Smooth Operators for Effective Systematic Review Queries

Proceedings of the 46th International ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval

Effective queries are crucial to minimising the time and cost of medical systematic reviews, as all retrieved documents must be judged for relevance. Boolean queries, developed by expert librarians, are the standard for systematic reviews. They guarantee reproducible and verifiable retrieval and more control than free-text queries. However, the result sets of Boolean queries are unranked and difficult to control due to the strict Boolean operators. We address these problems in a single unified retrieval model by formulating a class of smooth operators that are compatible with and extend existing Boolean operators. Our smooth operators overcome several shortcomings of previous extensions of the Boolean retrieval model. In particular, our operators are independent of the underlying ranking function, so that exact-match and large language model rankers can be combined in the same query. We found that replacing Boolean operators with equivalent or similar smooth operators often improves the effectiveness of queries. Their properties make tuning a query to precision or recall intuitive and allow greater control over how documents are retrieved. This additional control leads to more effective queries and reduces the cost of systematic reviews.