Polyhierarchy in Taxonomies

A defining characteristic of taxonomies is that terms/concepts are arranged in broader-narrower hierarchies, which may resemble tree structures. A limited number of top concepts each have narrower concepts, which in turn may have narrower concepts, etc., and the narrowest concepts at the bottom of the hierarchy are sometimes referred to as leaf nodes, as “leaf” extends the metaphor of “tree.” The tree model has its limits, though, because taxonomies may also have occasional cases of “polyhierarchy,” whereby a concept may have two or more broader concepts.

People who are new to taxonomies, however, might not consider polyhierarchies, because they tend to think of taxonomies as classification systems. Hierarchical information taxonomies have their origin in classification systems, such as the Linnean taxonomy of organisms, library classification systems, and industry classification systems. Typical classification systems, however, do not allow polyhierarchy within the system. Originally, classification systems were for physical things, such as books, which can belong in only one place, so there could be no polyhierarchy. Standard classification systems, such as industry classification systems, were developed by governmental, international, or nongovernmental organizations with a primary purpose of gathering and organizing statistical data about classes, and thus polyhierarchy is not permitted, as it would lead to double-counting of members of a class.

The primary purpose of hierarchy in a taxonomy is to provide guided browsing of topics to end-users, who may start out looking at broad categories and then drill down to find the narrowest concept of interest. Thus, polyhierarchy serves the same purpose. The idea is that different people will start at different points at the top of the hierarchy to arrive at the same concept of interest, which is tagged to the same content set. A polyhierarchy should be implemented if the concept’s relationship is correctly and inherently hierarchical in both of its cases. An example of a polyhierarchy is Educational software, which has both Software and Educational products as broader concepts. Educational software is a kind of software, fully included within Software, and Educational software is a kind of educational product, fully included within Educational products.

Taxonomy standards and polyhierarchy issues

Taxonomy/thesaurus standards (ANSI/NISO Z39.19 and ISO 25964) describe three kinds of hierarchical relationships–generic-specific, generic-instance, and whole-part,–and polyhierarchy may exist within any of these types. Polyhierarchy that combines different hierarchical types, however, can be problematic, so it is best to avoid mixing hierarchical relationship types. For example, the following polyhierarchy mixes different types:

Washington, DC
Broader: United States (whole-part)
Broader: Capital cities (generic-instance)

The reason to avoid creating a mixed type polyhierarchyis simply that the browsable hierarchy user experience can get compromised and potentially confusing. Extensive hierarchies with large numbers of narrower concept relationships would result. A hierarchical taxonomy tree should be designed with a dominant hierarchy design. An exception is a thesaurus, which is not designed so much for top-down browsing but for browsing from term to term. Mixing hierarchical types within a thesaurus is thus acceptable.

It is also recommended to avoid creating hierarchical relationships across different facets in a faceted taxonomy. This is because facets are designed to be mutually exclusively, so that concepts from multiple facets can be used in combination to limit/filter/refine a search. As such, facets are designed to be distinct aspects. There could be an occasional exception of polyhierarchy, though, but more than 2-3 polyhierarchies across an entire faceted taxonomy should be a cause for review.

With the wider adoption of the SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organization System) model for taxonomies and in taxonomy management systems, taxonomies are more commonly organized into concept schemes. A concept scheme can be represented as a facet in a faceted taxonomy, but it is not limited to use as a facet. Utilizing concept schemes, it makes sense to have separate concept schemes with different hierarchical types, some for generic-specific (for type, categories, topics), one or more for whole-part (geography, organizational structures), and some containing lists of instances (named entities). In this model, Washington, DC, would be narrower only to the United States in the whole-part hierarchical concept scheme for geographic places. It could also be linked to Capital cities, which is in a different concept scheme for place types, with a different kind of relationship (“related” or perhaps a semantic relationship from an ontology).

Although SKOS permits hierarchical relationships across different concept schemes, it is best practice not to do this but rather to create hierarchical relationships and polyhierarchies confined within a concept scheme, just as it is recommended not to have polyhierarchy across facets.

Additional polyhierarchy considerations

Polyhierarchy concerns concepts in the taxonomy, and it is not about objects, items, or assets that get tagged with taxonomy concepts, such as an individual publication, document, image, product record, etc. Each of these may get tagged with multiple taxonomy concepts, and as such may have multiple “classifications” and thus can appear as if they are in a polyhierarchy, if a frontend application displays tagged items as if they are leaf nodes in a taxonomy.

A polyhierarchy usually involves only two broader concepts, not more. Having more than two broader concepts is extremely rare. If you find yourself creating polyhierarchies of three or more multiple times in a taxonomy, check to make sure you are not doing something wrong with the hierarchy design.

Some content management systems, which have built-in taxonomy management and tagging features, do not support polyhierarchy. The best known is SharePoint with taxonomies managed in its Term Store feature. Taxonomy terms may be “reused” across Term Sets, but they are not permitted within a Term Set, where it is most suitable. See my past post, Polyhierarchy in the SharePoint Term Store, for more details.

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