Bioethics Thesaurus: Preface and Introduction


The Thesaurus Ethics in the Life Sciences is the result of a joint project involving the following partner institutes:

  • German Reference Centre for Ethics in the Life Sciences (DRZE), Bonn, Germany (editor in chief)
  • Centre de documentation en éthique (CDE), Comité consultatif national d’éthique (CCNE), Paris, France
  • Information and Documentation Centre on Ethics in Medicine (IDEM), Göttingen, Germany
  • International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW), University of Tübingen, Germany
  • Bioethics Research Library at Georgetown University, Kennedy Institute of Ethics (KIE), Washington, DC, USA

The project, which was initiated by the DRZE in 1999, brings together five partners who decided to pool their professional experience with various thesauri in order to create the new Thesaurus Ethics in the Life Sciences. This new Thesaurus was intended as the first integrated, multilingual, controlled indexing and research tool to include new fields of bioethics which, until then, were treated either marginally or not at all. The Thesaurus provides adequate coverage of current developments in bioethics – a field of science characterised by heterogeneity and multidisciplinarity – in the international context and should prove useful in making literature indexing and research more efficient. The various functional features of the Thesaurus are mainly geared to the needs of the two major target groups: researchers – both experts and interested members of the public – as well as librarians and information specialists indexing bioethical literature and documents.

The eighth edition is an extensively revised version of the seventh edition of December 2010 and is published again in English, German and French.

The editorial staff wishes to express special thanks to the colleagues at the five partner institutes.

A Multilingual Thesaurus: the Challenges

In developing the Thesaurus Ethics in the Life Sciences the project partners have broken new ground in several regards. Compared with other thesauri in the field of bioethics, the Thesaurus adopts a much broader thematic approach. With its 14 subject areas the Thesaurus goes beyond the human fields of bioethics and medical ethics and also covers non-human fields, such as animal ethics, environmental ethics as well as ethics of agriculture, genetic engineering and biotechnology. It is the first thesaurus to unite the great variety of bioethical fields that are playing an ever increasing part in the bioethics debate. This widened scope has implications for the size of the Thesaurus: the current version includes 2,947 descriptors and 3,917 English non-descriptors.

With such a broad range of fields to cover, the Thesaurus Editorial Team faces the long-term and permanent challenge of balancing the need to make the contents as exhaustive as necessary while at the same time ensuring that the Thesaurus keeps to a manageable size. In particular, the new bioethical fields, covered in a thesaurus for the first time have to be subjected to intensive scrutiny.

The biggest challenge of the Thesaurus Ethics in the Life Sciences lies in its multilingual approach (English, German and French). Comparable, monolingual thesauri, which have so far mainly focused on the fields of human bioethics or medical ethics, are basically designed to map their respective national debates. The Thesaurus Ethics in the Life Sciences, however, not only has a broader thematic scope but also provides the terminological tools for application in wider international contexts. In order to ensure that the individual descriptors are in fact the terms actually used in the discussion, the different language versions of the Thesaurus were therefore not simply translated from one source language into the others. They represent three corresponding yet independent entities developed in particularly close co-operation with the co-operation partners in Washington, DC and Paris.

Concordances with Other Thesauri: Bridging Functions

One of the most important functions of the Thesaurus is to indicate concordances with other thesauri, i.e. the reference thesauri, which also served as important sources of terminology. Concordances (Conc) show the descriptors used in the reference thesauri in order to depict the same or similar contexts. Thus it is possible – via the concordances – to include in a literature search those databases indexed with the reference thesauri.

The Thesaurus provides concordances with the following reference thesauri: the Bioethics Thesaurus of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics (KIE), the Euroethics Thesaurus – in the latter case further development has been halted – and the Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) of the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), a widely used thesaurus focusing on medicine. Furthermore, the Thesaurus includes concordances with the French Thesaurus d’éthique des sciences de la vie et de la santé developed by the Centre de documentation en éthique.

The concordances help to create a bridge to many other literature databases. They help to minimise possible data losses and thus facilitate the use of the Thesaurus as a supplementary thesaurus or help to switch indexing and research routines entirely to the Thesaurus.

Further Development: the Thesaurus Editorial Team

Responsibility for the further development of the Thesaurus lies with the Thesaurus Editorial Team, which consists of representatives from the five project partners.

The changes agreed upon by the Thesaurus Editorial Team are included in the revisions of each new edition, which is published at regular intervals. All changes relevant for indexing or researching literature are documented in a History, which contains information on new, rephrased and deleted descriptors.

Contacting the Thesaurus Editorial Team: Comments and Suggestions

The experience gained in everyday use of the Thesaurus is central to the ongoing work of updating and improvement. The Thesaurus Editorial Team therefore also relies on the constructive co-operation of Thesaurus users, who are expressly invited to become actively involved in the development process.

