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For this Insights interview we talked with Marisa Hughes about her work as Taxonomist for APA Publishing at the American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, DC. APA is the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States Its mission is to promote the advancement, communication, and application of psychological science and knowledge.

Marisa holds an M.A. in Psychology and joined APA as an indexer in 1987. Our discussion focused on her current role as a Taxonomist and how the APA Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms is managed and updated.

Tell us first about your early career and education.

MH: I was trained as an indexer when I started my career at APA in 1987 in the Retrieval Services Unit. It dates me, but we wrote the index terms in pencil on paper printouts of the records before they were edited and then entered into the computer system. The training was very thorough — we had books and manuals that lined our desks and guided us through the process of writing the appropriate key phrase, applying index terms, and considering other research variables, such as the population and study implications. After finishing a selection of printed records, an editor would check your work, and you would then talk through the changes and why a term might be a better fit over a different one.

This was excellent training, and later I had the opportunity to train indexers, and to work on the thesaurus. I really enjoyed the thesaurus work – researching the term and having the ability to explore the psychological concepts further. I was a search analyst and then a freelance consultant for our APA PsycTests database before taking on the role of Taxonomist in 2017.

Can you describe your current role with APA?

MH: My training and background in indexing, as well as my familiarity with the controlled vocabulary and the field of psychology, was a perfect foundation for my role as a Taxonomist, in which I maintain and update the Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms.

When I am accepting new terms into the vocabulary, I have to remain aware that we are providing these as the best words to describe emerging concepts in psychology, and to lead the user to a more targeted search experience. In addition to new terminology, I keep track of changes in the nomenclature and monitor terms that might have become obsolete.

“For me the role of managing and developing the taxonomy is one of great responsibility. Words influence people. A simple word can change the way people view things.”

Tell us more about the work of the American Psychological Association.

MH: APA is the leading scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 122,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students as its members.

Our mission is to promote the advancement, communication, and application of psychological science and knowledge to benefit society and improve lives. We do this by utilizing psychology to make a positive impact on critical societal issues – such as substance use, deep poverty, and currently the pandemic and racial justice and by elevating the public’s understanding of psychology. We also work to prepare the profession of psychology for the future and to strengthen APA’s standing as an authoritative voice for psychology.

APA is composed of four directorates – Education, Practice, Public Interest, and Science. While these directorates are more member focused, I work in the publishing arm of APA, known as APA Publishing, which is more business and product focused.

We provide a diverse catalog: journals, books, handbooks, and our metadata products. We also have full text article/chapter databases and video training tools.  The taxonomy is used to index all of these products.

Other products include Magination Press, our children’s book publishing program, PsycLearn, our new digital learning tools to support undergraduate psychology education and Academic Writer, a tool for teaching and learning academic writing with APA Style.

APA has been publishing their thesaurus for many decades. Can you talk about how the thesaurus is regarded as an important information asset for APA?

MH: The first edition of our Thesaurus of Psychological Index Terms was published in 1974 and moved through 11 print editions – with the last print edition in 2007 — before becoming the online search utility that it is today. It represents the domain of psychology, and is vital in providing accurate information retrieval in our databases and products. Without a controlled vocabulary responsive to emerging terminology and research, we would not be able to access vital psychological research and resources, which is especially important with the current societal issues.

“I think that the work of taxonomy is only successful if it is collaborative.”

How do you review changes or terms in the thesaurus? How many people are involved?

MH: I work with our Content Management and production teams, staff who are working on our metadata and full article records along with our Machine Aided Indexing (MAI) specialist. I also confer with our Customer Engagement team throughout the year, and they pass along user feedback. I work with SMEs as needed, depending on the area. For example, I consulted an NIH psychometrician and a social psychologist for some of the summer 2020 update terms — although much of the COVID-19/pandemic-related terminology was evolving and authoritative online resources provided by the World Health Organization and the CDC were my go-to.

When the update files are ready to go out, I participate in extensive training with all staff, involving a lot of feedback and discussion.

“We have always been focused on strengthening and tightening the vocabulary to make it accurate and robust, in order to describe the research. Our primary focus should be on making psychological information and resources available to the research community, the public, and other individuals and communities who need it.”

Can you talk about how the APA uses the thesaurus for content indexing and retrieval?

MH: The Thesaurus is used to index all of our databases and products, along with our pages and resources, with the addition of an enterprise taxonomy. It is a displayable search utility, with the display of all term fields on our search platform APA PsycNet, and it is also provided as a search function for our three vendor platforms (EBSCO, ProQuest, and OVID). Additionally, it is used by a few other organizations, including the Leibniz Institute for Psychology in Germany (ZPID), where it is translated into German and used to index their databases PSYNDEX and PSYNDEX Tests.

How often do you update?

MH: When we moved to an online version, we updated every 1-3 years. Our aim is to update more frequently and, since last year, we have provided summer and winter updates. We’ve made several improvements to the vocabulary in the past few years by reducing the number of top terms, providing more comprehensive hierarchies and related terms for information discovery, and bringing the terminology in line with emerging concepts. It’s especially important now to update more frequently and keep the vocabulary responsive to emerging social issues and concepts; such as racial disparities, mental health, and health care access.

How has the use of this thesaurus expanded?

MH: The total number of terms has grown from 4,050 in 1974, to 9,691 in 2019 and currently 9,954 following our 2021 summer update.

We have seen a shift from core psychology areas and terms to terms needed for fringe areas of psychology, such as politics, forensics, human resources, and consumer behavior. The domain is changing and becoming multidisciplinary, and there are more Masters and PhD programs being conferred in areas not typically related to psychological treatment and disorders.

An example of the shifting nature of the domain are the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics. Where do they have a union with psychology? What terminology do we need to describe these emerging concepts? We can also see with the past year that psychology and mental health play a huge role in everything that we are experiencing on a global level, so there is an increased need to ensure this information is indexed appropriately.

Can you talk about any upcoming novel applications for the thesaurus that you might have as well?

MH: I’ve worked on taxonomies for our PsycLearn digital learning product, which currently includes modules on Research Methods, Social Psychology, and Statistics and offers opportunities for cross-walking the thesaurus and providing related content for higher education.

Additionally, you should check out the APA Online Dictionary of Psychology (, which I began working on in 2017 to bring the print resource to the public via Google search. This was one of our first projects working with SEO, and it has been very successful. There are exciting possibilities for coordination with our other resources and products.

“The knowledge of the process really does inform the development of the taxonomy. I really think that a visual way of thinking helps in this job, and visualizing the terminology is often the best way to approach it.”

Our choice of Synaptica KMS taxonomy software is part of our focus on strengthening the vocabulary. We needed software with additional applications and KMS provides all of the foundational features that you need as well as extra options that provide future adaptability.

What words of wisdom would you share with someone beginning their first taxonomy project?

MH: Know your domain, and do not rush the process, particularly the initial research. Do your due diligence, investigate, investigate, investigate. Rely on multiple sources to ensure that you have a complete picture and that you are accurate and unbiased.

Taxonomy involves many, many moving parts and pieces of data and is a much harder job than anyone from the outside would think. Pace yourself accordingly and give yourself the time needed. The buck will stop with you, but it is essential that you are very collaborative. This is a team sport.

What makes a good taxonomist for you? What skills do you look for?

MH: You need an interest in what words mean, what they convey, and an intrinsic curiosity in how words fit together. You need to be able to do this work on your own, but you also need to work well with others and seek out input.

An indexing background can be helpful because it informs how the terms will be applied and used. The knowledge of the process really does inform the development of the taxonomy. Lastly, be aware of visual ways of thinking. I see the hierarchies visually, and sometimes feel that I am building a structure out of words.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in your sector for the future?

MH: In general, taxonomy is the foundation of so much. Many things do not work well without a solid taxonomy – your website, your products, and access to your research. Today with the many different ways of producing a taxonomy, including machine aided and artificial intelligence, the real challenge is to balance human input and machine effort. Computers can help us with the accuracy, but we still need people with skills and domain knowledge.

Psychology and mental health play such a huge role in recent societal issues, and it is vital that we continue to produce a solid and strong taxonomy so that we can continue to provide the psychological research and resources

"Our choice of Synaptica KMS taxonomy software is part of our focus on strengthening the vocabulary. We needed software with additional applications and KMS provides all of the foundational features that you need as well as extra options that provide future adaptability."

Synaptica Insights is our popular series of use cases sharing stories, news, and learning from our customers, partners, influencers, and colleagues. You can review the full list of Insight interviews online.

Author Vivs Long-Ferguson

Marketing Manager at Synaptica LLC. Joined in 2017, leads on marketing, social media and executive operations.

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