Edge properties, part 2: singleton property pattern (and why it doesn’t work)

In the first post in this series on edge properties, I outlined the common reification pattern for placing information on edges in RDF and knowledge graphs, and how this places nicely with RDFStar (formerly RDF*).

There are alternatives to reification/RDF* for placing information on edges with the context of RDF, in this post I will deal with one, the Singleton Property Pattern (SPP), described in Don’t Like RDF Reification? Making Statements about Statements Using Singleton Property (2015), Nguyen et al (PMC4350149).

The idea here is to mint a new property URI for every statement we wish to talk about. Given a triple S P O, we would rewrite as S new(P) O, and add a triple new(P) singlePropertyOf P.

So given the example in the previous post:

Using SPP we would have the following 3 triples:

  • :P1 :interacts_with_001 :P2
  • :interacts_with_001 singletonPropertyOf :interacts_with
  • :interacts_with_001 :supported_by :pmid123

To find all interacts-with associations, we could write a SPARQL query such as:

SELECT ?x ?y WHERE { ?x ?p ?y . ?p singletonPropertyOf :interacts_with }

Some of the proposed advantages of this scheme are discussed in the paper.

A variant of the SPP makes the new property a subPropertyOf the original property. I will call this SPP(sub). This has the advantage that the original statement is still entailed.

  • :P1 :interacts_with_001 :P2
  • :interacts_with_001 rdfs:subPropertyOf :interacts_with
  • :interacts_with_001 :supported_by :pmid123

Then if we assume RDFS entailment, the query becomes simpler:

SELECT ?x ?y WHERE { ?x :interacts_with ?y }

This is because the direct interacts_with triple is entailed due to the subPropertyOf axiom.

In the discussion section of the original paper the authors state that the pattern is compatible with OWL, but don’t provide examples or elucidation, or what is meant by compatible. There is a website that includes an OWL example.

Unfortunately, problems arise if we want to use this same pattern with other axiom types, beyond OWL Object Property Assertions; for example, SubClassOf, EquivalentClasses, SameAs. This is true for both the original SPP and the subPropertyOf variant form.

These problems arise when working in OWL2-DL. Use of OWL2-Full may eliminate these problems, but most OWL tooling and stacks are built on OWL2-DL, so it is important to be aware of the consequences.

OWL-DL is incompatible with the SPP

Unfortunately the SPP pattern only works if the property used in the statement is an actual OWL property.

In the official OWL2 mapping to RDF, predicates such as owl:equivalentClass, owl:sameAs, owl:subClassOf are syntax for constructing an OWL axiom of the corresponding type (respectively EquivalentClasses, SameIndividual and SubClassOf). These axiom types have no corresponding properties at the OWL-DL level.

For example, consider the case where we want to make an equivalence statement between two classes, and then talk about that statement using the SPP pattern. 

We do this by making a fresh property (here, arbitrarily called equivalentClass-1) that is the SPP form of owl:equivalentClass. For comparison purposes, we make a normal equivalence axiom between P1 and P2, and we also try an equivalence axiom between P3 and P4 using the SPP(sub) pattern: 

PREFIX : <http://example.org/>
PREFIX rdf: <http://www.w3.org/1999/02/22-rdf-syntax-ns#>
PREFIX rdfs: <http://www.w3.org/2000/01/rdf-schema#>
PREFIX owl: <http://www.w3.org/2002/07/owl#>

:P1 a owl:Class .
:P2 a owl:Class .
:P3 a owl:Class .
:P4 a owl:Class .

:P1 owl:equivalentClass :P2 .
:P3 :equivalentClass-1 :P4 .
:equivalentClass-1 rdfs:subPropertyOf owl:equivalentClass .

Note that this does not have the intended entailments. We can see this by doing a DL query in Protege. Here we use HermiT but other DL reasoners exhibit the same features.

For the normal equivalence axiom, we get expected entailments (namely that P2 is equivalent to P1):

However, we do not get the intended entailment that P3 is equivalent to P4

We can get more of a clue as to what is going on by converting the above turtle to OWL functional notation, which makes the DL assertions more explicit:



SubAnnotationPropertyOf(:equivalentClass-1 owl:equivalentClass)
EquivalentClasses(:P1 :P2)
AnnotationAssertion(:equivalentClass-1 :P3 :P4)

Note that the SPP-ized equivalence axiom has been translated into an owl annotation assertion, which has no logical semantics. However, even if we force the SPP property to be an object property, we still lack the required entailments. In both cases, we induce owl:equivalentClass to be an annotation property, when in fact it is not a property at all in OWL-DL.

The SPP(e) pattern may work provide the intended entailments when using OWL-Full, but this remains to be tested.

Even if this is the case, for pragmatic purposes most of the reasoners in use in the life science ontologies realm are OWL2-DL or a sub-profile like EL++ or RL (e.g. Elk, HermiT).

Use of SPP with plain RDF

If you are only concerned with plain RDF and not OWL, then the above may not be a concern for you. If SPP’s work for your use case, go ahead. But bear in mind that this pattern is not as widely used, and in addition to OWL issues, there may be other reasons to avoid – for example, proliferating the number of properties in your graph may confuse humans and break certain built in assumptions made by some tools. Overall my recommendation would be to avoid the SPP regardless of your use case.

It’s unfortunate that something as basic as placing information on an edge leads to such a proliferation of de-facto standards in the RDF world. I think this is one reason why graph databases such as Neo4J have the edge – they make this much easier, and they don’t force poor users to mentally reason over confusing combinations of W3C specifications and understand esoteric things such as the difference between OWL-DL and OWL-Full.

Hopefully RDFStar will solve some of these issues.

About Chris Mungall
Computer Research Scientist at Berkeley Lab. Interests: AI / Ontologies / Bioinformatics. Projects: GO, Monarch, Alliance, OBOFoundry, NMDC

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