Last updated on October 1, 2018
The meaning of the term information retrieval can be very broad. Just getting a credit card out of your wallet so that you can type in the card number is a form of information retrieval. However, as an academic field of study, information retrieval might be defined thus:
Information retrieval (IR) is finding material (usually documents) of an unstructured nature (usually text) that satisfies an information need from within large collections (usually stored on computers).
As defined in this way, information retrieval used to be an activity that only a few people engaged in: reference librarians, paralegals, and similar professional searchers. Now the world has changed, and hundreds of millions of people engage in information retrieval every day when they use a web search engine or search their email.
Information retrieval is fast becoming the dominant form of information access, overtaking traditional database-style searching (the sort that is going on when a clerk says to you: “I’m sorry, I can only look up your order if you can give me your Order ID”).
IR can also cover other kinds of data and information problems beyond that specified in the core definition above. The term “unstructured data” refers to data which does not have clear, semantically overt, easy-for-a-computer structure. It is the opposite of structured data, the canonical example of which is a relational database, of the sort companies usually use to maintain product inventories and personnel records. In reality, almost no data are truly “unstructured”. This is definitely true of all text data if you count the latent linguistic structure of human languages. But even accepting that the intended notion of structure is overt structure, most text has structure, such as headings and paragraphs and footnotes, which is commonly represented in documents by explicit markup (such as the coding underlying web pages). IR is also used to facilitate “semistructured” search such as finding a document where the title contains Java and the body contains threading.
The field of information retrieval also covers supporting users in browsing or filtering document collections or further processing a set of retrieved documents. Given a set of documents, clustering is the task of coming up with a good grouping of the documents based on their contents. It is similar to arranging books on a bookshelf according to their topic. Given a set of topics, standing information needs, or other categories (such as suitability of texts for different age groups), classification is the task of deciding which class(es), if any, each of a set of documents belongs to. It is often approached by first manually classifying some documents and then hoping to be able to classify new documents automatically.
An example information retrieval problem
A fat book which many people own is Shakespeare’s Collected Works. Suppose you wanted to determine which plays of Shakespeare contain the words Brutus AND Caesar and NOT Calpurnia. One way to do that is to start at the beginning and to read through all the text, noting for each play whether it contains Brutus and Caesar and excluding it from consideration if it contains Calpurnia. The simplest form of document retrieval is for a computer to do this sort of linear scan through documents. This process is commonly referred to as grepping through text, after the Unix command grep, which performs this process. Grepping through text can be a very effective process, especially given the speed of modern computers, and often allows useful possibilities for wildcard pattern matching through the use of . With modern computers, for simple querying of modest collections (the size of Shakespeare’s Collected Works is a bit under one million words of text in total), you really need nothing more.
But for many purposes, you do need more:
- To process large document collections quickly. The amount of online data has grown at least as quickly as the speed of computers, and we would now like to be able to search collections that total in the order of billions to trillions of words.
- To allow more flexible matching operations. For example, it is impractical to perform the query Romans NEAR countrymen with grep, where NEAR might be defined as “within 5 words” or “within the same sentence”.
- To allow ranked retrieval: in many cases you want the best answer to an information need among many documents that contain certain words.
The way to avoid linearly scanning the texts for each query is to index the documents in advance.
Let us stick with Shakespeare’s Collected Works, and use it to introduce the basics of the Boolean retrieval model. Suppose we record for each document – here a play of Shakespeare’s – whether it contains each word out of all the words Shakespeare used (Shakespeare used about 32,000 different words). The result is a binary term-document incidence matrix , as in Figure 1.1 . Terms are the indexed units (further discussed in Section 2.2 ); they are usually words, and for the moment you can think of them as words, but the information retrieval literature normally speaks of terms because some of them, such as perhaps I-9 or Hong Kong are not usually thought of as words. Now, depending on whether we look at the matrix rows or columns, we can have a vector for each term, which shows the documents it appears in, or a vector for each document, showing the terms that occur in it.
To answer the query Brutus AND Caesar AND NOT Calpurnia, we take the vectors for Brutus, Caesar and Calpurnia, complement the last, and then do a bitwise AND:
110100 AND 110111 AND 101111 = 100100
The answers for this query are thus Antony and Cleopatra and Hamlet (Figure 1.2 ).
The Boolean retrieval model is a model for information retrieval in which we can pose any query which is in the form of a Boolean expression of terms, that is, in which terms are combined with the operators and, or, and not. The model views each document as just a set of words.