Last week, I had the pleasure to attend the 30th European Conference on Information Retrieval, chaired by Iadh Ounis at the University of Glasgow. The conference was outstanding in several respects, not least of which was a keynote address by Nick Belkin, one the world’s leading researchers on interactive information retrieval.
Nick’s keynote, entitled “Some(what) Grand Challenges for Information Retrieval“, was a full frontal attack on the Cranfield evaluation paradigm that has dominated IR research for the past half century. I am hoping to see his keynote published and posted online, but in the meantime here is a choice excerpt:
in accepting the [Gerard Salton] award at the 1997 SIGIR meeting, Tefko Saracevic stressed the significance of integrating research in information seeking behavior with research in IR system models and algorithms, saying: “if we consider that unlike art IR is not there for its own sake, that is, IR systems are researched and built to be used, then IR is far, far more than a branch of computer science, concerned primarily with issues of algorithms, computers, and computing.”
Nevertheless, we can still see the dominance of the TREC (i.e. Cranfield) evaluation paradigm in most IR research, the inability of this paradigm to accommodate study of people in interaction with information systems (cf. the death of the TREC Interactive Track), and a dearth of research which integrates study of users’ goals, tasks and behaviors with research on models and methods which respond to results of such studies and supports those goals, tasks and behaviors.
This situation is especially striking for several reasons. First, it is clearly the case that IR as practiced is inherently interactive; secondly, it is clearly the case that the new models and associated representation and ranking techniques lead to only incremental (if that) improvement in performance over previous models and techniques, which is generally not statistically significant; and thirdly, that such improvement, as determined in TREC-style evaluation, rarely, if ever, leads to improved performance by human searchers in interactive IR systems.
Nick has long been critical of the IR community’s neglect of users and interaction. But this keynote was significant for two reasons. First, the ECIR program committee’s decision to invite a keynote speaker from the information science community acknowledges the need for collaboration between these two communities. Second, Nick reciprocated this overture by calling for interdisciplinary efforts to bridge the gap between the formal study of information retrieval and the practical understanding of information behavior. As an avid proponent of HCIR, I am heartily encouraged by steps like these.