Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto - OCS, 15th INTERNATIONAL ISKO CONFERENCE

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Maria da Graça Simões, Daniel Martínez-Ávila, Blanca Rodríguez-Bravo, Patrícia de Almeida, Isadora Victorino Evangelista

Last modified: 2018-06-19



The origins of subject indexing, as a technique for document analysis, date back to ancient times and ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia (Witty, 1973). Subject catalogs, whose origins are also rooted in these ancient civilizations, were notably established and systematized with the work of Charles Ammi Cutter “Rules for a printed dictionary catalog” (1904) that provided guidelines for this practice (Witty, 1973; Pettee, 1945; Borko and Bernier, 1978; Silva and Fujita, 2004). In this vein, the ultimate goal of the operation of indexing in a catalog, that is based on the analysis and representation of contents using indexing terms (Rowley, 1982; Chaumier, 1986; ISO 5963:1985), is always information retrieval.

In this operation of indexing there are two key principles that affect the retrieval of documents: exhaustivity and specificity. The concept of exhaustivity is related to the number of subjects (factors) that are translated to concrete representative terms for a document; specificity, on the other hand, refers to the level of detail in which a particular concept is represented (ISO 5963: 1985). According to some authors, these two principles would be political/administrative decisions as they are based on the indexing policies of their respective information services (Foskett, 1977; Chaumier, 1986; Langridge, 1989, 2011). The different degrees of exhaustivity and specificity in the indexing of documents affect the relevance of the retrieved documents, as a greater number of index terms appropriate increases the density of documents judged as relevant (Wolfram and Zhang, 2002; Kim, 2006). Given and Olson (2003), in a more critical way, also cite these principles as important strategies for effective information organization and retrieval in research, and also relate them to the concepts of recall and precision (an aspect introduced by Richter 1984).

Evangelista, Simões and Guimarães (2016) conducted a study on these principles as ethical values in knowledge organization. These authors identified how these principles affect information retrieval in relation to the diversity and expressiveness of the indexing terms. Regardless the nature of these two principles, it is well-accepted that they influence the entire dynamics of the indexing process, especially in relation to the analysis, representation, and retrieval of information. As a consequence, it is also well-accepted that these two principles should be considered in an “objective” way in order to increase the precision and recall.


Based on the idea that exhaustivity and specificity are two of the main concepts of subject indexing, this study aims to analyze how these two concepts are addressed in the contributions the ISKO international meetings proceedings for the period 2010-2017. In particular, we aim to analyze the aspects related to their thematic proximity and methodological approach in the ISKO conference papers. Our objectives are: (i) to identify and systematize the elements that characterize the conceptual construction of the principles of exhaustivity and specificity; (ii) to identify the works on the topic in the ISKO international meetings proceedings (2010-2017); (iii) to identify and describe the thematic proximity and methodological approaches to these two concepts in the papers.


For the selection and analysis of the corpus we use an ad-hoc combination of techniques and methodological procedures that include a content analysis and the analysis of keywords in context (Bardin, 2011; Bernard and Ryan, 2010; Coutinho, 2013). According to Coutinho (2013, pp. 35-36) this "flexible strategy" is an appropriate choice for the type of research question we are addressing here while at the same time it guides the development of the research.

Regarding the first objective, we will conduct a literature review of the topic. In relation to the second and third objectives, we will search the terms “exhaustivity,” “specificity,” and other related concepts such as relevance, precision, and consistency, in the full texts of the ISKO international meetings proceeding (2010-2017) and analyze meaningful parts of the papers (mainly abstracts and introductions). For this analysis, based on Bernard and Ryan (2010, p.151), we adopted two nominal variables (see Table 1).

Table 1: Variables used in the category of analysis “methodological approach”

Methodological approach of the paper (description)

Variables of the approach

The authors analyze the theoretical-methodological foundations and discuss the relevance of exhaustivity and specificity in indexing (specially for the case of information retrieval) exclusively based on the analysis and information of texts.

Epistemological analysis



The authors present results on the relevance of exhaustivity and specificity in indexing (specially for the case of information retrieval) based on experience.

