One hundred years of ontology

At the start of July 2013 I did a Pubmed search for “ontology” or “ontologies” and recorded the numbers of papers per year. I did the same thing again, this time searching for “Gene Ontology”. A bar chart of the numbers is below (a table of the numbers is at the end of the blog).

 

 

Up until the 1990s, things just rumble along, very much at a very low-level, with only the occaisional mention of “ontology” or “ontologies”. Things pick up in the 1990s, as the CS notion of ontology was introduced as a way of organising heterogenous data, and then begin to explode in the 2000s with the advent of the Gene Ontology. The numbers for the “Gene Ontology” start in 2000 and pick up fast and fairly consistently track the total number of ontology papers and, in recent years, forming a high proportion of a large number of papers. There appears to be an anomaly or out-lier in 2010; a weirdness, mistake or a community holiday. I’ve done no further analysis of these numbers…

 

Purely out of interest, I had a look at the earliest paper to mention “ontology”:

 

Bryce P.H. ONTOLOGY IN RELATION TO PREVENTIVE MEDICINE. Am J Public Health (N Y). 1912 Jan;2(1):32-3. (PMID: 18008609)

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=18008609

 

The article is very much of its time and contains some outrageous comments on the causes and spread of disease. However, the core of the paper is about using ontology as a tool for discussion; the opening sentence is

 

We have to thank the metaphysicians for, if not explaining many things, at least giving us useful terms under which discussions may be carried on. least giving us useful terms under which discussions may be carried on. Ontology

is defined ‘as that branch of metaphysics which investigates and explains the nature of all things or existences.’ While he who coined the word cannot be accused of excessive modesty, yet one may thank him for it since it does give a direction to thought,…

 

which sort of sums it up – especially the bit about excessive modesty.

 

“For the student of preventive medicine there must arise the question: In ONTOLOGY IN RELATION TO PREVENTIVE MEDICINE what ethical category must he place the agents of disease as mosquitos, the hosts

of many diseases or the specific microbes and protozoa, their most direct causes? What is the meaning of pestis, cholera, tuberculosis or syphilis in the plan of life?”

 

Which are questions the modern ontology community are tackling and with the greatest of modesty. Hopefully we can do this without Price’s appeal to the merits of various forms of civilisation, religion and, for that time, the acceptable notion of eugenics… Price says “… until man with the splendid intelligence with which he is endowed shall have learned the life conditions under which each of these evils attacking him exists, and how each in turn may either be subdued to his uses or removed from his pathway.” – he obviously isn’t prone to the lack of modesty he ascribes to metaphysicians.

 

Ontology OR Ontologies

Gene Ontology

Year

Papers

Year

Papers

2013

813

2013

587

2012

1257

2012

835

2011

1036

2011

664

2010

899

2010

61

2009

815

2009

528

2008

731

2008

464

2007

698

2007

436

2006

535

2006

344

2005

457

2005

273

2004

301

2004

162

2003

177

2003

85

2002

91

2002

34

2001

5

2001

4

2000

43

2000

2

1999

21

Total

4479

1998

33

   

1997

15

   

1996

7

   

1995

21

   

1994

11

   

1993

6

   

1992

6

   

1991

7

   

1990

6

   

1989

1

   

1988

3

   

1987

3

   

1985

1

   

1984

1

   

1983

1

   

1982

3

   

1981

2

   

1980

1

   

1979

1

   

1977

1

   

1974

2

   

1972

2

   

1971

2

   

1968

2

   

1967

1

   

1965

1

   

1961

1

   

1951

1

   

1912

1

   

Total

8022

   
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