Ontologies in the Context of Information Science

The majority of the readings this week looked at the notion of ontology as a means of organizing and structuring information. This is the first time I have considered ontology in this way using an information science lens. In the past I have looked at ontology as the philosophical idea of human existence and reality.

Once I began reading the literature this week I began to appreciate the term in the context of information science. Gruber (1992) suggests ontology as a “specification of a conceptualization” which can be used to create “definitions of formal vocabulary” considered useful to a particular community. In a sense it’s a way of describing the existence and reality shared within a domain or group of users, drawing on the philosophical definition.

Ontologies become outdated and biased as in Shirky’s example of the Dewey Decimal system and library card catalogs. These systems assume “that for any new book, its logical place already exists within the system, even before the book was published” (Shirky, 2007). This is clearly problematic in a world where knowledge is continually and rapidly being created and reshaped. In more extreme cases ontologies are viewed or evoked as standards and this can be dangerous as “each standard and each category valorizes some point of view and silences another” (Bowker & Star, 2000). As ontologies change slowly, and information in our world grows quickly, these systems are quickly out of sync and pace with reality. Ontologies must be constantly challenged and curated, which leads to significant constraints on those who curate them.

I am old enough to remember printed phone books, directories and catalogs which used fairly firm ontologies implying a categorical structure. In creating them decisions had to be made about how these documents were structured and if one was advertising here, where to place their listing. I do remember instances where I would be searching for something and have to review a number of categories before finding the correct listing. A lot has changed since then.

Types of Organization network vs hierarchy

Social Networking and Design by Jesse Louis-Rosenberg

From Shirky’s perspective we are somewhat free from these constraints when working with the internet.

In the digital world, there is no physical constraint that’s forcing this kind of organization on us any longer (Shirky, 2007).

Without the physical constraints of having to assign an item to a fixed ontological category  many possibilities open up for organization in the digital world. Shirky describe how the Delicious social bookmarking service allowed anyone on the internet to assign their own categories and tags to web resources without making or subscribing to an ontological commitment. On the web every piece of text is potentially a tag which can be searched. A URL can be assigned a number of different classifications based on the users who tag and catalog it. While early web directories sought to imply ontological categorization on the internet, Google found success in using the aggregate assignment of links and user generated classifications to create their index.

Yet Ontologies Still Exist 

Shirky argues that there still can be situations where ontological classification may be useful. From his description, it sounds like communities of practice (Wenger-Trayner, 2015) may be the most suited to adopting and sharing a common ontology, I have found that not to be the case in my own context.

A mini example: in my workplace we use a shared hard drive to facilitate our work, ensuring files are always up to date and accessible to others. The drive has been used over many years and content is sorted and arranged in a hierarchical file system. Everyone in our office has access to the drive and can add to, edit and rearrange the organization of the drive. Although we are a close knit group of users, a community of practice one could say, many of us frequently struggle to find resources within this shared drive. We have not made an ontological commitment or come to an agreement on the structure of this shared drive. Furthermore, since we cannot apply our own categorization and tags to the documents in this filesystem, we are constantly trying to figure out how the previous user of the system made sense of this collection of documents. Trust me, this results in some frustration.

As Wenger-Trayner (2015) states, “a tool or technology is as good as it is useful to the people who use it”. However I do believe there are stronger and weaker tools for facilitating a community of practice.  I would lean towards Shirky’s flexible vision over the rigid ontological vision for supporting such a group.

In my mind it comes down to personal knowledge management, how we make sense of the world and organize it in a way which has meaning to us. Tools like Delicious allowed us to expose those sense making activities and proved there was value in rendering the aggregate of multiple user’s sense making.

Reference managers like Zotero, RefWorks and Mendely also allow us to apply individual categories and tags to scholarly research and web documents. I have been trying to use these more deliberately to organize my own research. Perhaps it is also time to start looking at how research is being curated in aggregate on these platforms to see if some of the value Delicious demonstrated exists within these systems.


Bowker, G. C., & Star, S. L. (2000). Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. MIT press.

Gruber, T. (2015). What is an Ontology?  Retrieved online: http://www-ksl.stanford.edu/kst/what-is-an-ontology.html

Shirky, C. (2007). Ontology is overrated–categories, links, and tags.http://www.shirky.com/writings/ontology_overrated.html?goback=.gde_1838701_member_179729766

Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction.

CSCW 586 Blogs: Ontologies and Digital Curation

CC BY 4.0 CSCW 586 Blogs: Ontologies and Digital Curation by Michael Paskevicius is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tagged on:     

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: