Semantic Analytics on Social Networks: Experiences in Addressing the Problem of Conflict of Interest Detection

Boanerges Aleman-Meza1, Meenakshi Nagarajan1, Cartic Ramakrishnan1, Li Ding2, Pranam Kolari2, Amit P. Sheth1, I. Budak Arpinar1, Anupam Joshi2, Tim Finin2

1LSDIS Lab, Dept. of Computer Science
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602-7404

2Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Baltimore, MD 21250


In this paper, we describe a Semantic Web application that detects Conflict of Interest (COI) relationships among potential reviewers and authors of scientific papers. This application discovers various 'semantic associations' between the reviewers and authors in a populated ontology to determine a degree of Conflict of Interest. This ontology was created by integrating entities and relationships from two social networks, namely "knows," from a FOAF (Friend-of-a-Friend) social network and "co-author," from the underlying co-authorship network of the DBLP bibliography. We describe our experiences developing this application in the context of a class of Semantic Web applications, which have important research and engineering challenges in common. In addition, we present an evaluation of our approach for real-life COI detection.

Categories and Subject Descriptors

H.4.m [Information Systems Applications]: Miscellaneous; H.3.4 [Information Storage and Retrieval]: Systems and Software - Information Networks

General Terms

Algorithms, Experimentation


Semantic Web, Social Networks, Conflict of Interest, Peer Review Process, Semantic Analytics, Entity Disambiguation, Data Fusion, Semantic Associations, Ontologies, RDF


Conflict of Interest (COI) is typically known as a situation that may bias a decision. It can be caused by a variety of factors such as family ties, business [31] or friendship ties and access to confidential information. Detecting COI is necessary in many situations, such as contract allocation, IPO (Initial Public Offerings) or company acquisitions, corporate law and peer-review of scientific research papers or proposals. Besides ensuring impartial decisions, detection of COI is also critical where ethical and legal ramifications could be quite damaging to individuals or organizations. The underlying technical challenge is also related to the common connecting-the-dots applications that are found in a broad variety of fields, including regulatory compliance, intelligence and national security [18] and drug discovery [24].

In some cases, it can be difficult to detect COI because of the lack of available information. However, in many other cases, there exists implicit and/or explicit information in the form of social networks, such as those on the Web. For example, the social network, comprising a large number of people from information technology areas, could be used to detect COI in situations such as IPO or company acquisitions., Friendster and Hi5 contain social network data that could substantiate COI in situations of friendship or personal ties. The list keeps growing; for example, (targeted towards college students) has recently begun expanding to include high-school students. Club Nexus is an online community serving over 2000 Stanford undergraduate and graduate students [1]. The creation of Yahoo! 360° and the acquisition of by Google are recent examples where the importance of social network applications is evident not only considering the millions of users that some of them have but also due to the (even hundreds of) millions of dollars they are worth.

Although social networks can provide data to detect COI, one important problem lies in the lack of integration among sites hosting them. Moreover, privacy concerns prevent such sites from openly sharing their data. Therefore, we chose publicly available social network data to address the challenge of COI detection. We selected public sources for two reasons. First, they provide an opportunity to address the problem of integrating different social networks. Second, we can demonstrate real-world examples of the relevance of the problem of COI detection.

The data we used comes from bibliographic literature in Computer Science research. The DBLP bibliography ( provides collaboration network data by virtue of the explicit co-author relationships among authors. We made the assumption that this collaboration network represents an underlying social network. As a second social network, we used a multitude of FOAF documents from the Web where the "knows" relationship is explicitly stated. The aggregation of such FOAF documents by means of the "knows" relationship results in a social network. Although we anticipated significant challenges while integrating the two networks, the effort needed in addressing this challenge surpassed our initial expectations. For example, DBLP has different entries that in the real world refer to the same person, such as the case of "R. Guha" and "Ramanathan V. Guha." Thus, the need for entity disambiguation (also called entity resolution, or reference reconciliation) will likely continue to be a fundamental challenge in developing Semantic Web applications involving heterogeneous, real-world data. We believe that this integration effort of two social networks provides an example of how semantic technologies, such as FOAF, contribute to enhancing the Web.

The contributions of this paper are as follows:

- We bring together a semantic & semi-structured social network (FOAF) with a social network extracted from the collaborative network in DBLP. We explain the challenges involved with respect to large-scale entity disambiguation to achieve integration of different social networks (together with our results and findings for this task).

- We introduce semantic analytics techniques to address the problem of COI detection.

- We describe our experiences in the context of a class of Semantic Web applications, which have important challenges in common. We illustrate how an application that we developed for COI detection is a simple yet representative application of this class. The application is built around the scenario of a peer-review process. Thus, we demonstrate not only an application for COI detection but also shed some light on what it takes to develop this type of Semantic Web application.


