Editors' blog
Irregular thoughts on IEKO

Table of contents:
2018.07.26 BH: Systems theory and KO
2018.07.11 BH: IEKO presentation for ISKO 2018

2018-07-26 BH
Systems theory and knowledge organization (KO)

In the history of KO, there have been researchers interested in systems theory, cf. the selected references below. However, there is a need for broader and updated article on this issue. It is paradoxical that Arnold (2013) is a book about traditions in systems theory, which is published in a book series about library and information science (LIS), but which does not include anything about the relation between LIS or KO and systems theory. Not a single author (or editor from our field). In this way we have an unclear understanding of what systems theory may contribute to KO, what have its adherents found fruitful and which problems are connected to this theoretical frame? (This is the case with almost all theoretical frames, but here I'll start to call for somebody interested in doing the task to provide an scholarly, updated, critical review of the relation between KO and systems theory / systems science)

Arnold, Darrell (2013). Traditions of Systems Theory: Major Figures and Contemporary Developments. London: Routledge. (Routledge Studies in Library and Information Science)

Foskett, D. J. (1972). "Review: Information and general system theory. Journal of Librarianship. 4(3), 205-209.

Foskett, D. J. (1974). "General systems theory and the organisation of libraries". In: Studies in Library Management. London, Clive Bingley. (Vol. 2, side 10-24).

Foskett, D. J. (1980). "Systems theory and its relevance to documentary classification". International classification. 7(1), 2-5.

Fugmann, R. (1973). "On the role of subjectivity in establishing, using, operating and evaluating information retrieval systems. Treatise II on retrieval system theory". Information storage & retrieval, 9(7), 353-372.

Mansfield, U. (1982). "The systems movement: an overview for information scientists". Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 33(6), 375-382.

Marchant, M. P. (1980). "An open system theory approach to library effectiveness". In: Library effectiveness: A state of the art. New York, Library Administration and Management Association. (Side 151-159).

Mattessich, R. (1982). "The systems approach: its variety of aspects". Journal of the American Society for Information Science. 33(6), 383-394.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "Systems theory". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems%5Ftheory

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2018-07-11 BH
IEKO presentation for 15th International ISKO Conference, Porto, July 11th, 2018

Three core dimensions of knowledge organization (KO) are knowledge organization systems (KOS), knowledge organization processes (KOP) and core concepts. KOS are, for example, subject heading systems, thesauri, folksonomies and ontologies. KOP are for example, indexing (manual or algorithmic) or tagging. Core concepts are, for example, classification, knowledge, subject and data.

The general terms KOS and KOP as well as specific kinds (e.g. subject headings and thesauri) as well as core concepts are understood and defined differently in the literature. Articles should be based on a solid knowledge of the relevant literature (often belonging to different disciplines) supplemented with systematic literature searches and hopefully also based on the authors own research. They should present and discuss the most important different views and present arguments for the authors preferred understanding/definition. They should, for example, clarify whether Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) is a kind of thesaurus or not (or at the least present the arguments for and against that have been stated in the literature).

Often authors are surprised by the complexity involved in doing such conceptual analysis, they may underestimate the time and effort needed to answer such questions (which are simple to ask but mostly difficult to answer). I would like to emphasize that such theoretical review articles should be considered first rate research (and review articles are often highly cited, and please remember that IEKO articles are peer-reviewed, printed in Knowledge Organization, and indexed in Web of Science). Thus, the frustration of the unexpected complexity writing the article should be considered a research challenge, something to be examined carefully, step-by-step, and hopefully rewarded by increased conceptual clarity not just by the author herself, but in the field as a whole — and hopefully recognized in other fields too. In this place I would like to quote the outstanding biologist Ernst Mayr (1997, 98): "It cannot be overemphasized that changes in concepts have far more impact than new discoveries".

All articles should aim being contributions (not just articles, that are "good enough"). The ideal is that IEKO articles are considered the best general sources on their subjects, the sources that researchers, teachers and advanced students go to (and that more popular textbooks educational materials draws on). They should be concise, readable and focus on the important, but at the same time be broad and comprehensive to provide a good overview of the field and its core issues. And their reference lists should aim at being good, easily available sources for all researchers and students in the field.

Four main perspectives seem to be of utmost importance for KO in general and for almost any specific concept and article in IEKO:

  1. To consider it from the perspective of the history of knowledge organization ("classic" contributions to knowledge organization)
  2. To consider it in the perspective of front-edge information technology
  3. To consider relations to specific domains of knowledge
  4. To consider epistemological issue (and other philosophical issues like metaphysical and ethical issues).

Concerning 1

To consider KO as a research discipline implies that we are concerned with its progress and that means consider the development of concepts, theories, methodologies, applications, among other things. It also means to evaluate what must be considered obsolete knowledge, and which contributions should be considered valuable. There is sometimes a tendency that valuable contributions are forgotten. One important function of IEKO is to identify important contributions, integrate them in the conceptual structure of the field and make them easily available (although, of course, there may be different opinions on what to consider valuable contributions).

