Background: Ontology Design Patterns (ODPs) are representational artifacts devised to offer solutions for recurring ontology design problems. They promise to enhance the ontology building process in terms of flexibility, re-usability and expansion, and to make the result of ontology engineering more predictable. In this paper, we analyze ODP repositories and investigate their relation with upper-level ontologies. In particular, we compare the BioTop upper ontology to the Action ODP from the NeOn an ODP repository. In view of the differences in the respective approaches, we investigate whether the Action ODP can be embedded into BioTop. We demonstrate that this requires re-interpreting the meaning of classes of the NeOn Action ODP in the light of the precepts of realist ontologies.
Results: As a result, the re-design required clarifying the ontological commitment of the ODP classes by assigning them to top-level categories. Thus, ambiguous definitions are avoided. Classes of real entities are clearly distinguished from classes of information artifacts. The proposed approach avoids the commitment to the existence of unclear future entities which underlies the NeOn Action ODP. Our re-design is parsimonious in the sense that existing BioTop content proved to be largely sufficient to define the different types of actions and plans.
Conclusions: The proposed model demonstrates that an expressive upper-level ontology provides enough resources and expressivity to represent even complex ODPs, here shown with the different flavors of Action as proposed in the NeOn ODP. The advantage of ODP inclusion into a top-level ontology is the given predetermined dependency of each class, an existing backbone structure and well-defined relations. Our comparison shows that the use of some ODPs is more likely to cause problems for ontology developers, rather than to guide them. Besides the structural properties, the explanation of classification results were particularly hard to grasp for 'self-sufficient' ODPs as compared with implemented and 'embedded' upper-level structures which, for example in the case of BioTop, offer a detailed description of classes and relations in an axiomatic network. This ensures unambiguous interpretation and provides more concise constraints to leverage on in the ontology engineering process.