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Ontologies and vocabularies

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02/21/2012 - 1:55pm

Ontologies & Vocabularies


Ontologies and controlled vocabularies are hierarchical schemas for data and metadata that can make them more readable to humans and machines.

They differ in the level of detail they represent:

An ontology is a conceptualization of a domain of information that shows the categories of “things” in the domain and their hierarchical relationships.

controlled vocabulary is a list of entities within each category of an ontology that specifies what each entity is named.


  • They facilitate searching and meta-analysis within a data set
  • They enhance the interoperability of data sets across the “semantic web” or in repositories with data from multiple sources

How are ontologies and vocabularies used?

  • A very simple implementation could be using a convention for naming your data files and folders.
  • A more complex scenario would be using a published ontology as a schema for your database. This could make it easier to deposit your data into a disciplinary repository that is based on the same ontology.

What help is available for ontologies and vocabularies?

A data specialist from one of the following groups may be able to help you find, adapt, and use an appropriate ontology/vocabulary.

  • A digital curation consultant (digitalrepository [at] asu [dot] edu)
  • The subject librarian for your department
  • An informatics specialist or IT consultant in your department

Which ontologies or vocabularies should I use?

In some fields, for example, genomics, ontologies/vocabularies are well-established and widely used. In other disciplines, they are are emerging. The list below is a starting point. You may want to check professional societies and journals for ones that have been developed in your disciplinary area.

Disciplinary area Example
Life Sciences Bioportal biomedical ontologies from the NIH National Centers for Biomedical Computing
OBO Foundry organismal, cellular, and molecular ontologies for both plants and animals
Geospatial and Geography Spatial Ontology Community of Practice describes current work developing spatial ontologies
MUNI an open municipal and city ontology, currently under development
Engineering OntoCAPE a large scale ontology for Computer Aided Process Engineering
Humanities Music Ontology
Ontomedia an ontology for digital narratives

A sample of the Gene Ontology

A sample of the Gene Ontology