This paper intends to characterize the common engineering and research challenges of building practical Semantic Web applications rather than contribute to the theoretical aspects of Semantic Web. In fact, many of us in academia have seen multi-faceted efforts towards realizing the Semantic Web vision. We believe that the success of this vision will be measured by how research in this field (i.e., theoretical) can contribute to increasing the deployment of Semantic Web applications [25]. In particular, we refer to Semantic Web applications that have been built to solve commercial world problems [26, 32, 33]. These include Semantic Search [16, 37], large scale annotation of Web pages [11], commercialized semantic annotation technology [17] and applications for national security [34]. The engineering process it takes to develop such applications is similar to what we present in this paper. The development of a Semantic Web application typically involves a multi-step process:

1. Obtaining high quality data: Such data is often not available. Additionally, there might be many sites from which data is to be obtained. Thus, metadata extraction from multiple sources is often needed [10, 23, 35].

2. Data preparation: Preparation typically follows the obtaining of data. Cleanup and evaluation of the quality of the data is part of data preparation.

3. Entity disambiguation: This continues to be a key research aspect and often involves a demanding engineering effort. Identifying the right entity is essential for semantic annotation and data integration (i.e., [6]).

4. Metadata and ontology representation: Depending on the application, it can be necessary to import or export data using standards such as RDF/RDFS and OWL. Addressing differences in modeling, representation and encodings can require significant effort.

5. Querying and inference techniques: These are needed as a foundation for more complex data processing and enabling semantic analytics and discovery (i.e., [4, 19, 21, 35]).

6. Visualization: The ranking and presentation of query or discovery results are very critical for the success of Semantic Web applications. Users should be able to understand how inference or discovery is justified by the data.

7. Evaluation: Often benchmarks or gold standards are not available to measure the success of Semantic Web applications. A frequently-used method is comparing application output with results from human subjects.

These challenges are discussed throughout this paper in the context of developing an application that addresses the problem of COI detection. Figure 1 illustrates the multi-step process of building Semantic Web applications along with the steps involved in our approach for COI detection.

Multi-step Process of Semantic Web Applications

Figure 1. Multi-step Process of Semantic Web Applications

2.1 Conflict of Interest Detection Problem

Conflict of interest situations should be identified to produce impartial decisions, such as complying with laws. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), like many other government and private organizations, has strict definitions of what constitutes a COI. The NIH defines COI in the context of the grant review process as: "A Conflict Of Interest (COI) in scientific peer review exists when a reviewer has an interest in a grant or cooperative agreement application or an R&D contract proposal that is likely to bias his or her evaluation of it. A reviewer who has a real conflict of interest with an application or proposal may not participate in its review." Thus, one major cause for bias is professional or social relationships between potential reviewers and authors of the material to be reviewed. In this paper, we address the problem of COI detection in the context of peer-review processes. We believe that the techniques presented here are applicable for COI detection in other scenarios as well.

2.2 The Peer-Review Process

Throughout this paper, we will focus on the peer-review process for scientific research papers. This process is commonly supported by semi-automated tools, such as conference management systems. In a typical conference, (typically) one person designated as Program Committee (PC) Chair, is in charge of the proper assignment of papers to be reviewed by PC members of the conference. Assigning papers to reviewers is probably one of the most challenging tasks for the Chair. State-of-the-art conference management systems support this task by relying on reviewers specifying their expertise and/or "bidding" on papers. These systems can then assign papers to reviewers yet allow the Chair to modify these assignments. A key task is to ensure that there are qualified reviewers for a paper and that they will not have a-priori bias for or against the paper. These two requirements often conflict since publishing in top conferences is very competitive. Conference management systems can rely on the knowledge of the Chair about any particular strong social relationships that might point to possible COIs. However, due to the proliferation of interdisciplinary research, the Chair cannot be expected to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of collaborative relationships among researchers, let alone personal relationships. Hence, conference management systems need to help the Chair with the detection of COIs.

Contemporary conference management systems support COI detection in different manners. EDAS ( checks for conflicts of interest based on declarations of possible conflicts by the PC members (i.e., while "bidding" for papers). Microsoft Research's CMT Tool ( allows authors to indicate COI with reviewers. Confious ( automatically detects these conflicts of interest based mainly on "similar emails" or "co-authorship" criteria. The "similar email" criterion tries to identify PC members and authors who are affiliated with the same organization based on the suffixes of the email addresses. The "co-authorship" criterion identifies users that have co-authored at least one paper in the past. However, Confious' relatively straight forward approach can miss out on COIs as exemplified by one recent case. This particular case might have been undetected because the co-author in question now has a hyphened last name. On the other hand, this is a good example of how difficult COI detection might be.