Examples of valuable contributions, which have been relatively neglected or unappreciated are, in my opinion, Bernier's (1980) differentiation between concept indexing and subject indexing (cf., http://www.isko.org/cyclo/subject#3.1 ), Cooper's (1969) observation that interindexer consistency as a measure of indexing quality has the problem, that indexing may be consistently bad (cf., http://www.isko.org/cyclo/indexing#3.2). A related function of IEKO is to present a scattered and badly researched idea in a well integrated article. Two fine examples are Ideal language and Integrative levels. Both are concepts, that have played a role in the history of KO, but which be difficult to become aware of and to overview were they not treated in comprehensive articles. (I am not saying that these articles solve the problems, just that they make a better starting point for further research). Therefore, almost all articles in IEKO should aim at relating their contents to former contributions in the field of KO. The implication is that authors should ideally have solid knowledge about research done in the field.

Concerning 2

The most modern advanced technologies such as search engines, the semantic Web and bibliometrics are often considered as belonging to information retrieval (IR), bibliometrics, and other fields which are external to KO, for example, computer science. Although this is right, it is important to realize that fields such as IR and bibliometrics are working with the same goal as KO: to help people navigate large databases finding helpful documents and information. Although, without question, they are separately established fields, we cannot ignore them, we must consider them different approaches to the same goal, and if we ignore them, we may develop a bubble, that is be increasingly considered irrelevant by the surrounding society. This raises the research problem: What is the specific perspective of KO, and how does it differ from, for example IR? To answer this, we must specify the different approaches in both KO and IR and try to answer the question: Which theoretical foundation for KO can make this field relevant in a time dominated by IR? The answer is not given, but each author ideally contributes to answering it. The most needed qualification here is probably honesty, as opposed to avoiding considering the challenges, just falling back on convenient professional myths. Such issues often come to the foreground when writing for IEKO, and they often pose a dilemma for the editor, whether to choose authors more related to KO or more related to other fields such as IR, the ideal being authors with knowledge in both fields.

Concerning 3

All knowledge is knowledge about something and it is important that KO acknowledges the progress made in specific domains. So far, we have a fine article about DSM, the psychiatric classification of mental diseases. It was a goal of Ingetraut Dahlberg to develop KO in subject areas, but we have not so far had much activity or influence — actually the philosophers are much more influential today, in, for example, biological classification, compared to us — and the same goes for almost all domains. (One fine exception is Geoffrey C. Bowker on, among other things the International Classification of Diseases and metadata standards in the U.S. network for long-term ecological research, LTER). Specific domains are important in more than one way, but first of all, important theory is developed by such research, for example, is was Charles Darwin (1859, 420) that proposed "all true classification is genealogical".

IEKO tries to find qualified authors for articles in all major subject fields. Here the primary qualification is the classification of the specific domain (X). Qualified researchers may be subject specialists (e.g. biologists), philosophers specializing in classifying X, people from LIS specializing in classifying X or others. Here as in other cases, a very important qualification is to have already published about X.

Concerning 4

The third overall ambition — closely related to the two former — is to consider philosophical questions in general and epistemological ones in particular. We should both have general articles on different epistemologies, but also have discussions of different philosophical issues in almost all other articles (for example, in the article about Colon Classification consider whether it is based on some philosophical assumptions, which are challenged today, or in the article Literary warrant consider how this may be interpreted more or less empiristic as a passive process or pragmatic as an active process in relation to the information specialist, or the important implications of different views in indexing (whether manual or algorithmic). Another way to say this is that each specific topic can always be considered from different perspectives, and it is extremely important that users of IEKO get this knowledge when using or browsing it. Today important issues relate to implications of classification (how does a given classification system affect different groups of people), which is closely related to ethical issues. Other issues concern the status of classifications, which involves questions related to social constructivism, realism and social epistemology. Research may uncover the hidden assumptions often underlying dominating systems.

The above was about ideal demands for IEKO, but of course these cannot all be met. There is a great need that more authors will work for IEKO, for example, with biographical articles of important contributors, specific kinds of technologies and systems, specific approaches to KO, historical articles, theoretical concepts etc. In order for ISKO to thrive, its knowledge base need to be improved, that is more people doing research are badly needed.

Some practical issues. All communication about writing for IEKO are sent to editor-in-chief, including all drafts, suggestions and manuscripts. Editor-accepted manuscripts are sent to peer- review by editor-in-chief, and may be rejected, needing major or minor revision or accepted. Finally accepted papers are sent to the web-manager and published online. Thereafter (not before) the final version of accepted papers should be uploaded in ScholarOne for publication in Knowledge Organization, cf.: Guidelines for contributors (these guidelines are constantly updated and contains now the following subsections: Using endnotes and reference managers; Articles on concepts; Articles on KOSs; Biographical articles; Updating after publication).


Bernier, Charles L. 1980. "Subject indexes". In: Kent, Allen; Lancour, Harold & Daily, Jay E. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science: Volume 29. New York, NY: Marcel Dekker, Inc.: 191-205.

Bowker, Geoffrey C. and Susan Leigh Star. 1999. Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cooper, William S. 1969. "Is interindexer consistency a hobgoblin? " American Documentation, 20: 268-278.

Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: J. Murray.

Mayr, Ernst. (1997). This is biology: The science of the living world. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press.

Millerand, Florence and Geoffrey C. Bowker. 2009. "Metadata Standards: Trajectories and Enactment in the Life of an Ontology". In Standards and Their Stories: How Quantifying, Classifying, and Formalizing Practices Shape Everyday Life, edited by Martha Lampland and Susan Leigh Star. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 149?165.

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Published 2018-08-01, last edited 2018-08-01

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