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3 Implications

This illustrative description of a complete retrieval system provides a basis for further analysis. We do not claim that all retrieval systems are as depicted in Figure 2. Some are less complete, others more complex, but we do suggest that all retrieval systems could be depicted using these functional components. Not all components are always present. Some components may be present multiple times. The assumption with which we proceed is that in all cases the User Query, Formal Query, Source Objects, Representations, Searchable Index, Partitioning Rule, a Retrieved Set (possibly empty) and Retrieval Output (also possibly empty) are always present in any functional information selection system. The Representations, being derived from some combination of Source Objects and/or External Knowledge Sources, require that at least one or other of the latter must be present as a direct source input. The other components may be absent or present. We now take a closer look at the nature of these components.

3.1 Types of Components

The minimally complete model in Figure 2 represents a series of data objects, transformations and partitionings. The Representations are derived from Source Objects and/or External Knowledge Sources by way of Representation Making Rules. The Searchable Index is derived from the Representation and the Index Making Rules, which itself partitions the Representation into index terms. The Formal Query is a transformation, by way of the Query Development Rules, of the User Query. The Matching Rule partitions the Representations, through the Searchable Index and the Formal Query, into the Retrieved Set. The Retrieved Set may be subjected to a Sorting Rule before becoming Retrieval Output. These transformations of datasets can be seen as being of two types.

All of the operations (``methods'' in Object Oriented terminology) carried out in existing information selection systems are either transformations, i.e. representation making operations, or partitionings, i.e. rearranging operations. User Queries are transformed into Formal Queries. Source Objects are transformed into Representations. Representations are transformed into Searchable Indexes. Representations are partitioned into retrieved and non-retrieved sets. A sorted Retrieved Set is transformed (i.e. copied) to Retrieval Output.

3.2 Implicit Sorting

A rather overlooked feature of retrieval systems is the practice, common in boolean bibliographic retrieval systems, of re-ordering (applying a Sorting Rule to) a retrieved subset (usually alphabetically by author) prior to display or other form of output. Conceptually, a ``sort'' instruction is brought to bear on any set of retrieved records -- sort by author, for example -- which is specified either ad hoc or by default. This component (a Sorting Rule applied to the Retrieved Set) of the retrieval process is functionally equivalent to the retrieval (Matching) rule. The only significant difference is that the Sorting Rule operates only on a subset of records, i.e. those previously partitioned off by the retrieval mechanism.

3.3 Query Development

The Query Development Rules component serves to transform a user's information need, or query, into a representational form suitable for submission to the Matching Rule. This role may be performed by a human intermediary and involve complex interaction and negotiation with the user (the ``reference interview'' [Jennerich 87]). Where query development is performed algorithmically it most often appears to have two parts:

``Entry vocabulary'' procedures in the form described above are not yet commonly provided though we expect them to become so. However, two other forms are common:

3.4 Representation Making

As with Query Development, matching (partitioning) processes can occur in Representation Making. The process of deriving a Representation from a Source Object, as noted above, can be seen as having two components. In some cases the representation will be a copy of the object, possibly modified by technical constraints in the system (e.g. accents lost in representing a foreign text or loss of color or resolution in a copy of an image). In other cases, the representation may be a description of the source object (e.g. in a catalog composed of textual descriptions of non-textual objects.) The representation could be a combination of copy and of description (as in library catalog records which include fragments such as title copied from the original and added description such as subject headings).

In the terminology that we have adopted the creation of Representations is primarily and obviously Representation Making. This is clearly the case with any portion of the representation that is a copy derived from the Source Object. An algorithmic representation (such as automatically generated word occurrence vectors) is derived in the same way. It may no longer be a recognizable copy, but it is a descriptive representation of the source object. The Representation may also derived from a copy of a description from some other source such as an existing database descriptions (as in the bibliographic utilities heavily used in creating library catalogs) or be an expression of what some human indexer's perception.

Nevertheless, an ordering process may occur within Representation Making if and when some part of the Representation is constrained by a controlled vocabulary. It is desirable to select only terms acceptable to the system, whether done by machine or by human. This activity is functionally very similar to entry vocabulary control.

A significant problem arises in retrieval systems with large, long term stores of Representations when changes are made to the Representation Knowledge Source or to the Representation Making Rules. Should these changes be applied retroactively to previously processed representations? Is it feasible? Notoriously, library card catalogs were often not updated retroactively, although in some cases, such as changed names or terms, the consequences could be mitigated by changes to the syndetic structure in the Searchable Index (e.g. by adding "see also" links from new to old forms).

3.5 Multi-Stage Retrieval

There are no grounds to limit retrieval to these two stages: partitioning, then (possibly) ordering. It is a trivial matter to imagine more than two stages. Simple boolean retrieval systems lend themselves to a series of progressively modified searches by allowing prior queries to be successively modified (e.g. with the addition of further limits in the form of boolean ANDs or NOTs). One might start by selecting records containing, say, the subject keyword NAPOLEON; the retrieved set, especially if large, might then be partitioned (or filtered or sorted) by language, to bring forward items in English; each subset record might be subsorted by date and/or by title and/or by author. Such a two-stage strategy is one answer to the difficulty of achieving high precision as well as high recall [Buckland et al 93]. A search intended to achieve high recall can be followed by a different kind of search of the initially retrieved set in order to produce a second retrieved set with better precision [Buckland & Gey 93]. More generally, information retrieval is ordinarily an iterative process in that the result of one matching is often the basis for a secondary or modified search with another query that modifies or replaces an earlier one.

3.6 A More Abstract Formulation

Our examination of the basic illustrative model depicted in Figure 2 has led to the conclusion that each of different components can be viewed as being composed of either data objects, or one of two different processes which we have called ``transforming'' (representation making) or ``partitioning'' (selecting or ordering). If accepted, this view has interesting consequences:

There are several different implementable procedures (techniques) for partitioning and transforming. At a technical level, this more abstract formulation creates, in effect, an invitation to experiment by substituting alternative partitioning and/or transforming techniques at each point at which any ordering occurs, and a framework within which to evaluate such work.

Figure 3 offers a more abstract restatement of Figure 2 in terms of these two functional types.

Figure 3:  A minimally complete abstract model of information retrieval (selection) systems. Solid boxes indicate processes (``transformers'' or ``partitioners''), dashed boxes data objects. Italics indicate optional components. Arrows show flows (or streams) of information objects. Note that the only required ``process'' is the central partitioning rule, and that subcomponents are formed by patterns of Objects Process Objects.

Next: 4 Three Examples Up: On the Construction Previous: 2 A Basic Model