KEYNOTE: Concepts and conceptual relations: the basis and basics of knowledge organization system

Birger Højrland, University of Copenhagen (Denmark)

Abstract |Knowledge organization (KO) is closely related to information retrieval (IR). A book about KO expresses this well in the title Information Retrieval Design, and one important difference between KO and IR is that the last field to a large degree ignores the importance of the design of the documents/document representations in which the IR is performed, while this is a main focus of KO. As a research field, we live of unsolved problems, and it is therefore important to consider what problems are relatively bad served by existing technologies and how they may be improved. A basic assumption by the present author is that techniques used in front-end technologies today (such as exact match, partial match, popularity measures based on link statistics and personalization of searches) needs to be supplemented or replaced by systems based on scientific criteria: What should be retrieved should be what our best scholarly knowledge consider true and relevant (which is very seldom explicitly considered with the fields of evidence-based practice and parts of ontology-construction as the main exceptions). 

In KO the concept knowledge organization system (KOS) is important. KOS is a generic term for classification systems, thesauri, ontologies, and other systems. In KO, KOS have traditionally been understood as systems of selected concepts and selected relations between concepts (such as the generic relation, the hierarchical whole-part relationship, and the associative relationship). Some influential authors such as Barry Smith denies that KOS are about concepts, but for the present author it is a basic assumption that KOS should be understood as systems of concepts and conceptual (semantic) relations, but here we deal with difficult philosophical issues related to realism.

IT has been claimed that KOS can be modeled as “the semantic staircase”. This claim will not be examined here but will – at least partly – be considered true.  What this means can perhaps best illustrated by the claim that some kinds of KOS claim that they are able to represent other kinds. For example, it has been claimed that Topic Maps can represent taxonomies, thesauri, faceted classification, synonym rings, and authority files. To the degree this is the case, it seems for me obsolete to do research in, for example, thesauri, because a thesaurus may just be a limited version of a more general system. Therefore, what seems to be both the basis and basics of KOS are systems of concepts and conceptual relations. All our knowledge about relations in thesauri, for example, is still relevant but just part of a broader field as represented on the systems on the top of the semantic staircase.

Concepts and conceptual relations are in part established by scientific research and scientific theories. When paradigm shifts occur in a domain, the concept and their relations also change. Thomas Kuhn’s theory illustrated this. In the Ptolemaic paradigm, astronomers might learn the concepts “star” and “planet” by having the Sun, the Moon, and Mars pointed out as instances of the concept “planet” and some fixed stars as instances of the concept “star.” In the Copernican paradigm, astronomers might learn the concepts “star,” “planet,” and “satellites” by having Mars and Jupiter pointed out as instances of the concept “planet,” the Moon as an instance of the concept “satellite,” and the Sun and some fixed stars as instances of the concept “star.” Thus, following the Copernican revolution, the concepts “star,” “planet,” and “satellite” got a new meaning and astronomy got a new classification of celestial bodies. This shift in concepts became part of general knowledge and the semantic relations in ordinary language. (And this is not just old achievements, such semantic changes occur in modern science, for example, the Pluto case).

Bio | Birger Hjørland , keynote speaker, is Professor in knowledge organization at the Department of Information Studies, University of Copenhagen (formerly Royal School of Library and Information Science) since 2001 and at the University College in Borås 20