Relevance in Theory

Authored by: Howard D. White

Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, Fourth Edition

Print publication date:  November  2017
Online publication date:  November  2017

Print ISBN: 9781466552593
eBook ISBN: 9781315116143
Adobe ISBN:


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Relevance is the central concept in information science because of its salience in designing and evaluating literature-based answering systems. It is salient when users seek information through human intermediaries, such as reference librarians, but becomes even more so when systems are automated and users must navigate them on their own. Designers of classic precomputer systems of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to have been no less concerned with relevance than the information scientists of today. The concept has, however, proved difficult to define and operationalize. A common belief is that it is a relation between a user’s request for information and the documents the system retrieves in response. Documents might be considered retrieval-worthy because they: 1) constitute evidence for or against a claim; 2) answer a question; or 3) simply match the request in topic. In practice, literature-based answering makes use of term-matching technology, and most evaluation of relevance has involved topical match as the primary criterion for acceptability. The standard table for evaluating the relation of retrieved documents to a request has only the values “relevant” and “not relevant,” yet many analysts hold that relevance admits of degrees. Moreover, many analysts hold that users decide relevance on more dimensions than topical match. Who then can validly judge relevance? Is it only the person who put the request and who can evaluate a document on multiple dimensions? Or can surrogate judges perform this function on the basis of topicality? Such questions arise in a longstanding debate on whether relevance is objective or subjective. One proposal has been to reframe the debate in terms of relevance theory (imported from linguistic pragmatics), which makes relevance increase with a document’s valuable cognitive effects and decrease with the effort needed to process it. This notion allows degree of topical match to contribute to relevance but allows other considerations to contribute as well. Since both cognitive effects and processing effort will differ across users, they can be taken as subjective, but users’ decisions can also be objectively evaluated if the logic behind them is made explicit. Relevance seems problematical because the considerations that lead people to accept documents in literature searches, or to use them later in contexts such as citation, are seldom fully revealed. Once they are revealed, relevance may be seen as not only multidimensional and dynamic, but also understandable.

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