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A scoping review of ontologies related to human behaviour change

Nature Human Behaviourvolume 3pages164172 (2019) | Download Citation


Ontologies are classification systems specifying entities, definitions and inter-relationships for a given domain, with the potential to advance knowledge about human behaviour change. A scoping review was conducted to: (1) identify what ontologies exist related to human behaviour change, (2) describe the methods used to develop these ontologies and (3) assess the quality of identified ontologies. Using a systematic search, 2,303 papers were identified. Fifteen ontologies met the eligibility criteria for inclusion, developed in areas such as cognition, mental disease and emotions. Methods used for developing the ontologies were expert consultation, data-driven techniques and reuse of terms from existing taxonomies, terminologies and ontologies. Best practices used in ontology development and maintenance were documented. The review did not identify any ontologies representing the breadth and detail of human behaviour change. This suggests that advancing behavioural science would benefit from the development of a behaviour change intervention ontology.

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We thank the Wellcome Trust for funding the project: ‘The Human Behaviour-Change Project: Building the science of behaviour change for complex intervention development’ (201,524/Z/16/Z). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript. Thanks to E. Crayton, S. Stanton-Fay, H. Walton and A. Wright for providing comments on an earlier draft.

Author information


  1. Centre for Behaviour Change, University College London, London, UK

    • Emma Norris
    • , Ailbhe N. Finnerty
    •  & Susan Michie
  2. Department of Biological Sciences and Babraham Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • Janna Hastings
  3. EPPI-Centre, University College London, London, UK

    • Gillian Stokes


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All authors approved the review protocol. E.N. and A.N.F. performed the searches. E.N., A.N.F. and G.S. performed the screening, with J.H. providing feedback. E.N. and A.N.F. performed the data extraction and quality assessment, with J.H. acting as a third reviewer for any conflicts. E.N. and A.N.F. wrote the first draft, with all authors contributing to drafts and approving the final version of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Emma Norris.

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