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Information retrieval

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Information retrieval (IR) in computing and information science is the task of identifying and retrieving information system resources that are relevant to an information need. The information need can be specified in the form of a search query. In the case of document retrieval, queries can be based on full-text or other content-based indexing. Information retrieval is the science[1] of searching for information in a document, searching for documents themselves, and also searching for the metadata that describes data, and for databases of texts, images or sounds.

Automated information retrieval systems are used to reduce what has been called information overload. An IR system is a software system that provides access to books, journals and other documents; it also stores and manages those documents. Web search engines are the most visible IR applications.


An information retrieval process begins when a user enters a query into the system. Queries are formal statements of information needs, for example search strings in web search engines. In information retrieval, a query does not uniquely identify a single object in the collection. Instead, several objects may match the query, perhaps with different degrees of relevance.

An object is an entity that is represented by information in a content collection or database. User queries are matched against the database information. However, as opposed to classical SQL queries of a database, in information retrieval the results returned may or may not match the query, so results are typically ranked. This ranking of results is a key difference of information retrieval searching compared to database searching.[2]

Depending on the application the data objects may be, for example, text documents, images,[3] audio,[4] mind maps[5] or videos. Often the documents themselves are not kept or stored directly in the IR system, but are instead represented in the system by document surrogates or metadata.

Most IR systems compute a numeric score on how well each object in the database matches the query, and rank the objects according to this value. The top ranking objects are then shown to the user. The process may then be iterated if the user wishes to refine the query.[6]


there is ... a machine called the Univac ... whereby letters and figures are coded as a pattern of magnetic spots on a long steel tape. By this means the text of a document, preceded by its subject code symbol, can be recorded ... the machine ... automatically selects and types out those references which have been coded in any desired way at a rate of 120 words a minute

— J. E. Holmstrom, 1948

The idea of using computers to search for relevant pieces of information was popularized in the article As We May Think by Vannevar Bush in 1945.[7] It would appear that Bush was inspired by patents for a 'statistical machine' – filed by Emanuel Goldberg in the 1920s and 1930s – that searched for documents stored on film.[8] The first description of a computer searching for information was described by Holmstrom in 1948,[9] detailing an early mention of the Univac computer. Automated information retrieval systems were introduced in the 1950s: one even featured in the 1957 romantic comedy, Desk Set. In the 1960s, the first large information retrieval research group was formed by Gerard Salton at Cornell. By the 1970s several different retrieval techniques had been shown to perform well on small text corpora such as the Cranfield collection (several thousand documents).[7] Large-scale retrieval systems, such as the Lockheed Dialog system, came into use early in the 1970s.

In 1992, the US Department of Defense along with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), cosponsored the Text Retrieval Conference (TREC) as part of the TIPSTER text program. The aim of this was to look into the information retrieval community by supplying the infrastructure that was needed for evaluation of text retrieval methodologies on a very large text collection. This catalyzed research on methods that scale to huge corpora. The introduction of web search engines has boosted the need for very large scale retrieval systems even further.


Areas where information retrieval techniques are employed include (the entries are in alphabetical order within each category):

General applications[edit]

Domain-specific applications[edit]

Other retrieval methods[edit]

Methods/Techniques in which information retrieval techniques are employed include:

Model types[edit]

Categorization of IR-models (translated from German entry, original source Dominik Kuropka)

In order to effectively retrieve relevant documents by IR strategies, the documents are typically transformed into a suitable representation. Each retrieval strategy incorporates a specific model for its document representation purposes. The picture on the right illustrates the relationship of some common models. In the picture, the models are categorized according to two dimensions: the mathematical basis and the properties of the model.

First dimension: mathematical basis[edit]

Second dimension: properties of the model[edit]

  • Models without term-interdependencies treat different terms/words as independent. This fact is usually represented in vector space models by the orthogonality assumption of term vectors or in probabilistic models by an independency assumption for term variables.
  • Models with immanent term interdependencies allow a representation of interdependencies between terms. However the degree of the interdependency between two terms is defined by the model itself. It is usually directly or indirectly derived (e.g. by dimensional reduction) from the co-occurrence of those terms in the whole set of documents.
  • Models with transcendent term interdependencies allow a representation of interdependencies between terms, but they do not allege how the interdependency between two terms is defined. They rely on an external source for the degree of interdependency between two terms. (For example, a human or sophisticated algorithms.)

Performance and correctness measures[edit]

The evaluation of an information retrieval system' is the process of assessing how well a system meets the information needs of its users. In general, measurement considers a collection of documents to be searched and a search query. Traditional evaluation metrics, designed for Boolean retrieval[clarification needed] or top-k retrieval, include precision and recall. All measures assume a ground truth notion of relevance: every document is known to be either relevant or non-relevant to a particular query. In practice, queries may be ill-posed and there may be different shades of relevance.