2.3 Online Social Networks

"A social network is a set of people (or organizations or other social entities) connected by a set of social relationships, such as friendship, co-working or information exchange" [15]. Social networks are receiving a lot of attention on the Web because of an increasing number of websites allow users to post their personal information directly into online networked information spaces. The users of such websites form virtual or online communities which have become part of the modern society in many contexts such as social, educational, political and business.

The entity Person is the fundamental concept in online social networks. An entity can be identified by one or several of its properties, and different sources might use different set of properties, e.g. a person can be identified by his/her name in an office, but will be identified by his/her policy number by an insurance company. Such heterogeneous contexts and entity identifiers necessitate entity disambiguation. A "link" is another important concept in social networks. Some sources directly provide links among person entities such as foaf:knows (where foaf refers to the FOAF namespace Other links, such as co-author among authors can be derived from metadata of publications.

Some of the online social networking sites provide machine readable personal information data using RDF/XML and FOAF vocabularies. Depending on the website's privacy policy, the scope of published personal information ranges from nick names and interests to sensitive information (i.e., date of birth). We acknowledge that there are privacy issues, yet a discussion on this is out of the scope of this paper.

2.3.1 Social Networks Analysis

Social network analysis focuses on the analysis of patterns of relationships among people, organizations, states and such social entities [7, 38, 39]. Social network analysis has applications in analysis of networks of criminals [40], visualization of co-citation relationships [8] and of papers [9], finding influential individuals [27, 36], study of the evolution of co-authorship networks [5], etc. Our work in this paper is fundamentally different than these previous approaches as it aims to develop and test an ontological approach in integrating two social networks and using 'semantic association' discovery techniques for identification of COI relationships.

3. Integration of Two Social Networks

In order to demonstrate our approach to the problem of COI detection, we bring together a semi-structured yet semantic social network (FOAF) with a structured social network extracted from the underlying co-authorship network in DBLP. Here we describe these sources and explain the challenges involved with respect to entity disambiguation that have to be addressed to merge entities across (and within) these sources that in real-world refer to the same person.

3.1 Choosing Data Sources: FOAF and DBLP

We selected two representative online data sources for constructing two independent social networks and then we combined them into one social network in the form of a populated ontology. These two real-world datasets were chosen based on the following criteria: first, they are representative for Semantic Web (FOAF) and database (DBLP) approaches; second, they consist of links among real-world persons, which is important for demonstrating COI detection; last, they are publicly available, thus facilitating their access with less privacy issues.

The Friend of a Friend (FOAF) data source, which is representative of Semantic Web data, is created independently by many authors because anyone can use the FOAF vocabulary to publish information about themselves and their social relationships. For example, a Person entity can include identity-properties such as email and homepage, additional personal-properties such as name and personal photo using foaf:name and foaf:depiction respectively, and friendship-properties by means of foaf:knows. All this information can be encoded using an RDF/XML syntax thus making the corresponding social network information "machine processable." Many people maintain this type of social networks information in the FOAF world. For this reason, we can expect that people will use various sets of properties and that the values of such properties will be written using different conventions.

The FOAF dataset we used [13] includes 207,000 person entities from 49,750 FOAF documents collected during the first three months of 2005. This dataset covers person entities in many professions and activities. These FOAF documents were discovered by Swoogle Semantic Web search engine [12] (see item 1 in the multi-step process of Section 2).

The DBLP data source, which is representative of conventional database applications, is maintained by a single source. It is one of the best formatted and organized bibliography datasets. DBLP covers approximately 400,000 researchers who have publications in major Computer Science publication venues. Bibliographic datasets have been used for social network analysis, such as studying the structure [28] and the spread of influence [22] in scientific communities. In DBLP, Person entities are fairly fixed - persons are identified by their names and are associated by co-author relationships. Although counterexamples exist, such co-authorship relationships are well recognized as indicators of collaborative social relationships. Figure 2 illustrates the (ontology) schema and sample instances for the integrated network of DBLP and FOAF.

Schema and Sample Instances

Figure 2. Schema and Sample Instances

3.2 Cleaning FOAF and DBLP Datasets

The goal of creating a combined dataset led us to maximizing the likelihood that DBLP entities will be connected to FOAF entities. Thus, we started with a set of authors of papers in the 2004 and earlier International Semantic Web Conferences and the Program Committee members of these conferences. This set of people and their friends are likely to publish their personal profiles in FOAF and their names usually also appear in DBLP. We obtained two subsets from FOAF and DBLP as follows:

DBLP-SW: We collected 38,027 person entities that have up to three hops of social distance from those persons in Semantic Web (SW) conferences (as explained above). Table 1 shows statistics of DBLP-SW (where 'dblp' is the alias for the namespace we used for this subset).

