The recent post "Become the OntologySME" and the story mentioned therein was interesting, and touches on a question I've had for a while.
If anyone can give their thoughts, thank you.
Q1: Are there any sources that discuss the role of SMEs in ontology development?
[MW>] This is something I should have written about, but find I haven’t. So my experience is that it takes a team to develop a good ontology. I would choose the team to have 3-4 members. You preferably need two people who are subject matter experts, and two who are expert at ontology development (some team members may combine these skills). The reason is that it takes critical review and questioning of an ontology as it develops to achieve quality, and tricky problems benefit from multiple inputs.
Q2: If a domain ontology, say of some medical of biological subject, does not have one or more practicing SMEs, do you consider that to be a problem?
[MW>] Agreed. If a domain is exhaustively documented and is wholely unremarkable, you might be able to produce a good result without an SME, but I don’t recall a project when I did not have some questions that required SME input. If nothing else you need to know what the objectives/purpose of the ontology is.
Q3: To what degree do you believe non-SME ontology developers negatively have or do affect the representations of the domain, either via (a) (un)intentionally trying to represent domain content/entities/phenomena using their own metaphysical world view or that of a particular stripe in philosophy despite it clashing with domain science, or (b) limited understanding of the domain affecting the faithfullness/accuracy of the representation and models?
[MW>] a) I would always recommend and use an upper level ontology as an analysis framework. Done properly it means you ask questions that reveal assumptions and context that significantly improves the ontology. It is one of the main contributions that an ontologist makes. It matters less which upper ontology you use (as long as it is competent and you are expert in it). I would be surprised if one clashed with the domain science. That would raise alarm bells for me, not least because an upper ontology makes ontological, not scientific commitments. What you really need to do is understand your ontological commitments. These answer questions like:
- Can a particular (something like you and me) also be a class, or are classes and particulars disjoint?
- Do things that do not exist now exist at all? So can I talk about historical (or future) figures directly, or do I need to talk about what is written about them only.
- How is change over time dealt with? (states of things and temporal relationships are two possibilities)
- Can some objects have gaps in their existence? (things like organizational positions that can have vacancies and systems components that can be replaced)
[MW>] There are plenty more of these kinds of questions, but at the very least you will want to address them consistently if you are to produce a quality product. What you can’t do is not make ontological commitments, the only question is whether you are aware of them or not, and whether they make a sensible system of commitments. An upper ontology is a bundle of answers to these (and other) questions. If domain experts are claiming particular choices are necessary in their domain, they are probably mistaken, and it is worth taking them through the ontological commitments they are implicitly making, and exposing them to some alternatives.
b) Limited understanding of the domain is probably an advantage, since it means you will not be making the assumptions that SMEs will make from being immersed in the subject. The purpose of an ontologist in the team is that they are expert in building ontologies, the purpose of the SME in the team is that they are expert in the area for which the ontology is being created. You are not going to get a good result without both of these present.
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