High Energy Physics Libraries Webzine

Editorial Board
Issue 10

 HEP Libraries Webzine
Issue 10 / December 2004

Why Keywording Matters

Arturo Montejo Ráez, Ralf Steinberger(*)



Most information retrieval systems nowadays use full-text searching because algorithms are fast and very good results can be achieved. However, the use of full text indexes has its limitations, especially in the multilingual context, and it is not a solution for further information access requirements such as the need for efficient document navigation, categorisation, abstracting and other means by which the document contents can be quickly understood and compared with others. We show that automatic indexing with controlled vocabulary keywords (descriptors) complements full-text indexing because it allows cross-lingual information access. Furthermore, controlled vocabulary indexing produces document representations that are useful for human users, for the Semantic Web, and for other application areas that require the linking and comparison of documents with each other. Due to its obvious usefulness, controlled vocabulary indexing has received increasing attention over the last few years. Aiming at a better understanding of the state-of-the-art in this field, we discuss the various approaches to automatic keywording and propose a taxonomy for their classification.


We launch our web browser and, after clicking on a bookmark, a one-field form appears embedded in the page. Once a few words are typed inside the text field, we click on the `submit' button expecting the answer to our question. A few seconds later the browser shows a page containing a list of items: those the system considers most suitable to answer our needs. The discrimination of results becomes a non-trivial operation due to the large number of entries returned. Sometimes we can get rid of some of them at a glance: the title or the text provided along with the item is enough to know we are not interested, but sometimes we have to click and check the real document to see whether it is the information we want, or not.

Many of us will recognize the sequence of steps performed above. We were looking for information using a full-text search engine. This operational mode in information searching and retrieval has populated almost every digital system which stores information. We can find forms like the one described when:

Though the usefulness of full text search engines has been widely proven and, therefore, accepted, they are still not good enough in some cases and totally inappropriate in others. The first kind of less-successful cases are those where the collection contains a huge range of subjects and documents: for example, the World Wide Web. Old approaches using purely full-text-based engines were abandoned, since the quality of results provided was declining with the growth of the collection. Therefore, new techniques arose with the aim of filtering and re-qualifying the rank (the Page Rank algorithm is one of the most successful examples [1]). They index every word in a page so they can perform  full-text searches later. The problem with this approach is that language is complex, ambiguous and rich in variation, so the quality of the results is still not as good as we would like. But this technique of indexing is solving the big problem of searching for information on the web. It is an implementable solution in very general contexts.

The second field where full text-search techniques do not do so well is when textual information is not available. There are still some kinds of collections which are not suitable (yet) for this genre of engines. We refer here to pieces of information like images, sounds, etc. The current solution is to provide, beforehand, textual information related to every item (that is, enrich the data with text) so that later we can search using this related text as an access point. Many techniques have been developed in order to automate such a process by pattern recognition, clustering and so on.

Subject keys in traditional information systems

Imagine you had to organize your personal library, what sort of ideas do you think you would try in order to achieve well organized shelves? Maybe one of your first ideas would be to group books by theme, then to label them and put their details in a kind of index. Later on you might find you have so many books, it would be better to arrange them by size (large repositories do so). Whatever method you used, in the end you would have to index them  in one way or another. Now the question could be: which indexes should I use? It is not an easy task to define them because several considerations must be taken into account. Vickery already emphasizes this reality [2]:

The problem of subject representation is therefore far less straightforward than other aspects of document description.

In the beginning, the use of keywords for information storage and retrieval was due to two major needs: the need for classification and the need for retrieval. The former need had a double benefit: first, it let librarians organize physical volumes into logical clusters; second, the possibility to search within a defined cluster was regarded as a way to speed up the searching for information (as pointed out by the so-called 'cluster hypothesis' of Rijsbergen [3]).

Hence, two major goals of indexing are to:

  1. Select records in a file that deal with a specific topic
  2. Group in proximity in a file records on similar subjects

Alphabetical terminologies and classification structures (known as 'thesauri') were thought of as tools to improve the two main measures in information retrieval: precision and recall. These refer to the quality of retrieved documents when compared to the search query. 'Precision' is the number of relevant documents retrieved over the total number of documents retrieved. 'Recall' is the number of relevant documents retrieved over the total number of relevant documents in the collection. These two measures show the problem of an antagonistic relationship: if we try to improve one of them, the other will decay. For example, if we retrieve the whole collection in answer to a given query, our recall will be 100%, but our precision will be so low that the result will be unusable. The challenge resides, then, in finding a method which shows a good performance for both measures.