Table 1. Statistics of DBLP-SW Dataset


Persons having this relationship
#of entities %










FOAF-EDU: We first used the value of foaf:name to perform data cleaning (see item 2 in the multi-step process of Section 2). Examples of discarded names are "Tom's Website," "Shimone dot Org" and those containing special characters (i.e., '?', '{', '}'). This operation retained only about one third of the person entities (i.e. 66,112 instances). Second, we applied several heuristics to identify researchers from person entities such as including FOAF documents residing on 'edu' websites. Table 2 shows statistics of FOAF-EDU, which contains 21,308 person entities:

Table 2. Statistics of FOAF-EDU Dataset


Persons having this relationship
#of entities %































3.3 Entity Disambiguation

The class of Semantic Web applications exemplified by COI detection requires high-quality data. Hence, it is necessary to resolve ambiguities among entities. We adapted a recent work in name reconciliation for resolving ambiguous entities in our datasets and evaluated the effectiveness of this approach. We discuss our findings as we expect them to be applicable to this class of Semantic Web applications (see item 3 in the multi-step process of Section 2).

3.3.1 Disambiguation Algorithm

The goal is to find entities that might have multiple references in DBLP and/or FOAF that refer to the same entity (i.e., person) in real-life in order to establish a sameAs relationship between entities that are indeed the same entity (i.e., using owl:sameAs from W3C's OWL - Web Ontology Language). For this purpose, we adapted a name-reconciliation algorithm [14], which we selected for two reasons. First, it employs a rigorous form of semantic similarity by gleaning the context associated with an entity. Such similarity between two references is defined as a combination of the similarity between its atomic and association attributes (i.e., literal properties and resource properties in RDF parlance). For instance, the reconciliation of two DBLP entities can be determined based on whether the similarity of their names and affiliations (atomic attributes), and the number of common co-author relationships (associations attributes) is sufficient evidence to reconcile the two entities with certainty (i.e., above a predefined threshold). Weights are manually assigned to the types of the relationships that an entity participates in, based on aspects such as importance of the relationships and the number of entities that have values for certain attributes (see Tables 1 and 2). The intuition behind weights (and thresholds) is to give more importance to the relationships that define the context of an entity than the syntactic similarity of attribute values. For example, co-authorship relationships of an author contribute more contextual information than an attribute value containing the number of his/her publications. Table 3 shows the weights used for reconciling entities (for both types of entities in our dataset) as well as the merge thresholds. We found that these weights and merge thresholds were quite effective through several experiments where we considered multiple combinations of weights and merge thresholds values.

The second reason why we adapted the approach by Dong et al. [14] is its applicability for the data sources we used, where many entities lack enough information (i.e., attributes) to be utilized for disambiguation. This drawback of the data is addressed by the algorithm, which propagates reference-similarity information between reconciliation decisions and enriches references of reconciled entities. Thus, additional information can be used in reconciliation decisions of subsequent iterations done as part of the algorithm. A description of further details on this algorithm is outside the scope of this paper.

Table 3. Atomic Attributes Weights and Thresholds

Comparable Atomic Attributes


Reconciling two FOAF entities
Merge criteria: atomic attributes threshold > 0.5 and having at least 5 relationships to friends in common





















Reconciling two DBLP entities
Merge criteria: atomic attributes threshold > 0.6 and having at least 5 co-authors in common







Reconciling a FOAF and DBLP entity
merge criteria: atomic attributes merge threshold > 0.5 and at least 3 friends who are also in the co-authors list

foaf:label & dblp:label


foaf:firstName & dblp:label#firstName


foaf:surname & dblp:label#surname


dblp:homepage & foaf:homepage


dblp:homepage & foaf:workplaceHomepage


dblp:homepage & foaf:schoolHomepage


3.3.2 Entity Disambiguation Results

The output of the adapted disambiguation algorithm populates two result sets - a "sameAs" set and an "ambiguous" set. The sameAs result set contains entity pairs identified as the same entity. The ambiguous set contains entity pairs having a good probability of being the same but without sufficient information to be reconciled with certainty. Table 4 shows the properties of the dataset and the results obtained when we applied the reference reconciliation algorithm on the combined dataset. The entity pairs to be compared were selected based on syntactic similarity of their names.

