NASEM Releases Report on Ontology Use to Accelerate Behavioral Science Research

June 24, 2022

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2022. Ontologies in the Behavioral Sciences: Accelerating Research and the Spread of Knowledge. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recently released a consensus study titled “Accelerating Behavioral Science Through Ontology Development and Use.” FABBS is proud to be a co-sponsor (see the full report here, or the report highlights here). A committee of scholars and experts on ontological systems convened to investigate how behavioral scientists currently organize existing knowledge and the challenges and potential opportunities to improve the full integration of this knowledge across scientific disciplines as well as potential opportunities. The committee presented their findings and provided recommendations for federal agencies and scientific organizations at a webinar on June 16th. A recording will be available here at a later time.  

The committee agreed upon the widely used definition of ontology as; “a formal, explicit specification of a shared conceptualization.” As a concept, ontologies are not widely understood. Yet without them, behavioral science research may face reduced public impact. Researchers exploring the same idea may be disconnected from each other’s work due to disparate terminologies. Their findings would be siloed in literature, becoming a challenge in the dissemination of their contributions and hindering the accumulation of knowledge in the subject.  

Bruce Chorpita, professor of psychology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, presented on the importance of ontologies and referred to the disconnect among scientists as the “Jingle-jangle problem.” Researchers using the same word could be referring to different ideas (“the jingle fallacy”) – such as how the term ‘stress’ could refer to a psychological effect or a physical force. Conversely, researchers using different words could still refer to the same idea (“the jangle fallacy”) – such as ‘coping,’ ‘emotional regulation,’ ‘cognitive control,’ or ‘self-control,’ as terms to refer to the same idea.  

The committee cited some examples in the failure of adopting ontologies that has resulted in unclear data – such as how the categorization of race in the U.S. census has systematically overlooked certain populations, or how 60 percent of mental health disorders cited in scientific literature lack diagnoses – leaving to question if the conditions of the disorder conform to current guidelines. In the report, the committee provided use cases related to high priority areas at the National Institute of Health (NIH), as applicable to human health, trans-disease relevance, and linkable to valid behavioral measures. 

The committee provided recommendations to other federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), to improve ontology use by way of incentivizing graduate-level teaching and practical training. The report also recommended that publishers develop policies to improve the use of common vocabularies and data-reporting standards in behavioral science journals. FABBS and other scientific organizations were listed in the report to play a role by “coordinating ontology development across academic and professional organizations.” 

The committee urged behavioral scientists to create the ontologies, rather than rely on computational tools to generate the ontologies for societal use. Several examples of highly systemized ontologies put forth by behavioral scientists include the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, among others. Katy Borner, professor of engineering and information science at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, explained, “computers do not replace neighbors and friends. All end users of ontologies must be active participants.”