Part 3: Concepts first, then terms

In my previous blog, I described how for very broad and general terms, it can be nearly impossible to get a roomful of experts to agree on a definition of the term. However, it can be relatively easy to identify a small set of core concepts that everyone agrees are central to what they are talking about when they use that particular term.

In this blog, we explore the role of concepts vs. terms in the ontology engineering process more broadly; that is focusing on all terms, not just the more challenging ones. First of all, is it important to understand the role of terms when building an ontology in a formal logic formalism such as OWL. Basically, they don’t matter. Well, that’s not quite true. What is true is that from the perspective of the logic, the formal semantics and the behavior of any inference engine that uses the ontology, they don’t matter.

You could change any term in an ontology, or all of them, and logically, the ontology is still exactly the same. A rose by any other name, smells just as sweet. You can call it ‘soccer’ or ‘football’, but it is still the same game. So, especially in the early stages of building the ontology, it is important to focus first on getting the concepts nailed, and to defer any difficult discussions about terms. Of course, you have give the concept a name, so you can refer to it in the ontology, or to anyone else interested in the ontology. If there is a handy name that people are generally happy with, then just use that. When no good terms come to mind, then use a long descriptive term that is suggestive of the meaning, and get back to it later.

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