IRLab staff member, Andrew Yates, together with Jimmy Lin and Rodrigo Nogueira from the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo, have finished their book, titled: “Pretrained Transformers for Text Ranking: BERT and Beyond”. The book will be published by Morgan & Claypool Publishers. The preprint is available on arXiv.
The goal of text ranking is to generate an ordered list of texts retrieved from a corpus in response to a query. Although the most common formulation of text ranking is search, instances of the task can also be found in many natural language processing applications. This survey provides an overview of text ranking with neural network architectures known as transformers, of which BERT is the best-known example. The combination of transformers and self-supervised pretraining has been responsible for a paradigm shift in natural language processing (NLP), information retrieval (IR), and beyond.
In this survey, we provide a synthesis of existing work as a single point of entry for practitioners who wish to gain a better understanding of how to apply transformers to text ranking problems and researchers who wish to pursue work in this area. We cover a wide range of modern techniques, grouped into two high-level categories: transformer models that perform reranking in multi-stage architectures and dense retrieval techniques that perform ranking directly.
There are two themes that pervade our survey: techniques for handling long documents, beyond typical sentence-by-sentence processing in NLP, and techniques for addressing the tradeoff between effectiveness (i.e., result quality) and efficiency (e.g., query latency, model and index size).
Although transformer architectures and pretraining techniques are recent innovations, many aspects of how they are applied to text ranking are relatively well understood and represent mature techniques. However, there remain many open research questions, and thus in addition to laying out the foundations of pretrained transformers for text ranking, this survey also attempts to prognosticate where the field is heading.