Table 4. Properties of the Dataset and Disambiguation Results

Number of FOAF entities


Number of DBLP entities


Total number of entities


Number of entity pairs to be compared


Number of entity pairs for which a sameAs was established


Number of entity pairs compared yet without sufficient information to be reconciled


The lack of a gold standard prevented us from using precision and recall metrics (see item 7 in the multi-step process of Section 2). Instead, we measured statistics of false positives and false negatives by manually inspecting random samples of entity pairs from both the sameAs set and the ambiguous set. For each of these sets, we picked 6 random samples, each having 50 entity pairs. A false positive in the sameAs set indicates an incorrectly reconciled pair of entities, and a false negative in the ambiguous set indicates a pair of entities that should have been reconciled but were not. We found 1 false positive in the sameAs set and 16 false negatives in the ambiguous set. We estimated with a confidence level of 95% that by using this algorithm on this dataset, the number of false negatives in any ambiguous set will be between 2.8% and 7.8%. The number of false positives was estimated, with the same level of confidence, to be between 0.3% and 0.9%. We found the following as the most common reasons for false negatives:

- Entity pairs under comparison had a good number of attributes for the algorithm to use but with different values for their multi-valued attributes. For example, two FOAF entities that have the label, mailbox-hash and homepage attributes matched partially in their label but differed in the mailbox-hash and homepage.

- Entity pairs under comparison had a high similarity in atomic attribute values, but had very few association attribute matches. This was more prevalent in cases where the association attributes lists (i.e., co-authors and friends) were incomplete. The low similarity in association attribute matches cannot be discounted, because it is possible to have two DBLP entities that do not refer to the same real-world entity, but have a high similarity in comparable atomic attributes and a common co-author. For example, entities E1 and E2 in Figure 3 are DBLP instances that have a high similarity in attribute values and one co-author in common but are really two different entities.

Different Entitie with High Similarity

Figure 3. Different Entities with High Similarity

- A pair of entities that should have been reconciled was not due to insufficient attributes and having only a partial match between the attributes available.

- A pair of entities had very few attributes for comparison, but had a high match in the most semantically relevant attributes such as mailbox-hash or homepage. Due to the small number of attributes available, their threshold was not high enough for them to be reconciled. For example, entities F1 and F2 in Figure 4 have very few attributes available for comparison. Although their homepage and surname attributes match, this is not enough evidence to conclusively state reconciliation.

Entities with Good Match on Relevant Attributes

Figure 4. Entities with Good Match on Relevant Attributes

Although the objective of the implementation was to have as few false positives and false negatives as possible, we concluded based on experiments, that altering the weights and thresholds alone did not improve the results. The nature of the dataset, where a majority of entities appearing in FOAF have only between 3 and 7 attributes and the entities appearing in DBLP have between 3 and 5 attributes, plays a critical role in the results obtained. On the other hand, in cases like that of Figure 4, we found that it is possible to include data specific filters in the algorithm to obtain improvements on disambiguation results. For instance, a rule could specify that two entity references should be considered the same if they have the same homepage or mailbox in the absence of sufficient contextual information. However, such a consideration cannot be made without compromising on the results. For example, the case of two people using the URL of their workplace as their homepage would lead to incorrectly identifying them as the same entity. Another way of improving results is whereby a conference management system requests additional information such as affiliation, email and homepage (i.e., from authors of submitted papers) to be used in conjunction with the already available information (from FOAF and DBLP).


In this section we introduce different levels of COI and describe how we computed weights for relationships among the people in the integrated social network. We then describe our algorithm for COI detection. This is followed by an experiment aimed at validating the ratings of various types of COI that our application identifies.

4.1 Levels of Conflict of Interest

By adhering to a strict definition of COI, there is only one situation in which there exists a conflict of interest: the existence of a strong relationship. For other situations, an automated COI detection algorithm can provide insight by identifying potential COI. In this way, human involvement can be drastically reduced but will still be relevant in other cases, such as when the quality of data is not perfect, the domain is not perfectly modeled and when there is no complete data. The subjective nature of the problem of COI detection is a good example where Semantic Web techniques cannot be expected to be fully automatic in providing the correct solution. For these reasons, we introduce the notion of potential COI as it applies to cases where evidence exists to justify an estimated level of "low," "medium," or "high" degree of possible COI, as illustrated in Table 5.

Table 5. Levels of COI







Sufficient evidence exists to require participant to abstain (i.e., recuse)




Evidence justifies additional verification of COI; participant is suggested to recuse


Little evidence of potential COI


Shallow evidence of potential COI, which in most cases can be ignored

We now provide examples of each of the levels of Table 5.

(1) "Definite" COI includes the case when a reviewer (i.e., PC member) is one of the listed authors in a paper to be reviewed (i.e., a reviewer must not review his/her own paper).

(2) "High" level of potential COI includes the existence of close or strong relationship(s) among an author of a submitted paper and a reviewer (i.e., a reviewer should not review the paper of a past collaborator).

(3) "Medium" level of potential COI occurs when a reviewer and an author of a paper to be reviewed have close relationships with a third party. For example, a reviewer may have a bias to an author if both had the same PhD advisor - even if they never collaborated or had any communication!

