Summer 2021

In the Summer 2021 issue

I have often wondered if Editors of newspapers ever worry about whether there will be enough news to fill the next edition. I have a basic structure for Informer issues that runs several issues ahead because it is largely shaped by conference announcements and then reports of those conferences. Those items alone would make for a rather boring Informer so I am always pleased when I receive unexpected contributed articles.

I will start this issue by guiding you to a just such a contribution; a report from a SIGIR workshop on IR for Children 2000-2020: Where Are We Now? This is a most important topic if we are to ensure that the next generation of search users can not only gain the skills of searching but also understanding how to assess the information they find. I was very fortunate that my grandfather was the part-time librarian of the village library in Hampshire and that gave me an introduction to the concept of reading and finding at the age of 5.

As I write this introduction the good news is that in the UK Covid infections are decreasing quite rapidly. This opens up the opportunities to return to an office (albeit in hybrid mode) and to run on-site conferences. The next IRSG event will be Search Solutions 2021 on 23/24 November. We hope to be able to host this at the London HQ of the BCS but also have a Plan B! Then next comes a very northerly ECIR 2022 in Stavanger and you should note the dates of the event and the deadlines for submissions. If you want to start using up the travel budget held over from 2020 and 2021 then Andy MacFarlane has a long list of conferences for you to consider.

The Spring issue was full of ECIR 2021 reports so I held over a summary of the Industry Day presentations until this issue.

A sub-theme of this issue is ‘awards’ and you will find details of the nomination process for the Karen Spärk Jones Award, the Strix Award (IRSG participates in the judging) and the Search Industry Awards.

I would also highlight the BCS/CPHC Distinguished Dissertation award for 2020, which has been awarded to Dr. David Maxwell, at the time undertaking post-graduate research at the University of Glasgow. The way in which the thesis is presented is quite outstanding, and the science and art of good information presentation leads me to a review of a new book on this topic by the American statistician Edward Tufte.

Web design also requires careful attention to good practice in presentation and in late August we plan to release a new version of the IRSG web site curated by the web team at the BCS under the direction of Simon Curd.

The web site included a list of journals that publish papers on information retrieval. I am planning to revise and expand this list for the new site. Can you take a look at the draft list and let me know if there are any missing? Thank you.

We are also considering an upgrade to the Informer template but work on this is still in progress and the first issue with the new template will probably be the Winter 2022 issue.

There are also a few items of IR news for you. Professor Emily Bender (University of Washington) gives an excellent presentation on stochastic parrots in the context of language models, there is now an IR Anthology (over 53,000 papers!) that complements the well-established ACL Anthology and there are some signs that paid-for/ad+bias web search may be coming to your desktop in the very near future.

And finally, reflections from me on the topic of inverted file indexes and how they might present a barrier to the implementation of IR innovations captured in the IR Anthology. The concept of an ‘inverted file’ probably dates back to 1947 and the era of punched cards.

Search Solutions 2021 24 November – call for presentations and tutorials

Since 2007 the BSC IRSG Search Solutions conference has been an event where search good practice and academic IR research come together to share experience, user and business requirements and visions for the future of search. This year the conference will take place on 24 November, and we would welcome proposals for 30- minute presentations on any topic related to improving search performance and the user experience. We are especially keen to have papers from managers of B2B and B2C e-commerce, enterprise and intranet search and professional search applications.

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ECIR 2022 10-14 April 2022 Stavanger, Norway

The European Conference on Information Retrieval (ECIR) is the premier European forum for the presentation of new research results in the broadly conceived area of Information Retrieval.  ECIR features full-paper and poster presentations, system demonstrations, tutorials, workshops, an industry-oriented event, and traditionally has a strong focus on the active participation of early-career researchers.  The 44th edition of ECIR is planned to be held as a physical conference (with support for remote attendance) at the northernmost location in the history of the conference, in Stavanger, Norway between April 10 and 14, 2022.

The list of the conference organisers can be found here.

The very well designed conference web site is now live

The important dates are

Workshops Submission: September 9 Notification: October 7

Full Papers Submission: October 7 Notification: November 18

Reproducibility Papers Submission: October 14 Notification: November 25

Short Papers Submission: October 21 Notification: November 25

Tutorials & Doctoral Consortium Submission: November 11 Notification: December 16

Industry Day Submission: January 14 Notification: February 10

ECIR 2021 Industry Day highlights

The Spring issue of Informer contained a number of articles on the very successful ECIR 2021 event, so I decided to carry over some reflections on the Industry Day to this issue. My first visit to ECIR was the 2011 Dublin event where I presented my SearchCheck methodology, which in the event was eventually launched in 2020. But that’s another story! The Industry Day has always been important to me as a search practitioner as it gives me a glimpse into how search have a direct impact on business and society. There were ten speakers at the Industry Day in ECIR2021 and several were of considerable direct interest to me. I’m going to focus on these as they are such good examples of search in the real world. The full programme for the day (1 April) can be found on the ECIR 2021 Program pages.