In earlier times, techniques were used to improve these two values for a defined retrieval system; i.e. the implementation of these techniques was oriented to the purpose and content of the retrieval system. The techniques traditionally used rely on setting relationships between words in a controlled vocabulary. Using those relations on a given query we can improve recall (by expanding to related terms) or precision (by narrowing with less generic terms). These are the reasons for the use of thesauri.


There are several definitions for the word 'thesaurus'. In an old work of Vickery [2] we find a definition for thesaurus which summarizes in a few words the rationale associated with  it:

''The thesaurus is a display of the terms in a retrieval language showing semantic relations between them.''

Here, Vickery shows, on the one hand, the main purpose of a thesaurus: it defines a retrieval language, whatever the retrieval method might be. On the other hand, he does not define the kind of relationships between entries (synonyms, broader terms...), specifying only that a set of semantic relations is defined. We will see that this brief definition fits perfectly with any type of existing thesaurus.

One of the earliest thesauri (and maybe the most famous one) is Roget's Thesaurus [4]. Dr. Peter Mark Roget's main idea behind this compilation was to create a system which would offer words to express a given meaning, while conversely traditional dictionaries offer meanings for a given word. This would help writers to express their concepts in the most suitable form. Such users had the thesaurus as a reference book for writing of texts. Thus, it was mostly intended to be useful in the document creation phase.

The power of reducing a language to its basic concepts has become more and more useful, especially since the "semantic network" has arisen in electronic form. WordNet [5]  is an on-line reference system" (their authors state). English nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives are organized into synonym sets (also called synsets), each representing one underlying lexical concept. Nowadays we can assume that almost every thesaurus (specialized or not) is available in electronic form.

Thesaurus descriptors are normally unambiguous because they are clearly defined, whereas full text indexing does not provide any differentiation for words such as 'plant' in 'power plant' versus 'green plant'.

There is even a multilingual thesaurus based on WordNet called EuroWordNet [6], which, using English as central node, maps synsets between different European languages. This work represents a milestone in multilingual information retrieval.

Both WordNet and Roget's Thesaurus are general reference sources, i.e. they don't focus on specialized terminologies. But the areas where  thesauri become useful tools are in specialized domains (Law, Medicine, Material Science, Physics, Astronomy...). One example is the INSPEC thesaurus [7], focused on technical literature; or the ASIS thesaurus, specialized in Information Science [8]. NASA, the European Union, and other organizations produce their own specialized thesauri (like the multilingual EUROVOC thesaurus [9]).

Each thesaurus has its own organization, according to the purpose it needs to accomplish. But we can summarize any of them by the following components:

the set of items in the thesaurus. They are usually referred to as descriptors, index terms, keywords, key phrases, topics, concepts or themes. We will use ''keyword'' to name them.

the set of subsets of the set of terms. Each subset contains a group of terms which are interrelated by the synonym relationship (i.e. words with the same meaning). This relationship is important because resulting subsets are elements in other relations.

this is a set of relations keyword to keyword, keyword to meaning, meaning to keyword and meaning to meaning.

There are two relations which are commonly used among existing thesauri:

Of course, depending on the purpose of the thesaurus, some of these relations may be ignored. Also new relations could occur. WordNet, for example, includes all of the given relations. INSPEC and Eurovoc thesauri condense meronym relations into the ''related'' relationship (see [8], RT means ''related terms''). Synonymy is implemented by the application of the ''USE'' statement.

Figure 1: Excerpt from Eurovoc thesaurus
     NT1   alternative sentence   
     NT1   carrying out of sentence          
        NT2   barring of penalties by limitation          
        NT2   reduction of sentence                               
              RT   repentance                                   
              RT   terrorism     (0431)          
        NT2   release on licence          
        NT2   suspension of sentence   
     NT1   conditional discharge   
     NT1   confiscation of property                               
           RT   seizure of goods     (1221)   
     NT1   criminal record   
     NT1   death penalty   
     NT1   deprivation of rights                               
           RT   civil rights     (1236)

Usually in specialized thesauri either the synonymy is neglected or a preferred word representing the meaning is given, since the purpose  is to provide a list of controlled terms (and that ''control'' refers to the use of just one word for a given meaning). Nevertheless,  most of them include synonymy in one way or another.

There are, however, some special cases of thesauri where there is more than just terms and relations. In some cases the thesaurus is a complex reference of specific relations, with specially defined rules to build a document's keywords. This is the case of the DESY thesaurus [10], specializing in high energy physics literature. With the entries given we can construct particle combinations, reaction equations and energy declarations among other examples.