(4) "Low" level of potential COI includes situations with weak or distant relationships between a reviewer and an author of a paper to be reviewed. This degree of COI could, in most cases, be ignored. For example, "Anna" was PhD advisor of "John," "Beth" was PhD advisor of "Ken," and the only relationship connecting "John" and "Ken" is through a co-authorship between "Anna" and "Beth."

An algorithm for COI detection can also consider the quantity and strength of relationships in order to "upgrade" the level of COI (i.e., from "medium" to "high"). In addition, the 'strength' of relationships should also be considered along with the 'distance' between a reviewer and an author to determine levels of COI. In our application, a preprocessing step computes weights for the strength of relationships between people in the integrated social network.

4.2 Weighting Relationships for COI Detection

A preprocessing step quantifies the strength of relationships between people. This is particularly important as the strength of relationships can facilitate the validation of detected COI situations. The strength of relationships in the combined dataset was done by assigning weights between 0 and 1, where 1 refers to maximum strength. In our approach, we assigned weights to two types of relationships, (FOAF) knows and (DBLP) co-author.

The relationship foaf:knows is used to explicitly list the person that are known to someone. These assertions can be weighted depending upon the provenance, quality and/or reputation of their sources. On the other hand, the assertion of the foaf:knows relationship is usually subjective and imperfect. For example, foaf:knows from A to B can be indicative of potential positive bias from A to B yet it does not necessarily imply a reciprocal relationship from B to A. Due to this, we assigned a weight of 0.5 to all 34,824 foaf:knows relationships in the FOAF-EDU dataset.

The second type of relationship we used for COI detection is the co-author relationship, which is a good indicator for collaboration and/or social interactions among authors. However, counter examples can be found against assumptions such as "one researcher always has a positive bias towards his/her collaborator" because friendship or positive opinion is not necessary for performing collaborative research. A more reasonable indicator of potential bias is the frequency of collaboration, which we use to compute weights of co-author relationships. For each researcher within DBLP-SW, we used the ratio of number of co-authored publications vs. total of his/her publications as the weight for the co-authorrelationship. For any two co-authors, a and b, let


represent the set of relationships where a co-authors a publication with b, and the sets Pa and Pb represent the set of papers published by a and b, respectively. We define the weight of the co-authorship relationship from a to b as follows:


Note that this weighting scheme is asymmetric. For example, the relationship co-author from "Li Ding" to "Tim Finin" has weight value of 0.5 because Ding has co-authored half of his papers with Finin. On the other hand, the co-author relationship from Finin to Ding has a weight of 0.034 because Finin has co-authored many more publications (e.g., 87) with different collaborators. We collected 375,578 co-authorrelationships from DBLP-SW dataset. The weights computed for the relationships foaf:knows and co-author were represented using RDF reification and the combined dataset was serialized into RDF/XML to be suitable by our algorithms for discovery of semantic associations (see item 4 in the multi-step process of Section 2).

4.3 Detection of Conflict of Interest

Detection of levels of COI, as listed in Table 5, requires analysis of relationships between two persons. Hence, it is necessary to first discover and then analyze how two persons are connected by direct relationships or through sequences of relationships. Our previous work on discovery of "semantic associations" [4] and their analysis [2] is directly applicable for COI detection. This type of semantic analytics exploits the value of 'named' relationships and 'typed' entities with respect to an ontology. Thus, one of the benefits of an ontology-based approach for COI detection is providing justification of the results by listing the semantic associations interconnecting the two persons. Obtaining these semantic associations using currently available RDF query languages has disadvantages given that a semantic association is basically a (undirected) 'path' between two entities. For example, six queries are required to find all paths of up to length two connecting two entities [20]. In other applications, such as anti-money laundering, it is necessary to process longer paths [3]. For the problem of COI detection, we find semantic associations containing up to 3 relationships, which are sufficient for the levels of COI listed in Table 5. The utilization of existing techniques for complex data processing, such as discovery of semantic associations, is an example of how our application fits with item 5 in the multi-step process of Section 2.

Our algorithm for COI detection works as follows. First, it finds all semantic associations between two entities. For the scenario of peer-review process, one entity is the reviewer (i.e., PC member) and the other is an author of a paper to be reviewed. Second, each of the semantic associations found is analyzed by looking at the weights of its individual relationships. Since each semantic association is analyzed independently of the others, all directions of the different relationships are eventually considered by the algorithm. For example, for any two co-authors are connected by two co-author relationships, each of which having its own weigh value. Thresholds were required to decide what weight values are indicative of strong and weak collaborations. The following cases are considered:

(i) Reviewer and author are directly (through foaf:knows and/or co-author). The assessments are: "high" for (at least one) relationship having weight on the range medium-to-high (i.e., weight >= 0.3); "medium" for (at least one) relationship having weight on the range low-to-medium (i.e., 0.1 <= weight <0.3); and "low" for (at least one) relationship having low weight (i.e., weight < 0.1).

