Formal properties of the Metathesaurus. Academic Article uri icon


  • The Metathesaurus is a machine-created, human edited and enhanced synthesis of authoritative biomedical terminologies. Its formal properties permit it to be a) exploited by computers, and b) modified and enhanced without compromising that usage. If further constraints were imposed on the existence and identity of Metathesaurus relationships, i.e., if every Metathesaurus concept had a "genus" and a "differentia," then the Metathesaurus could be converted into an "Aristotelian Hierarchy." In this sense, a genus is a concept that classifies another concept, and a differentia is a concept that distinguishes the classified concept from all other concepts in the same class. Since, in principle, these constraints would make the Metathesaurus easier to leverage and maintain computationally, it is interesting to ask to what degree the maintenance and enhancement procedures now in place are producing a Metathesaurus that is also an "Aristotelian Hierarchy." Given a liberal interpretation of the current Metathesaurus schema, the proportion of the Metathesaurus that is "Aristotelian" in each annual version is increasing in spite of dramatic concurrent increases in the number of Metathesaurus concepts. Without formality there is no modifiability nor scalability. [1] We need formal methods and computer-based tools that can help us with the task [of controlled medical vocabulary construction]. We need research in which controlled vocabulary development is the focus rather than a stepping stone for work on other theories and applications. [2]

publication date

  • January 1, 1994