On its Thesaurus pages the DRZE provides a  form for alteration suggestions (MS Word file) for download, which can be used for handing in alteration suggestions under

Subject Areas

The Thesaurus comprises 14 subject areas. They do not, however, constitute independent classifications of individual fields, i.e. 14 individual thesauri. They form integral parts of the Thesaurus as a whole. The main criterion for the choice of descriptors is, accordingly, their bioethical relevance. As there is no universally applicable principle of choice, the selection of descriptors and their location in the subject areas in many cases can only be based on a compromise between the perspectives and needs of individual disciplines and practical requirements of users. As a consequence subject areas closer to the focus of the Thesaurus are dealt with more extensively than others. For example, biology (IV), medicine and care (V) and genetics (IX) are treated as independent fields and extensively differentiated in individual subject areas. Other natural sciences and fields of life sciences, however, do not represent subject areas in their own right, but are merely enlisted in the subject area Science, Research, Technology and Technology Assessment (III).

In some cases it is possible to place descriptors in more than one subject area. In each case the Thesaurus Editorial Team decides to choose between two options: unless the decision to locate a descriptor can be based on a clear principle of priority, the Thesaurus Editorial Team opts for polyhierarchy, i.e. the descriptor is located in more than one place within a hierarchy or in more than one subject area. Whenever a descriptor is identified primarily for location in one particular subject area it will be placed only there and merely related (cf. associative relationship) to other possible locations within the Thesaurus.

Descriptors and Non-Descriptors

The Thesaurus consists of descriptors and non-descriptors. Descriptors are preferred terms (keywords) used for indexing literature. Non-descriptors are terms such as synonyms, quasi-synonyms and lexical variants whose semantic or contextual scope is covered by an individual descriptor (cf. equivalence relationship). Non-descriptors are not used for indexing but provide useful entry points to identify the relevant descriptor or combination of descriptors.

Terms and Their Relationships

In the Thesaurus descriptors and non-descriptors are arranged within a network of relationships, which help users to identify individual descriptors or combinations of descriptors and thus give their search a higher degree of specificity and precision.

Hierarchical Relationship

Within the tree structure of the subject areas each descriptor is located in a specific position: it can either be a Broader Term, representing a concept which is superordinate in meaning to the concept represented by the Narrower Term, or vice versa as a Narrower Term, representing a concept which is subordinate in meaning to the concept of the Broader Term. Top Terms are those descriptors located on the highest level of a hierarchical tree.

In establishing hierarchies the Thesaurus Editorial Team generally followed the principle of generic and partitive relationship, i.e. either the Narrower Term describes more specific characteristics of the Broader Term, or it represents parts of the greater whole. However, this principle was deliberately overruled at certain points in order to maintain and make best use of the work’s core structure set by the 14 subject areas.

Associative Relationship
Numerous descriptors are connected by way of associative relationships (Related Terms, RT). Related Terms are those which have no direct hierarchical, but a close conceptual link to the descriptor.

Equivalence Relationship
Descriptors may be placed in equivalence relationships with one or several non-descriptors (Used for, UF). Non-descriptors lead the users to the descriptor or descriptor combination which are actually used in indexing and which are defined to cover the same concept (non-descriptor USE descriptor).

Formulation of Descriptors

In view of the wide thematic scope of the Thesaurus it is important to ensure that the number of descriptors remains manageable for users who may have no or only little experience with retrieval systems. Moreover, various thesaurus norms have to be considered in the formulation of the descriptors. This results in the following general agreements:

  • All language versions have equal status; each descriptor in one language necessarily matches one descriptor in any other language versions; there is, however, no equivalence between the non-descriptors in each language, as each individual language has its own lexical diversity; as a consequence the number of non-descriptors per language can differ.
  • Descriptors in the German and French versions are formulated as singulars; the English version shows all countable descriptors in the plural.
  • Descriptors are used in their direct form, i.e. natural order, rather than the inverted form (medical ethics rather than ethics, medical).
  • Homographs or descriptors which – depending on subject area – may refer to different contexts are supplemented by bracketed information (rape [plants], rape [sexual offence] or nature [philosophy], nature [ecology]).
  • The German version uses the new orthography; variations are added as non-descriptors; the English edition follows British spellings; US-American and other spellings are added as non-descriptors; for reasons of standardisation, scope notes which are quoted from sources following other spelling rules are adapted to British English spellings.
  • For some descriptors which designate concepts unknown in the other languages or do not have lexical equivalents, the original term is repeated in the other language versions and supplemented by an explicative scope note.
  • Geographic names and personal names in the subject areas XIII and XIV are formulated according to

Scope Notes

Scope notes are brief texts supplementing a descriptor entry and providing background information on its use and intended scope. They can also point to alternatives or give short definitions. As work continues a growing number of scope notes will be added to most descriptors. Scope notes which were not written by the project partners are accompanied by attributions of reference. The original language of the source is indicated in the list of references. Translations for the other language versions were prepared by the DRZE or its partners.

History Note

All changes in the Thesaurus relevant for indexing or searching, i.e. additions of new descriptors and rephrased descriptors, are documented in the History note. Information on new descriptors includes the year in which they were added and all descriptor details. Entries on rephrased descriptors contain previous indexing information including the period during which the descriptor was used in this form.

Node Labels

Node labels are not assigned to documents when indexing, but are inserted into the hierarchy to indicate the logical basis on which a category has been divided. This device is most useful in case of a large number of Narrower Terms under a specific term (cf. hierarchical relationship). Node labels help to grasp the organisation of the list and to find useful terms without scanning a long, diverse array. Their purpose is purely organisational.

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