Ontology Design: Introducing the Concepts


August 2002

Ontology Design: Introducing the Concepts


In their article, “A Collaborative Approach to Ontology Design” (Communications of the ACM, February 2002/Vol. 45, No. 2), Clyde W. Holsapple and K.D. Joshi discuss designing an ontology using five different approaches. Specifically, they encourage using a collaborative approach.

An ontology is defined as “different ways of representing the same concept,” and is critical in developing a metadata strategy that works within the context of content management. Designing an ontology provides “a common language for sharing and reusing knowledge about a particular domain of interest.” Keep in mind that there is a difference between the ontology itself (the concepts and their relationships to each other) and the knowledge that is not part of the ontology but that is gathered from context, observation, testing, evaluation, or modification.

When designing an ontology, ontological commitment is important. Ontological commitment is “an agreement by multiple parties…to adopt a particular ontology when communicating about the domain of interest, even though they do not necessarily have the same experiences, theories, or prescriptions about the domain.” Pursuing the goal of ontological commitment should be an integral part of designing an ontology. This position is the foundation of a collaborative approach to ontology design and the reason the authors encourage using one.

The five approaches to ontology design are

  • Inspirational
  • Inductive
  • Deductive
  • Synthetic
  • Collaborative

Using the inspirational approach, the developer offers his personal views about the domain of interest. This approach results in inventive ontologies, but it lacks theory and may be unrealistic. Ontological commitment may be limited unless many other people agree with the developer’s views.

Using the inductive approach, the developer analyzes a specific case within the domain and applies the results to other cases. The results of this approach, however, are not general enough to use in other organizations. Therefore, ontological commitment to this approach may also be limited.

Using a deductive approach, the developer applies general principles about the domain to a specific case. This approach presupposes that general principles exist and have been selected.

Using the synthetic approach, the developer combines characteristics from existing ontologies. While this approach does rely on the other approaches, interpretation of the ontologies is left up to the developer. The new ontology is likely to gain wide ontological commitment, though, because it is made up of other ontologies that have already been accepted.

Using the collaborative approach, the developer brings together multiple views about the domain while also basing the ontology on another established ontology. The collaborative approach has built-in quality control, unlike the other four approaches, and incorporating multiple views builds ontological commitment from all participants.

Quality control of the collaborative approach relies heavily on the participants reaching a consensus and the developer overseeing the process, which involves three iterative steps:

1 The developer provides an ontology, which the participants critique.

2 The developer revises the ontology, addressing the participants concerns.

3 The participants critique the revised ontology.

The collaborative approach itself has four phases:

  • Preparation
  • Anchoring
  • Iterative Improvement
  • Application

Designing an ontology using the collaborative approach encourages participation and ontological commitment while maintaining the quality of the ontology.