The following has been posted on a few sites and I don't know which was the original. In any event, it is very germane to my purpose, so I republish it here...
A controlled vocabulary is a list of terms that have been enumerated explicitly. This list is controlled by and is available from a controlled vocabulary registration authority. All terms in a controlled vocabulary should have an unambiguous, non-redundant definition. This is a design goal that may not be true in practice. It depends on how strict the controlled vocabulary registration authority is regarding registration of terms into a controlled vocabulary. At a minimum, the following two rules should be enforced:
- If the same term is commonly used to mean different concepts in different contexts, then its name is explicitly qualified to resolve this ambiguity.
- If multiple terms are used to mean the same thing, one of the terms is identified as the preferred term in the controlled vocabulary and the other terms are listed as synonyms or aliases.
A thesaurus is a networked collection of controlled vocabulary terms. This means that a thesaurus uses associative relationships in addition to parent-child relationships. The expressiveness of the associative relationships in a thesaurus vary and can be as simple as "related to term" as in term A is related to term B.
People use the word ontology to mean different things, e.g. glossaries & data dictionaries, thesauri & taxonomies, schemas & data models, and formal ontologies & inference. A formal ontology is a controlled vocabulary expressed in an ontology representation language. This language has a grammar for using vocabulary terms to express something meaningful within a specified domain of interest. The grammar contains formal constraints (e.g., specifies what it means to be a well-formed statement, assertion, query, etc.) on how terms in the ontology's controlled vocabulary can be used together.
People make commitments to use a specific controlled vocabulary or ontology for a domain of interest. Enforcement of an ontology's grammar may be rigorous or lax. Frequently, the grammar for a "light-weight" ontology is not completely specified, i.e., it has implicit rules that are not explicitly documented.
A meta-model is an explicit model of the constructs and rules needed to build specific models within a domain of interest. A valid meta-model is an ontology, but not all ontologies are modeled explicitly as meta-models. A meta-model can be viewed from three different perspectives:
- as a set of building blocks and rules used to build models
- as a model of a domain of interest, and
- as an instance of another model.
Note: Meta-modeling as a domain of interest can have its own ontology. For example, the CDIF Family of Standards, which contains the CDIF Meta-meta-model along with rules for modeling and extensibility and transfer format, is such an ontology. When modelers use a modeling tool to construct models, they are making a commitment to use the ontology implemented in the modeling tool. This model making ontology is usually called a meta-model, with "model making" as its domain of interest.
Bottom line: Taxonomies and Thesauri may relate terms in a controlled vocabulary via parent-child and associative relationships, but do not contain explicit grammar rules to constrain how to use controlled vocabulary terms to express (model) something meaningful within a domain of interest. A meta-model is an ontology used by modelers. People make commitments to use a specific controlled vocabulary or ontology for a domain of interest.