Reference ontologies — application ontologies: Either/or or both/and?

The distinction between reference ontologies and application ontologies crept rather unobtrusively into the recent literature on knowledge engineering. A lot of the discourse surrounding this distinction – notably, the one framing the workshop generating this collection of papers – suggests the two types of ontologies are in some sort of opposition to one another. Thus, Borge et al. [3] characterize reference ontologies (more recently, foundational ontologies) as rich, axiomatic theories whose focus is to clarify the intended meanings of terms used in specific domains. Application ontologies, by contrast, provide a minimal terminological structure to fit the needs of a specific community. Reflecting their minimal nature, Masolo et al. [7] refer to such ontologies as “lightweight” ontologies. An application ontology can be lightweight in a second respect as well, namely, that it may not necessarily take the form of fully-fledged axiomatic theory. Rather, it might only be a taxonomy of the relevant domain, a division of the domain into a salient collection of classes, perhaps ordered by the subclass relation. Importantly, though, for an application ontology to “fit the needs of a specific community” needn’t require representational accuracy. In the “worst” case (from a reference ontology perspective), to fit the needs of a community is just to represent uncritically what people in that community think about the ontology’s domain.
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