 These facts bring us to the conclusion of Vickery that there is a tight relationship between the thesaurus and its domain of retrieval.

Applications of keywords

The construction of hand-crafted thesauri for use in computer applications dates back to the early 1950s with the work of H. P. Luhn, who developed a thesaurus for the indexing of scientific literature at IBM. The number of thesauri and systems is now growing steadily because manually or automatically keyworded documents have many advantages and offer additional applications over simple documents not linked to thesauri. Depending on whether people or machines make use of keywords assigned to documents, we distinguish the following uses:

Human manipulation of keywords

Human users mainly use keywords for browsing and searching of document collections.


Keywords are used to facilitate the browsing of document collections, either as part of a whole collection or the small subset returned by a search operation. Examples of how keywords can aid browsing:


Keywords are helpful during the search phase. For example:

Using keywords as a document representation for machine usage

The fact that keywords were traditionally developed for human readers does not necessarily mean that they can only be used by people. Several powerful applications have shown that descriptors can well be used to represent document contents for a number of automatic procedures:

Therefore, we could imagine a scenario where we want to look for a service, e.g. a database of iron manufacturers. We get the keywords of the service which may have been generated from the content of top web pages in the portal of this service (the pages which let us access the database via web forms or any other web based interaction). These keywords show us that there is another database which offers iron toys, since the thesaurus splits the keyword iron manufacturer into the subtopics iron-made toys manufacturer, naval manufacturer, etc. Thanks to the semantic network created from keyword relationships we are able to find the provider we need.

Automatic key word assignment tools: a taxonomy

F. W. Lancaster [22] gives us the following definition for indexing:

''The main purpose of indexing and abstracting is to construct representations of published items in a form suitable for inclusion in some type of database.''.

This is a very general description, but it still summarizes the goal of indexing: provide an abstraction of document contents for better storage and retrieval (which is the goal of any database). We find several types of indexing. For example, web search engines (like Google, Altavista and others) generally full-text-index web pages automatically, but for some specialized and popular subject areas, they ask teams of professional indexers to carry out careful manual indexing.

We distinguish two main types of indexing [22]:

The taxonomy we propose focuses on those systems that do assignment of keywords instead of extraction.

Figure 2: Indexing by assignment
indexing by assignment

Figure 2 provides a graphical view of this process. The indexer reads the document and selects keywords from a thesaurus or a controlled vocabulary.

Although there has been extensive work done on automatic thesauri generation, less work has been done on automatic descriptor assignment. Although research is advancing slowly in this area, it benefits from development in other IR (information retrieval) areas. We mention here some of the systems developed for automatic assignment, along with a taxonomy proposal for this kind of tool.

We can classify automatic keyword assignment systems (AKWAs) into two main categories, depending on their degree of automation:

The following is a taxonomy that summarizes the various AKWA approaches developed so far:

Finally, the last criterion for classifying AKWAs is based on training needs, i.e. on the amount of effort required to develop the system:


We have shown that manual or automatic indexing of document collections with controlled vocabulary thesaurus descriptors is complementary to full-text indexing and that it provides both human users and machines with the means to analyse, navigate and access the contents of document collections in a way full-text indexing would not permit. Indeed, instead of being replaced by full-text searches in electronic libraries, a growing number of automatic keyword assignment systems are being developed that use a range of very different approaches.

In this paper, we have given an introduction to automatic keyword assignment, distinguishing it from keyword extraction, and proposing a classification of approaches, referring to sample implementations for each approach. This presentation will hopefully help researchers in the area to better understand and classify emerging approaches. We have also summarized some of the powerful applications that this kind of tool is offering in the field of information retrieval, and we have structured them into comprehensive categories and have shown real examples and working solutions for some of them.

As the number of different systems for automatic keyword assignment has been increasing over recent years, it was our aim to give some order to the state of the art in this interesting and promising field of research.


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Authors Details

Arturo Montejo-Ráez
European Organization for Nuclear Research

Tel: +41 (0) 22 767 3833
URL: http://cern.ch/amontejo

Ralf Steinberger
European Commission
Joint Research Centre
T.P. 267, 21020 Ispra (VA)

Tel: +39 - 0332 78 6271
Email: ralf.steinberger@jrc.it
URL: www.jrc.it/langtech

For citation purposes:

A. Montejo-Ráez and R. Steinberger, "Why keywording matters". High Energy Physics Libraries Webzine, Issue 10, December 2004.
URL: <http://webzine.web.cern.ch/webzine/10/papers/2/>

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Last modified: November 2004