Are taxonomists and ontologists as rare as unicorns? Before addressing that question, let’s talk about the difference between taxonomy and ontology first. It can be a complex matter.

A taxonomy is a knowledge organization system, a set of words that have been organized to control the use of terms used in a subject field into a vocabulary to facilitate the storing and retrieving of items from a repository. Taxonomies are useful for organizing information for both internal and external consumption. To simplify it, a taxonomy is a system that describes how different concepts are related and organized within a specific hierarchical structure.

When you think about a taxonomy, you tend to think biology, botany or zoology. In these areas, taxonomy has always been a very important system for organizing knowledge. In the same way, taxonomy also helps businesses maintain order of the growing amount of documents, news, emails and all of the internal and external information that organizations have to manage daily.

An ontology is a formal description of knowledge as a set of concepts within a domain and the relationships that hold between them. Ontologies do not only introduce a sharable and reusable knowledge representation but can also add new knowledge about the domain.

One of the main features of ontologies is that, by having the essential relationships between concepts built into them, they enable automated reasoning about data. Such reasoning is easy to implement in semantic graph databases that use ontologies as their semantic schemata.

So what is the difference between the two?

Basically, an ontology identifies and distinguishes concepts and their relationships – it describes content and relationships. A taxonomy formalizes the hierarchical relationships among concepts and specifies the term to be used to refer to each – it prescribes structure and terminology.

So now we understand what they are and what they do, separately and together, how unique are they? How unique are those information specialists known as taxonomists and ontologists? Are they at the unicorn level?

A taxonomist uses a categorization scheme to determine how to classify a given term. Taxonomists are professionals who specialize in classifying and sorting information based on an established system. Taxonomists work in a range of fields to identify and describe various concepts or organisms then sorting them based on similar characteristics and patterns. Scientific and information-based fields both have a strong need for taxonomists.

An ontologist identifies the relationships that exist between classes of terms, identifies the properties and terms used for definition and sets the underlying model by which the classification system is built.

A quick job search shows upwards of 4x the number of taxonomy job opportunities as of today than ontologist opportunities. There is a strong likelihood that it is purely in the terminology. There could be many jobs posted that do not include the world ontology in the title, but the scope of the position could clearly be classified as an ontologist (if you were to do a taxonomy).

Unicorn? Maybe not. But taxonomists and ontologists are needed and valued across a diverse variety of fields and applications.

Because at the end of the day, content needs to be findable and, that happens with a strong, standards-based taxonomy. Access Innovations is one of a very small number of companies able to help its clients generate ANSI/ISO/W3C-compliant taxonomies and associated rule bases for machine-assisted indexing.

Melody K. Smith

Data Harmony is an award-winning semantic suite that leverages explainable AI.

Sponsored by Access Innovations, the world leader in taxonomies, metadata, and semantic enrichment to make your content findable.