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Effective and Practical Neural Ranking

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Authors: Sean MacAvaney

Appeared in: Georgetown University, PhD dissertation


Supervised machine learning methods that use neural networks ("deep learning") have yielded substantial improvements to a multitude of Natural Language Processing (NLP) tasks in the past decade. Improvements to Information Retrieval (IR) tasks, such as ad-hoc search, lagged behind those in similar NLP tasks, despite considerable community efforts. Although there are several contributing factors, I argue in this dissertation that early attempts were not more successful because they did not properly consider the unique characteristics of IR tasks when designing and training ranking models. I first demonstrate this by showing how large-scale datasets containing weak relevance labels can successfully replace training on in-domain collections. This technique improves the variety of queries encountered when training and helps mitigate concerns of over-fitting particular test collections. I then show that dataset statistics available in specific IR tasks can be easily incorporated into neural ranking models alongside the textual features, resulting in more effective ranking models. I also demonstrate that contextualized representations, particularly those from transformer-based language models, considerably improve neural ad-hoc ranking performance. I find that this approach is neither limited to the task of ad-hoc ranking (as demonstrated by ranking clinical reports) nor English content (as shown by training effective cross-lingual neural rankers). These efforts demonstrate that neural approaches can be effective for ranking tasks. However, I observe that these techniques are impractical due to their high query-time computational costs. To overcome this, I study approaches for offloading computational cost to index-time, substantially reducing query-time latency. These techniques make neural methods practical for ranking tasks. Finally, I take a deep dive into better understanding the linguistic biases of the methods I propose compared to contemporary and traditional approaches. The findings from this analysis highlight potential pitfalls of recent methods and provide a way to measure progress in this area going forward.

BibTeX @article{macavaney:gu2021-diss, author = {MacAvaney, Sean}, title = {Effective and Practical Neural Ranking}, year = {2021}, journal = {Georgetown University, PhD dissertation} }