Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Physician decries lack of definitions in informatics

Dick Stanley, MD, Chief Medical Information Officer (CMIO) at Cooley-Dickinson Hospital, Northampton, Mass, decries the lack of definitions in informatics. He states: Interestingly, I’m having trouble finding even basic definitions of very common terms...

Dr. Stanley correctly points out that the science of informatics requires good definitions of terms to make progress. He notes that ...we’re supposed to be the people who care about [definitions].

However, the field of biomedical informatics has long been delinquent in this regard. The definitions it does generate are often quite poor. Like many outsiders who are recent to the field of informatics, Dr. Stanley notes that ...the whole informatics industry suffers from a tremendous lack of definitions.

As a member of that "industry" for 15 years, Dr. Stanley, let me say, guilty as charged.

Fortunately, there is light on the horizon. Criticism in this regard from ontologists like Dr. Barry Smith and Dr. Werner Ceusters at the University at Buffalo is beginning to turn the tide. They have been advocating for high-quality definitions in ontologies and information models for years, culminating in the adoption at least 3 principles mandating definitions of high quality by the OBO Foundry.

Of course, many ontologists, typically those with an engineering and/or computer science background, are anxious to have rigorous logical axioms that define ontology terms. We caution that getting textual definitions for human understanding correct is a necessary first step toward the logical axioms they rightly desire for ontologies to support automated reasoning.

But we ought not to put any carts before the horse of textual definitions, be they the conduct of science, the application of science to the clinical realm, or the development of logical axioms to automate cognitive activities of humans.