Deviating from Taxonomy Standards

In my last blog post, I suggested that enterprise taxonomies need not follow the standards for controlled vocabularies and thesuari (ANSI/NISO Z39.19 guidelines and ISO 25964-1) to the same extent as “traditional” discipline taxonomies and thesauri. I say this cautiously, though. Standards should not be ignored for any taxonomy, but rather followed in general, and any deviations made should be for good reason. Enterprise taxonomies (taxonomies custom-designed for the content and users of a specific enterprise, and for the entire enterprise) and also ecommerce taxonomies (taxonomies of products for sale) often have good reasons to deviate from standards in certain areas.
Hierarchical Relationships
An important part of the taxonomy standards are the criteria for creating hierarchical relationships. Hierarchical relationships should be one of three types: generic-specific, generic-instance, or whole-part. Any other relationship among posted/displayed terms is not hierarchical, but rather associaciative. A “good reason” to relate terms hierarchically even when they do not exactly meet the criteria, is when the pair of terms are clearly related, but the taxonomy does not include any associative terms. Enterprise and ecommerce taxonomies often are simple hierarchical taxonomies and do not support associative relationships common in standard thesauri. For example, the following two hierarchies are not correct by the standards, but the first may be acceptable in an enterprise taxonomy and the second in an ecommerce taxnoomy:
  Information Technology
   > Telecommunications
   > > Cell phones
  > Camera accessories
The standard is to use plural for terms that are countable nouns. The idea is is that when users select a term they will find multiple documents, records, or digital assets (in plural) indexed with or categorized by the term. Enterprise and ecommerce taxonomies, however, tend to be comprised of multiple taxonomy facets, whereby the user selects terms from a combination of facets. Taxonomy terms within facets then appear to user to be filters, scopes, aspects, or attributes, rather than simply a category of plural objects. For example, a document type facet might have terms in the singular describing the type of document: Article, Report, Form, Application, Interview, etc., all in the singular to answer the question “what kind of document.” The names of the facets themselves may also be in singular, rather than plural, so as to “limit by” a facet, such as: Document type, Location, Topic, Department, etc.
Compound Terms
The standards present criteria to consider in retaining or breaking apart compound terms. For example “A compound term should be split when its focus refers to a property or part, and its modifier represents the whole or possessor of that property or part.” (ANSI/NISO Z39.19-2005 section While such guidelines are useful and certainly within the scope of taxonomy design, the highly customized nature of enterprise or ecommerce taxonomies obviate following such guidelines for compound terms. ANSI/NISO gives the example of aircraft + enginesrather than aircraft engines, but aircraft engines, or other such compound terms, would be perfectly acceptable in an enterprise or ecommerce taxonomy. It is worth noting that both the ANSI/NISO and ISO standards state that these criteria are just guidelines and do not have to be strictly followed.
An enterprise or ecommerce taxonomy can be a challenge to create. Just because adherence to taxonomy standards may be less strict for a corporate or retail taxonomy than it is for a subject/discipline taxonomy, should not suggest that it is easier to design or that non-trained taxonomists can design it. Only with a good understanding of the standards would one know when and where it is acceptable not to adhere to a specific guideline.

1 thought on “Deviating from Taxonomy Standards

  1. Hey Heather – Great article. I never really thought about hierarchical relationships and deviation from the standards and norms that we follow every day. Looking forward to reading more of your great content as I look to further study the IT asset tracking industry. Thanks!

Comments are closed.