  • Before the 1900s
    1801: Joseph Marie Jacquard invents the Jacquard loom, the first machine to use punched cards to control a sequence of operations.
    1880s: Herman Hollerith invents an electro-mechanical data tabulator using punch cards as a machine readable medium.
    1890 Hollerith cards, keypunches and tabulators used to process the 1890 US Census data.
  • 1920s-1930s
    Emanuel Goldberg submits patents for his "Statistical Machine", a document search engine that used photoelectric cells and pattern recognition to search the metadata on rolls of microfilmed documents.
  • 1940s–1950s
    late 1940s: The US military confronted problems of indexing and retrieval of wartime scientific research documents captured from Germans.
    1945: Vannevar Bush's As We May Think appeared in Atlantic Monthly.
    1947: Hans Peter Luhn (research engineer at IBM since 1941) began work on a mechanized punch card-based system for searching chemical compounds.
    1950s: Growing concern in the US for a "science gap" with the USSR motivated, encouraged funding and provided a backdrop for mechanized literature searching systems (Allen Kent et al.) and the invention of the citation index by Eugene Garfield.
    1950: The term "information retrieval" was coined by Calvin Mooers.[10]
    1951: Philip Bagley conducted the earliest experiment in computerized document retrieval in a master thesis at MIT.[11]
    1955: Allen Kent joined Case Western Reserve University, and eventually became associate director of the Center for Documentation and Communications Research. That same year, Kent and colleagues published a paper in American Documentation describing the precision and recall measures as well as detailing a proposed "framework" for evaluating an IR system which included statistical sampling methods for determining the number of relevant documents not retrieved.[12]
    1958: International Conference on Scientific Information Washington DC included consideration of IR systems as a solution to problems identified. See: Proceedings of the International Conference on Scientific Information, 1958 (National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC, 1959)
    1959: Hans Peter Luhn published "Auto-encoding of documents for information retrieval".
  • 1960s:
    early 1960s: Gerard Salton began work on IR at Harvard, later moved to Cornell.
    1960: Melvin Earl Maron and John Lary Kuhns[13] published "On relevance, probabilistic indexing, and information retrieval" in the Journal of the ACM 7(3):216–244, July 1960.
    • Cyril W. Cleverdon published early findings of the Cranfield studies, developing a model for IR system evaluation. See: Cyril W. Cleverdon, "Report on the Testing and Analysis of an Investigation into the Comparative Efficiency of Indexing Systems". Cranfield Collection of Aeronautics, Cranfield, England, 1962.
    • Kent published Information Analysis and Retrieval.
    • Weinberg report "Science, Government and Information" gave a full articulation of the idea of a "crisis of scientific information". The report was named after Dr. Alvin Weinberg.
    • Joseph Becker and Robert M. Hayes published text on information retrieval. Becker, Joseph; Hayes, Robert Mayo. Information storage and retrieval: tools, elements, theories. New York, Wiley (1963).
    • Karen Spärck Jones finished her thesis at Cambridge, Synonymy and Semantic Classification, and continued work on computational linguistics as it applies to IR.
    • The National Bureau of Standards sponsored a symposium titled "Statistical Association Methods for Mechanized Documentation". Several highly significant papers, including G. Salton's first published reference (we believe) to the SMART system.
    • National Library of Medicine developed MEDLARS Medical Literature Analysis and Retrieval System, the first major machine-readable database and batch-retrieval system.
    • Project Intrex at MIT.
    1965: J. C. R. Licklider published Libraries of the Future.
    1966: Don Swanson was involved in studies at University of Chicago on Requirements for Future Catalogs.
    late 1960s: F. Wilfrid Lancaster completed evaluation studies of the MEDLARS system and published the first edition of his text on information retrieval.
    • Gerard Salton published Automatic Information Organization and Retrieval.
    • John W. Sammon, Jr.'s RADC Tech report "Some Mathematics of Information Storage and Retrieval..." outlined the vector model.
    1969: Sammon's "A nonlinear mapping for data structure analysis Archived 2017-08-08 at the Wayback Machine" (IEEE Transactions on Computers) was the first proposal for visualization interface to an IR system.
  • 1970s
    early 1970s:
    • First online systems—NLM's AIM-TWX, MEDLINE; Lockheed's Dialog; SDC's ORBIT.
    • Theodor Nelson promoting concept of hypertext, published Computer Lib/Dream Machines.
    1971: Nicholas Jardine and Cornelis J. van Rijsbergen published "The use of hierarchic clustering in information retrieval", which articulated the "cluster hypothesis".[14]
    1975: Three highly influential publications by Salton fully articulated his vector processing framework and term discrimination model:
    • A Theory of Indexing (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics)
    • A Theory of Term Importance in Automatic Text Analysis (JASIS v. 26)
    • A Vector Space Model for Automatic Indexing (CACM 18:11)
    1978: The First ACM SIGIR conference.
    1979: C. J. van Rijsbergen published Information Retrieval (Butterworths). Heavy emphasis on probabilistic models.
    1979: Tamas Doszkocs implemented the CITE natural language user interface for MEDLINE at the National Library of Medicine. The CITE system supported free form query input, ranked output and relevance feedback.[15]
  • 1980s
    1980: First international ACM SIGIR conference, joint with British Computer Society IR group in Cambridge.
    1982: Nicholas J. Belkin, Robert N. Oddy, and Helen M. Brooks proposed the ASK (Anomalous State of Knowledge) viewpoint for information retrieval. This was an important concept, though their automated analysis tool proved ultimately disappointing.
    1983: Salton (and Michael J. McGill) published Introduction to Modern Information Retrieval (McGraw-Hill), with heavy emphasis on vector models.
    1985: David Blair and Bill Maron publish: An Evaluation of Retrieval Effectiveness for a Full-Text Document-Retrieval System
    mid-1980s: Efforts to develop end-user versions of commercial IR systems.
    1985–1993: Key papers on and experimental systems for visualization interfaces.
    Work by Donald B. Crouch, Robert R. Korfhage, Matthew Chalmers, Anselm Spoerri and others.
    1989: First World Wide Web proposals by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN.
  • 1990s
    1992: First TREC conference.
    1997: Publication of Korfhage's Information Storage and Retrieval[16] with emphasis on visualization and multi-reference point systems.
    1999: Publication of Ricardo Baeza-Yates and Berthier Ribeiro-Neto's Modern Information Retrieval by Addison Wesley, the first book that attempts to cover all IR.
    late 1990s: Web search engines implementation of many features formerly found only in experimental IR systems. Search engines become the most common and maybe best instantiation of IR models.

