For instance, type +'a t declares t as an abstract type that is covariant in its parameter; this means that if the type τ is a subtype of the type σ, then τ t is a subtype of σ t. Similarly, type -'a t declares that the abstract type t is contravariant in its parameter: if τ is a subtype of σ, then σ t is a subtype of τ t. If no + or - variance annotation is given, the type constructor is assumed non-variant in the corresponding parameter. For instance, the abstract type declaration type 'a t means that τ t is neither a subtype nor a supertype of σ t if τ is subtype of σ.