(ii) Reviewer and author are not directly related but they are directly related to (at least) one common person. Let us refer to this common person as an intermediary. Thus, the semantic association contains two relationships. Two cases give an assessment of "medium." In the first case, there are many (i.e., 10) such intermediaries in common. In the second case, the relationships connecting to the intermediary (i.e., one from the reviewer and another from the author) have weight on the range medium-to-high (i.e., weight >= 0.3). If neither of these two cases holds, then the assessment is "low."

(iii) Reviewer and author are indirectly related through a semantic association containing three relationships. In other words, the collaborators (or friends) of the reviewer and author have some tie. In this case, the assessment is "low" level of potential COI. In the scenario of peer-review process, a low level of potential COI can be ignored but in other situations it might have some relevance.

We determined these thresholds by experimenting with several COI situations until we found appropriate correspondence with the levels of COI listed in Table 5. In addition to the assessment of COI level, in some cases there exists a secondary assessment, which also shown to the user. For example, the assessment might have been "medium" but also with a secondary assessment, "low", might indicate a rare co-authorship relationship.

4.4 Application Prototype

Instead of providing a separate architecture diagram, we refer to Figure 1, which includes the core components of our application. The goal was to bring together different capabilities, such as extraction and integration of social network data, up to the point on which it remains a semantic problem. We address the semantic problem by using techniques of discovery of semantic associations as the basis for analysis of potential COI relationships. The representation of the data using an ontology, allows us to exploit the relationships among entities, both for integration and for COI detection.

A graph-visualization component provides the user with a view of participants (and their relationships) in detected COIs. This allows the user to inspect the cause of a given level of COI (see item 6 in the multi-step process of Section 2).

4.5 Experimental Results

For the evaluation of the effectiveness of our techniques, we selected a subset of papers and reviewers from 2004 International World Wide Web Conference. This choice was motivated by the lack of any benchmark for detection of COI, where human involvement is typically required to make final decisions.

The scenario for which we evaluated our approach included a subset of 15 PC members of the Semantic Web Track and 10 of the accepted papers having topics related to such track. The rationale for this selection is that researchers in this field would be more likely to have made available some of their information using FOAF. Table 6 lists the PC members and authors of (some of the) papers in our evaluation. The list shows only those co-authors for whom there was some level of COI detected. The algorithm does not consider COI in path sequences passing through other co-authors (thus eliminating redundant findings of COI). In Table 6, the different levels of COI detected are indicated on each cell, which contains a primary and in some cases, a secondary level of COI. We compared our application with the COI detection of the Confious conference management system [29]. Confious utilizes first and last names to identify at least one co-authored paper in the past (between reviewers and authors of submitted papers). Confious thus misses COI situations that our application does not miss because ambiguous entities in DBLP are reconciled in our approach. Confious detects previous collaborations and raises a flag of possible COI. Our approach provides detailed information such as the level of potential COI as well as the cause. For example, our approach indicates that "Ian Horrocks" and "Alon Y. Halevy" have a "low" level of potential COI caused by a previous, one-time co-authorship between them. Finally, compared to Confious, the results of our approach are enhanced by the relationships coming from the FOAF social network. However, in cases of Table 6 there was no situation of two persons having a foaf:knows relationship and not having co-author relationships between them.

We manually verified the COI assessments in Table 6. While in most cases our approach validated very well, very few cases did not. We explain a couple of these cases: (i) false-negatives caused by lack of information: we found a FOAF document where "Daniel Schwabe" mentions "Stefan Decker" yet our dataset did not have this information; a targeted crawl could solve this problem by retrieving the latest FOAF documents. (ii) Few of the "low" assessments were caused by co-editing rather than co-authorship, such as in the before mentioned example involving "Ian Horrocks" and "Alon Y. Levy," who were co-editors in the Proceedings of a Workshop in 1997. We believe that the assessment should still be that of "low" level of potential COI. However, data extraction could be improved in order to differentiate between co-authorship and co-editing relationships.