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The Information Retrieval Anthology 2021: inaugural status report and challenges ahead

To quote from a paper published in the June 2021 issue of SIGIR Forum, “The Information Retrieval Anthology, IR Anthology for short, is an endeavor to create a comprehensive collection of metadata and full texts of IR-related publications. We report on its first release, the use cases it can serve, as well as the challenges lying ahead to develop it towards a resource that serves the IR community for years to come. The IR Anthology’s metadata browser and full text search engine are available at”  The anthology is a quite amazing piece of research that takes the approach of the ACL Anthology and extends it to Information Retrieval, indexing and categorising 53,673 research papers on information retrieval from journals and conference proceedings.  The papers are presented in a year-by-year chronology. 

At the time of writing this item the June 2021 issue of SIGIR Forum exists on the ACM Digital Library (and is therefore restricted access to ACM Members) but the open access version has not been added to the SIGIR Forum web site. The Anthology listing is available but this site gives no background information on the project. The list of proceedings and journals is very useful though I am surprised to see that the Journal of Information Science is not included.

In passing I should note that there is a very good overview of the ECIR 2021 conference in this issue of Forum.

It is disappointing that there is no indication (as of 3 August) as to why the OA issue is not available on the SIGIR web site. However there is an open-access summary version of the paper presented at SIGIR 2021

Search Industry Awards 2021 – call for nominations

We are delighted to announce this year’s Search Industry Awards, celebrating the best search innovations of 2021. Presented by the Information Retrieval Specialist Group of the BCS, these awards recognize people, projects, and organizations that have excelled in the design of search and information retrieval products and services. If you know of any people, projects, or products that deserve recognition, let us know by submitting a nomination. Alternatively, if you’re involved with something special yourself, you can submit an application today. Nominations will remain open until 1st November.  Winners will receive a framed certificate and a public listing on the IRSG Awards site.

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Karen Spärck Jones Award 2021 – Second Call for Nominations

A pioneer of information retrieval, the computer science sub-discipline that also underpins the technology of modern Web search engines, Karen Spärck Jones was a British professor of Computers and Information at the University of Cambridge in Cambridge. Her contributions to the fields of Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Information Retrieval (IR), especially with regard to experimentation, have been outstanding, highly influential and lasting, and include the introduction of InverseDocument Frequency for relevance ranking.

To learn more about Karen and her work, see:

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Strix Award 2021 – call for nominations

The UK e-information Group (UKeiG) is delighted to announce the call for nominations for the prestigious Tony Kent Strix Award 2021. Nominations should be received by 6 pm GMT on Thursday 30th September 2021.

The Tony Kent Strix Award was inaugurated in 1998 by the Institute of Information Scientists. It is now presented by UKeiG in partnership with the International Society for Knowledge Organisation UK (ISKO UK), the Royal Society of Chemistry Chemical Information and Computer Applications Group (RSC CICAG) and the British Computer Society Information Retrieval Specialist Group (BCS IRSG).

The Award is given in recognition of an outstanding practical innovation or achievement in the field of information retrieval in its widest sense. This could take the form of an application or service, or an overall appreciation of past achievements that have led to significant advances. The award is open to individuals or groups from anywhere in the world.

Nominations must be for a major, sustained or influential achievement that meets one or more of the following criteria:

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Report on the SIGIR 2021 Workshop “IR for Children 2000-2020: Where Are We Now?”


(Monica Landoni, Theo Huibers, Emiliana Murgia, and Sole Pera)

This year, researchers and practitioners gathered during a workshop co-located with the 44th edition of the renowned ACM SIGIR conference to discuss the current status of information retrieval (IR) research targeting children.

The idea of hosting a workshop at ACM SIGIR first emerged from discussions among us organizers. It became apparent that even after more than 20 years since researchers and practitioners have heard from Yahooligans (a commercial search engine targeting children) and PuppyIR (a research project focused specifically on IR technology for children), research in this important area has not seen the steady growth that other areas of IR targeting mainstream users have experienced. With that in mind, the call for contributions for the IR for Children 2000-2020: Where Are We Now? Workshop specifically asked for vision papers reflecting on what could be the cause for the lack of consistent research outcomes in this area. It also enquired on topics that should be considered in the future, if as a community we are to continue to advance knowledge in this area.