Empirical study

In order to study the thematic proximity of the papers to the concepts of exhaustiveness and specificity, based on Bardin (2011, p. 84), we worked with four ordinal variables that were expressed in a negative scale of intensity (see Table 2).

Table 2 – Variables used in the category of analysis “thematic proximity”

Thematic proximity of the paper to the concepts of exhaustivity and specificity

Degree of proximity


The concept is a core part of the study.



The concept is addressed because of its intrinsic relationship with the object of study.



The concept is addressed because of a secondary relation with the object of study.



The concept is not addressed, but we infer a thematic connection.



Main results

We expect the results to reveal a relatively small number of studies on exhaustivity and specificity in the ISKO international meetings proceedings. Regarding the methodological approach, we expect most studies to follow an epistemological approach. Regarding the thematic proximity, we expect most studies to be inherent or peripheral to the topic.


We infer that the studies on these concepts in the ISKO proceedings are scarce and little relevant in terms of new contributions to the area of indexing. The compromise between exhaustivity and specificity is strictly related to information retrieval as this is the area in which the variation of these concepts present most visible outcomes and results. The small number of studies also contributes to the conclusion that the relationship between knowledge organization and information retrieval is an under-researched area that deserves more attention by the ISKO community.

Keywords: Indexing; Exhaustivity; Specificity



Bardin, L. Análise de conteúdo. São Paulo: Almedina, 2011.

Bernard, H. R.; Ryan, G.W. Analyzing qualitative data: Systematic Approaches. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2010.

Borko, Harold; Bernier, Charles L. - Indexing concepts and methods. New York: Academic Press, 1978.

Chaumier, Jacques. Analisis y lenguajes documentales: el tratamento linguístico de La información documental. Tradução de L. Porta. Barcelona: Editorial Mitre, 1986.

Coutinho, C.P. Metodologia de investigação em ciências sociais e humanas: Teoria e prática. 2. ed. Coimbra: Almedina, 2013.

Cutter, Charles A. (1904). Rules for a dictionary catalog, 4º. ed. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Evangelista, I.V.; Simões, M.G.M.; Guimarães, J.A.C. A exaustividade e a especificidade como valores éticos no processo de indexação: uma análise baseada na literatura disponibilizada em Portugal. Páginas A&B, v. 3, n. 5, 2016, p. 58-75.

Foskett, A.C. The subject approach to information. London: Clive Bingley, 1977.

Given, Lisa M; Olson, Hope A. Knowledge organization in research: a conceptual model for organizing data. Library & Information Science Research, v. 25, n. 2, p. 157-176, 2003.

ISO 5963. 1985. Documentation – Méthodes pour l’analyse des documents, la détermination de leur contenu et la sélection des termes d’indexation. In : Documentation et information : recueil de normes ISO I. Genève: ISO, 1988. p. 575-579.

Kim, G. Relationship between index term specificity and relevance judgment. Information Processing and Management, v. 42, p. 1218 - 1229, 2006.

Langridge, Derek Wilton. Subject analysis: principles and procedures. London: Bowker-Saur, 1989.

Pettee, J. Subject headings: the history and theory of the alphabetical subject approach to books. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1945.

Richter, N. (1984). Grammaire de l'indexation alphabetique. Le Mans: Université du Maine.

Rowley, Jennifer. Abstracting and indexing. Londres: Clive Bingley, 1982.

Silva, Maria dos Remédios; Fujita, Mariângela Spotti. Lopez. A prática da indexação: análise da evolução de tendências teóricas e metodológicas. Transinformação. v. 16, n. 2 (2004), p. 133-161.

Simões, Maria Graça. Classificações bibliográficas: percurso de uma teoria. Coimbra: Almedina, 2011.

Witty, Francis J. The beginnings of indexing and abstracting: some notes towards a history of indexing and abstracting in antiquity and the middle ages. The Indexer, v. 8, n. 4, 1973.

Wolfram, D.; Zhang, J. An investigation of the influence of indexing exhaustivity and term distributions on a document space. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, v. 53, n. 11, p. 943 - 952, 2002.