Major conferences[edit]

Awards in the field[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Luk, R. W. P. (2022). "Why is information retrieval a scientific discipline?". Foundations of Science. 27 (2): 427–453. doi:10.1007/s10699-020-09685-x. hdl:10397/94873. S2CID 220506422.
  2. ^ Jansen, B. J. and Rieh, S. (2010) The Seventeen Theoretical Constructs of Information Searching and Information Retrieval Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine. Journal of the American Society for Information Sciences and Technology. 61(8), 1517-1534.
  3. ^ Goodrum, Abby A. (2000). "Image Information Retrieval: An Overview of Current Research". Informing Science. 3 (2).
  4. ^ Foote, Jonathan (1999). "An overview of audio information retrieval". Multimedia Systems. 7: 2–10. CiteSeerX doi:10.1007/s005300050106. S2CID 2000641.
  5. ^ Beel, Jöran; Gipp, Bela; Stiller, Jan-Olaf (2009). Information Retrieval On Mind Maps - What Could It Be Good For?. Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Collaborative Computing: Networking, Applications and Worksharing (CollaborateCom'09). Washington, DC: IEEE. Archived from the original on 2011-05-13. Retrieved 2012-03-13.
  6. ^ Frakes, William B.; Baeza-Yates, Ricardo (1992). Information Retrieval Data Structures & Algorithms. Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 978-0-13-463837-9. Archived from the original on 2013-09-28.
  7. ^ a b Singhal, Amit (2001). "Modern Information Retrieval: A Brief Overview" (PDF). Bulletin of the IEEE Computer Society Technical Committee on Data Engineering. 24 (4): 35–43.
  8. ^ Mark Sanderson & W. Bruce Croft (2012). "The History of Information Retrieval Research". Proceedings of the IEEE. 100: 1444–1451. doi:10.1109/jproc.2012.2189916.
  9. ^ JE Holmstrom (1948). "'Section III. Opening Plenary Session". The Royal Society Scientific Information Conference, 21 June-2 July 1948: Report and Papers Submitted: 85.
  10. ^ Mooers, Calvin N.; The Theory of Digital Handling of Non-numerical Information and its Implications to Machine Economics (Zator Technical Bulletin No. 48), cited in Fairthorne, R. A. (1958). "Automatic Retrieval of Recorded Information". The Computer Journal. 1 (1): 37. doi:10.1093/comjnl/1.1.36.
  11. ^ Doyle, Lauren; Becker, Joseph (1975). Information Retrieval and Processing. Melville. pp. 410 pp. ISBN 978-0-471-22151-7.
  12. ^ Perry, James W.; Kent, Allen; Berry, Madeline M. (1955). "Machine literature searching X. Machine language; factors underlying its design and development". American Documentation. 6 (4): 242–254. doi:10.1002/asi.5090060411.
  13. ^ Maron, Melvin E. (2008). "An Historical Note on the Origins of Probabilistic Indexing" (PDF). Information Processing and Management. 44 (2): 971–972. doi:10.1016/j.ipm.2007.02.012.
  14. ^ N. Jardine, C.J. van Rijsbergen (December 1971). "The use of hierarchic clustering in information retrieval". Information Storage and Retrieval. 7 (5): 217–240. doi:10.1016/0020-0271(71)90051-9.
  15. ^ Doszkocs, T.E. & Rapp, B.A. (1979). "Searching MEDLINE in English: a Prototype User Interface with Natural Language Query, Ranked Output, and relevance feedback," In: Proceedings of the ASIS Annual Meeting, 16: 131-139.
  16. ^ Korfhage, Robert R. (1997). Information Storage and Retrieval. Wiley. pp. 368 pp. ISBN 978-0-471-14338-3.

Further reading[edit]

  • Yeo, ShinJoung. (2023) Behind the Search Box: Google and the Global Internet Industry (U of Illinois Press, 2023) ISBN 10:0252087127 online

External links[edit]