The classification of gene products in the molecular biology domain: Realism, objectivity, and the limitations of the Gene Ontology
Background: Controlled vocabularies in the molecular biology domain exist to facilitate data integration across database resources. One such tool is the Gene Ontology (GO), a classification designed to act as a universal index for gene products from any species. The Gene Ontology is used extensively in annotating gene products and analysing gene expression data, yet very little research exists from a library and information science perspective exploring the design principles, philosophy and social role of ontologies in biology.\ud \ud Aim: To explore how molecular biologists, in creating the Gene Ontology, devised guidelines and rules for determining which scientific concepts are included in the ontology, and the criteria for how these concepts are represented.\ud \ud Methods: A domain analysis approach was used to devise a mixed methodology to study the design of the Gene Ontology. Concept analysis of a GO term and a critical discourse analysis of GO developer mailing list texts were used to test whether ontological realism is a tenable basis for constructing objective ontologies. A comparison of the current GO vocabulary construction guidelines and a study of the reasons why GO terms are removed from the ontology further explored the justifications for the design of the Gene Ontology. Finally, a content analysis of published GO papers examined how authors use and cite GO data and terminology.\ud \ud Results: Gene Ontology terms can be presented according to different epistemologies for concepts, indicating that ontological realism is not the only way objective ontologies can be designed. Social roles and the exercise of power were found to play an important role in determining ontology content, and poor synonym control, a lack of clear warrant for deciding terminology and arbitrary decisions to delete and invent new terms undermine the objectivity and universal applicability of the Gene Ontology. Authors exhibited poor compliance with GO data citation policies, and in re-wording and misquoting GO terminology, risk exacerbating the semantic problems this controlled vocabulary was designed to solve.\ud \ud Conclusions: The failure of the Gene Ontology to define what is meant by a molecular function, the exercise of power by GO developers in clearing contentious concepts from the ontology, and the strict adherence to ontological realism, which marginalises social and subjective ways of classifying scientific concepts, limits the utility of the ontology as a tool to unify the molecular biology domain. These limitations to the Gene Ontology design could be overcome with the development of lighter, pluralistic, user-controlled ‘open ontologies’ for gene products that can work alongside more traditional, ‘top-down’ developed vocabularies.
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