Relations in KOS: is it possible to couple a common nature with different roles?

Published date13 March 2017
Date13 March 2017
AuthorFulvio Mazzocchi
Relations in KOS: is it possible
to couple a common nature
with different roles?
Fulvio Mazzocchi
National Research Council, Institute for Complex Systems, Monterotondo, Italy
Purpose The purpose of this paper, which increases and deepens what was expressed in a previous work
(Mazzocchi et al., 2007), is to scrutinize the underlying assumptions of the types of relations included in
thesauri, particularly the genus-species relation. Logicist approaches to information organization, which are
still dominant, will be compared with hermeneutically oriented approaches. In the light of these approaches,
the nature and features of the relations, and what the notion of a priori could possibly mean with regard to
them, are examined, together with the implications for designing and implementingknowledge organizations
systems (KOS).
Design/methodology/approach The inquiry is based on how the relations are described in literature,
engaging in particular a discussion with Hjørland (2015) and Svenonius (2004). The philosophical roots of
todays leading views are briefly illustrated, in order to put them under perspective and deconstruct the
uncritical reception of their authority. To corroborate the discussion a semantic analysis of specific terms and
relations is provided too.
Findings All relations should be seen as perspectival(not as a priori). On the other hand, different types
of relations, depending on the conceptual features of the terms involved, can hold a different degree of
stability.On this basis, they could be used to address different information concerns (e.g. interoperability vs
Research limitations/implications Some arguments that the paper puts forth at the conceptual level
need to be tested in application contexts.
Originality/value This paper considers that the standpoint of logic and of hermeneutic (usually seen as
conflicting) are both significant for information organization, and could be pragmatically integrated.
In accordance with this view, an extension of thesaurus relationsset is advised, meaning that perspective
hierarchical relations (i.e. relations that are not logically based but function contingently) should be also
included in such a set.
Keywords Information retrieval, Semantics, Controlled languages, Knowledge organizations,
Epistemology, Thesaurus construction
Paper type Conceptual paper
1. Introduction
Knowledge organizations systems (KOS) such as thesauri consist of controlled vocabularies
designed to allow for successful information retrieval (IR). They include different types of
relations for guiding indexers and searchers to the selection of the most suitable terms for
expressing given concepts/queries (Dextre Clarke, 2001). The relational structure of a
thesaurus is based on methods for connecting terms with related meanings. Of course, being
functional items designed to enhance information recall performance, they cannot be
considered semantic tools strict sensu (such as lexical databases); i.e. they are not built with
the purpose to provide a comprehensive specification of the meaning of terms. Nonetheless,
they can be seen as operational semantic tools because they are made of semantic relations
and somehow reflect the conceptual structure of a given subject field.
A number of scholars (see e.g. Hjørland, 2007) have stressed the importance of
investigating the theories about semantics that are, tacitly or not, involved in information
organization research, and the (ontological and) epistemological foundations on which they
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 73 No. 2, 2017
pp. 368-383
© Emerald PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/JD-05-2016-0063
Received 13 May 2016
Revised 13 May 2016
Accepted 6 September 2016
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
The author wouldlike to thank the two anonymous referees for their helpfulobservations on this paper.
are grounded. The type of meaning understanding can considerably impact on howKOS are
designed and implemented. However, such theoretical and foundational arguments are
usually outside the field of interest and competence of thesaurus specialists (Hjørland, 2016),
who tend to uncritically endorse the received framework.
This paper surveys the relations of KOS, focusing particularly on the generic relation.
The scrutiny of the latters underlying assumptions will offer the opportunity to inspect the
notion of a priori with respect to these relations. It will be examined the tree-like hierarchical
image, which has always constituted the dominant model of classification (at least in the
West) and even today inspires logicist approaches to information organization. These
approaches will be compared to hermeneutically oriented approaches, which recognize the
situated nature of knowledge and understand meaning in its complexity and contextuality.
In its final part, the papers aim is to elucidate why different types of relations (for instance,
genus-species relations vs perspective hierarchical relations) can play different roles in
information organization, despite the nature of all relations is the same. It will be shown
what this implies with respect to the interoperability issue.
2. The relational structure of thesauri
KOS such as thesauri are tools designed for improving IR. They are based on a natural
language that is turned into a normalized language, where the terms are basically
monosemic and the relations among them are made explicit.
Two types of semantic devices are employed (Svenonius, 2000): one that concerns
basically the linguistic level, which is based on methods for limiting the meanings or
referents of terms; homonyms and polysemes are disambiguated to improve precision in IR,
and one that concerns basically the conceptual level, which provides a structure capable of
enhancing information recall performance, helps improve precision by suggesting more
specific terms to refine the search and helps eliminate unwanted information. Through this
same structure, a representation of the meaning of each term is also given, along with a
portrayal of how one understands a particular subject field (Soergel, 1995).
Two types of interterm relations are distinguished in thesaurus standards such as ISO 25964-
1-2011 (International Organization for Standardization (ISO), 2011): syntactical or a posteriori
relations, which are regarded as document-dependent an example is the interrelationship
between offices,”“printers,and Londonin a work concerning printers in offices in
London”–and apriorirelations, which are instead seen as document-independent since they are
generally recognized and could be established through refer ence to standard works, such as
dictionaries and encyclopaedias(ISO, 2011, p. 17). A thesaurus is comprised of only the latter
type of relations.
The traditional thesaurus format, which was created to address the information needs of
the library and archival fields, includes three overall types of relations: hierarchical
relations, associative relations, and relations of equivalence. Technological advances,
however, are changing the setting in which KOS work, and this calls for reassessing
whether the traditional format still copes with the current needs of information organization.
Many believe that it lacks a well-defined semantics to address these needs (see e.g. Soergel
et al., 2004; Tudhope et al., 2001). A richer and more refined structure is advocated to
enhance thesaurus suitability for artificial intelligence and Semantic Web applications
higher expressive capabilities are required to allow inference and to increase the
possibilities for IR and interoperability among different KOS.
In addition, such a refinement is advised for improving the degree of internal structural
consistency. In fact, basic thesaural relations have not always been established consistently,
with the result of producing unpredictable semantic structures (Dextre Clarke, 2001).
In particular, this concerns the hierarchical relation, above all the generic type, whose sound
implementation plays a key role in ensuring the quality of a structured vocabulary. Many
in KOS

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