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A language modeling approach to information retrieval

Jay Michael Ponte, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In today's world, there is no shortage of information. However, for a specific information need, only a small subset of all of the available information will be useful. The field of information retrieval (IR) is the study of methods to provide users with that small subset of information relevant to their needs and to do so in a timely fashion. Information sources can take many forms, but this thesis will focus on text based information systems and investigate problems germane to the retrieval of written natural language documents. Central to these problems is the notion of "topic." In other words, what are documents about? However, topics depend on the semantics of documents and retrieval systems are not endowed with knowledge of the semantics of natural language. The approach taken in this thesis will be to make use of probabilistic language models to investigate text based information retrieval and related problems. One such problem is the prediction of topic shifts in text, the topic segmentation problem. It will be shown that probabilistic methods can be used to predict topic changes in the context of the task of new event detection. Two complementary sets of features are studied individually and then combined into a single language model. The language modeling approach allows this problem to be approached in a principled way without complex semantic modeling. Next, the problem of document retrieval in response to a user query will be investigated. Models of document indexing and document retrieval have been extensively studied over the past three decades. The integration of these two classes of models has been the goal of several researchers but it is a very difficult problem. Much of the reason for this is that the indexing component requires inferences as to the semantics of documents. Instead, an approach to retrieval based on probabilistic language modeling will be presented. Models are estimated for each document individually. The approach to modeling is non-parametric and integrates the entire retrieval process into a single model. One advantage of this approach is that collection statistics, which are used heuristically for the assignment of concept probabilities in other probabilistic models, are used directly in the estimation of language model probabilities in this approach. The language modeling approach has been implemented and tested empirically and performs very well on standard test collections and query sets. In order to improve retrieval effectiveness, IR systems use additional techniques such as relevance feedback, unsupervised query expansion and structured queries. These and other techniques are discussed in terms of the language modeling approach and empirical results are given for several of the techniques developed. These results provide further proof of concept for the use of language models for retrieval tasks.

Subject Area

Computer science|Information Systems

Recommended Citation

Ponte, Jay Michael, "A language modeling approach to information retrieval" (1998). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9909205.