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Journals publishing information retrieval research – are there any missing?

The IRSG web site (see above) has  carried a list of journals that cover information retrieval research for many years. However there are a number of broken links and some rather strange omissions, such as the Journal of Information Science. The table below is a draft of the revised version, which I have expanded a little into information and knowledge management, both of which have a significant dependency on high-quality search. Could you take a look to see if any titles are missing? If there are could you please email the titles to me at No particular deadline as we can update the page after launch, but it would be good to have as comprehensive list as possible ready for the launch at the end of August. I have matched these against the journals included in the scope of the IR Anthology.

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David Maxwell wins the 2020 BCS/CPHC Distinguished Dissertation award

The BCS in collaboration with the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing (CPHC) gives an annual award for the best thesis in computer science. David (at that time at the University of Glasgow) was recognised for his thesis: ‘Modelling search and stopping in interactive information retrieval.’ David is now undertaking post-graduate research at the University of Delft.

(The notes below are taken verbatim from the BCS Press Release. Somewhat strangely there was no link to the thesis, which can be downloaded from here)

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Book Review – Seeing with Fresh Eyes:  Meaning Space Data Truth by Edward Tufte

I am concerned at the lack of interest in the IR search community in the design of search results pages and the design of the individual results snippets. You could argue that these are topics  are out-of-scope and yet recent work on perceptual speed suggests that we should be taking more care about information design if only because no one else seems to be concerned with it.

I will admit to having a long running and very considerable interest in information design, looking at (for example) the colour contrast and legibility of road signs, a topic where the UK has long been at the peak of good practice. This interest was stimulated by reading The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by the American statistician Edward Tufte in 1980. Since that ground-breaking book Tufte has gone on to write more books on the subject of information presentation. Seeing with Fresh Eyes was published in 2020 and I am very grateful to Pam Mozier at Graphics Press, Connecticut, for making a review copy available.

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Is there now a business in paid-for web search?

I would commend a blog post by Stephen Arnold on the future of paid-for web search, prompted by the release of Neeva which comes free for three months and then you pay $4.95 a month. (That fee is in very very small print on the home page!) Over the years several companies have tried to take on Google, notably Exalead, and of course Microsoft. A lot of potential here for the research community to carry out a host of A/B tests on Neeva vs Google. Incidentally if you have not come across Stephen before he is a very well informed (and usually highly sceptical) watcher and analyst of the search business. Some years ago now we co-authored a guide (actually quite a large report) about the successful management of enterprise search but it failed to make the best sellers list. Indeed it failed to sell at all!

On the dangers of stochastic parrots: Can language models be too big?

There are few better ways of spending an hour than doing so listening to Professor Emily Bender, University of Waashington, taking about language models in a virtual presentation hosted by the Alan Turing Institute on 8 July 2021. The main topics in this excellent lecture (content, presentation and discussion) were

  • Are ever larger language models (LM) inevitable or necessary
  • What costs are associated with this research direction and what should we consider before pursing it?
  • Do the field of natural language processing or the public that it serves in fact need larger LMs?
  • If so, how can we pursue this research direction while mitigating its associated risks?
  • If not, what do we need instead?

Well worth a couple of cups (or glasses) of your favourite drink.

IRSG web site upgrade

Work is now in progress with the migration of the IRSG web site into the new BCS Specialist Group web site style. For rather too long we have been somewhat out of step with the other Specialist Groups. We are anticipating that the new site will be launched towards the end of August. We have taken the opportunity to review every page of content. Some content will vanish, but everything else will be updated and reformatted. In particular the resources section will be expanded so that hopefully there will be a more regular flow of visitors to the site.


Informer redesign plans

We are also planning to change the template of Informer, which apparently dates from 2008. However, this change will almost certainly not take place until the Winter issue in early 2022. The main reason for this is that the Editor is also acting as the Web Migration Manager and as the Conference Convenor for the Search Solutions conference, and so has reached (if not already exceeded!) his multi-tasking abilities.

And finally…..the pleasures and pain of inverting files

The topic of search index development came floating across my mind when reading the work of the IR Anthology team on identifying over 53,000 research papers. To take advantage of the outcomes of this research by a commercial search software company would almost always require its customers to re-index their document collection (which might be 500 million+ documents) and that is something they are not going to risk. This, in my view, is a much greater barrier to the adoption of novel and potentially very valuable IR methodologies than whether or not they are published in open access journals. Perhaps all IR courses should invite along a search manager to give them a sense of just what is involved in managing large scale internal search applications.

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