Report Highlights the Potential Uses of Ontologies in Behavioral Sciences

Ways of thinking about knowledge have proliferated academic discussions for centuries, providing insights into how to maximize potential impacts. Ontologies, or the systems for organizing and classifying knowledge, are valuable tools used by scientific researchers, but they are used less frequently by behavioral and social scientists.

The National Academies released a report, “Ontologies in the Behavioral Sciences: Accelerating Research and the Spread of Knowledge,” in May 2022. Drafted by the Committee on Accelerating Behavioral Science through Ontology Development and Use, the report seeks to describe how ontologies are valuable to support science, its findings and practical applications, as well as propose how they could better serve the development of research in the behavioral social sciences.

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“These ideas build on what has been accomplished through centuries of attempts to synthesize what is known, as well as decades of research on human and animal behavior,” the report reads. “The approaches we recommend have the potential to democratize knowledge about human behavior by making that knowledge efficiently retrievable and actionable by the wide diversity of stakeholders in the domain of the behavioral sciences.”

The report cites the objectives of ontologies as including classification, communication, data integration, bibliographical retrieval and comparing and analyzing data. These convey the benefits of improving investigators’ care and services, providing infrastructures to allow conclusions to translate into direct results and allowing possibilities to increase knowledge.

“Ontology development and use has the potential to move behavioral science forward from a domain in which research is generally siloed and the data and results are often incompatible to one in which the evidence is searchable and more easily integrated and in which computer technology is leveraged in the discovery of new relationships, the development of novel hypotheses, and the identification of knowledge gaps,” one of the report’s conclusions reads.

Researchers concluded that the limited existing attempts to utilize specific ontologies in the behavioral sciences lack necessary semantic specification, which leads to challenges for the use of artificial intelligence applications and automated reasoning. While noting the lack of clear paths for ontological development, criteria for effective ontologies is identified as including logical soundness, validity and usefulness.

“There are comparatively few ontological systems in the behavioral sciences that are widely known and used, and those that exist have had limited impact,” the report read. “The developers of these systems in behavioral domains appear to operate largely on their own in identifying or developing the models and practices that might best suit their needs.”

While no current institutions currently promote shared ontologies, stakeholders who the report recommends engaging with ontological development include academics, journals and government agencies and organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.

Specific recommendations include improved communication and coordination of information sharing, further reports by the Office of Science and Technology Policy to conceptualize how behavioral sciences can best implement ontologies, various other associations should work together to develop shared vocabularies and standards and ontology development should be incorporated into graduate education.

Robert M. Kaplan is the chair of the Committee on Accelerating Behavioral Science through Ontology Development and Use and is a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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Molly Gahagen

Molly Gahagen is a third-year student at Johns Hopkins University studying political science and international studies. She is currently the social science communications intern at SAGE Publishing.

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