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A natural language interface plug-in for cooperative query answering in biological databases

BMC Genomics
Springer (Biomed Central Ltd.)
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1186/1471-2164-13-s3-s4
  • Proceedings
  • Biology
  • Linguistics


Background One of the many unique features of biological databases is that the mere existence of a ground data item is not always a precondition for a query response. It may be argued that from a biologist's standpoint, queries are not always best posed using a structured language. By this we mean that approximate and flexible responses to natural language like queries are well suited for this domain. This is partly due to biologists' tendency to seek simpler interfaces and partly due to the fact that questions in biology involve high level concepts that are open to interpretations computed using sophisticated tools. In such highly interpretive environments, rigidly structured databases do not always perform well. In this paper, our goal is to propose a semantic correspondence plug-in to aid natural language query processing over arbitrary biological database schema with an aim to providing cooperative responses to queries tailored to users' interpretations. Results Natural language interfaces for databases are generally effective when they are tuned to the underlying database schema and its semantics. Therefore, changes in database schema become impossible to support, or a substantial reorganization cost must be absorbed to reflect any change. We leverage developments in natural language parsing, rule languages and ontologies, and data integration technologies to assemble a prototype query processor that is able to transform a natural language query into a semantically equivalent structured query over the database. We allow knowledge rules and their frequent modifications as part of the underlying database schema. The approach we adopt in our plug-in overcomes some of the serious limitations of many contemporary natural language interfaces, including support for schema modifications and independence from underlying database schema. Conclusions The plug-in introduced in this paper is generic and facilitates connecting user selected natural language interfaces to arbitrary databases using a semantic description of the intended application. We demonstrate the feasibility of our approach with a practical example.

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