Table 6. COI Results



Karl Aberer

Sean Bechhofer

Mark Burstein

Isabel Cruz

Stefan Decker

Aldo Gangemi

R.V. Guha

Jeff Heflin

Ian Horrocks

Jane Hunter

M. Koubarakis

J. Mylopoulos

Wolfgang Nejdl

Guus Schreiber

Nigel R. Shadbolt

Dennis Quan




Sean Bechhofer








Alon Y. Halevy





LR, L6




Wendy Hall

Leslie Carr

Timothy Miles-Board

Christopher Bailey



MR, L1

M, L1

M, L2













MR, L2

MR, L7



Daniel Schwabe


LR, L2





m. c. Schraefel

Nigel Shadbolt

Nick Gibbins

Hugh Glaser

Steve Harris
















MR, L1




M, L2



M, L5


H: High level of potential COI caused by previous co-authorship/friendship between reviewer and author

M: Medium level of potential COI caused by a previous low-to-medium co-authorship between reviewer and author

MR: Medium level of potential COI caused by a previous yet rare (i.e., occasional) co-authorship between reviewer and author

Mk: Medium level of potential COI caused by 'k' collaborators/friends in common between reviewer and author

LR: Low level of potential COI caused by previous yet very rare co-authorship between reviewer and author

Lk: Low level of potential COI caused by 'k' collaborators/friends in common between reviewer and author

D: Definite COI because the reviewer is one of the authors of the paper to be reviewed

*: Indicates that there were foaf:knows relationships in a path-sequence connecting a reviewer and an author

Underlined: indicates those situations that would not be detected by Confious.


Our experience in the problem of COI detection leads us to discuss the following three questions:

What does the Semantic Web offer today (in terms of standards, techniques and tools)? Technical recommendations, such as RDF(S) and OWL, provide the basis towards standard knowledge representation languages in Semantic Web. In addition, query languages (, path discovery techniques [4] and subgraph discovery techniques [30] are examples of existing techniques for analytical access on RDF data. With respect to data, the FOAF vocabulary has gained popularity for describing content (i.e., 1st Workshop on Friend of a Friend, Social Networking and the Semantic Web, On the other hand, semantic annotation has been proven scalable [11] and supported by commercial products [17] gaining wider use.

What does it take to build Semantic Web Applications today? As we have seen by addressing the problem of COI, building Semantic Web applications is not a trivial task. At the current stage, development of these applications can be quite time consuming. As much as the Semantic Web is promoting automation, there is a lot of effort required in terms of manual efforts and in customization of existing techniques. The goal of full/complete automation is some years away. Currently, quality and availability of data is often a key challenge given the limited number of high quality and useful data sources. Significant work is required in certain tasks, such as entity disambiguation. Thus, it is not straightforward to develop Semantic Web Applications. We cannot expect to have all the components readily available to build Semantic Web Applications. Even if they are available, proving their effectiveness is a challenging job due to the lack of benchmarks. On the other hand, had the current advances not been available, some applications would not have been possible. For example, which other openly available social network other than FOAF could have been used? Then again, a number of tools are available today that can make the manual work less intensive. While conceptually there has been good progress, we are still in an early phase in the Semantic Web as far as realizing its value in a cost effective manner.

How are things likely to improve in the future? Standardization of vocabularies used to describe domain specific data is invaluable in building semantic applications. This can be seen in the bio-medical domain, e.g. the National Library of Medicine's MeSH (Medical Subject Heading) vocabulary, which is used to annotate scientific publications in the bio-medical domain. Further research in data extraction from unstructured sources will allow semi-automated creation of semi-structured data for specific domains (based on the vocabularies) for which analytic techniques can be applied to build semantic applications like the one described in this paper. Analytical techniques that draw upon graph mining, social network analysis and a vast body of research in querying semi-structured data, are all likely to facilitate the creation of Semantic Web applications. We expect that benchmarks will appear. In the future, there should be a large variety of tools available to facilitate tasks, such as entity disambiguation and annotation of documents.


We presented how an application for Conflict of Interest Detection fits in a multi-step process of a class of Semantic Web applications, which have important research and engineering challenges in common. In the process, we identified some major stumbling blocks in building applications that leverage semantics. These can be grouped into data related issues, such as metadata extraction, metadata quality and data integration as well as algorithms and techniques that can leverage semantics. Thus, in the future we can expect increased attention in techniques and tools for metadata extraction, quality assessment and integration benchmarks. We described how our approach for COI detection is based on semantic technologies techniques and provided an evaluation of its applicability using an integrated social network from the FOAF social network and the DBLP co-authorship network. We provided details on how these networks were integrated. We believe that the value of Semantic Web applications can only be possible by leveraging the implicit and explicit semantics of data, such as social networks. A demo of the application is available ( Based on our experiences developing this application, we discussed what the Semantic Web offers today, what it takes to develop Semantic Web applications and how are things likely to improve in the future.


This work is funded in part by NSF-ITR-IDM Award#0325464 titled 'SemDIS: Discovering Complex Relationships in the Semantic Web' and ARDA-supported project 'An Ontological Approach to Financial Analysis & Monitoring.'


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