Scope notes are way to put a restriction on meaning. Scope notes are what you want to share with the world; editorial notes are what we will share with the team. A scope note might delineate the meaning itself. It might tell you the range of topics covered by the term; it might be instructions for use. We keep the term history in a separate field, and we also keep the source in a separate field. Some thesauri will put all of that together in the Scope Notes field. Sometimes the scope notes need to be reciprocal. If they refer to another term, you need to post the relationship in both places so that people can get to it from either term.
International thesaurus standard ISO 25964-1 (Thesauri and interoperability with other vocabularies, Part 1: Thesauri for information retrieval) offers this guidance: “A scope note should be used to clarify the boundaries of a concept, especially when the meaning of the preferred term in ordinary discourse can be interpreted too broadly or too narrowly, or to distinguish between preferred terms that have overlapping meanings in natural language. It can also be used to provide other advice on term usage to either the indexer or the searcher. A scope note need not be a full definition but should clarify the intended use of a term within the thesaurus.”
Here’s some guidance from ANSI/NISO Z39.19, page 22:
A scope note is used:
• to restrict or expand the application of a term,
• to distinguish between terms that have overlapping meanings in natural language, or
• to provide other advice on term usage to either the indexer or the searcher.
A scope note should state the chosen meaning of a term. It may also indicate other meanings that are recognized in natural language, but which have been deliberately excluded from the controlled vocabulary.
A scope note can be used to indicate meaning of a term in the context of a particular thesaurus, for its intended audience (Stress – Metal, Psychological, Physiological). It could also be a definition (unless the term record contains a separate field for definitions, which many thesauri do). Scope notes are particularly useful for indicating any restriction in meaning, and for indicating the range of topics covered. They are often used to provide direction for indexers. In the case of terms that are often confused, a scope note may suggest an alternative term.
There is no rule as to how many terms you should write scope notes for. Use them as needed. You might need them for only a fraction of your terms, or for only a few terms. They don’t need to be long; usually a sentence or a paragraph will do.
Editorial notes are similar to scope notes, but they are intended for in-house use. Public web displays of a thesaurus will generally not display them. Editorial notes are the notes to ourselves saying things like “this overlaps x, y, and z, and I don’t know what to do with it.” You need to capture that concept when you are thinking about it. When the mental dissonance happens for you, you need to write it down so that someone – maybe you, maybe someone else – can find a solution.
Marjorie M.K. Hlava President, Access Innovations
This posting is one of a series based on a workshop, “Thesaurus Creation and Management,” that Marjorie Hlava presented in December of 2012.