Ask for information retrieval: Part I. background and theory

N. J. Belkin, R. N. Oddy, H. M. Brooks

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

656 Scopus citations


We report the results of a British Library Research and Development Department-funded design study for an interactive information retrieval system which will determine structural representations of the anomalous states of knowledge (ASKs) underlying information needs, and attempt to resolve the anomalies through a variety of retrieval strategies performed on a database of documents represented in compatible structural formats. Part I discusses the background to the project and the theory underlying it, Part II (next issue) presents our methods, results and conclusions. Basic premises of the project were: that information needs are not in principle precisely specifiable; that it is possible to elicit problem statements from information system users from which representations of the ASK underlying the need can be derived; that there are classes of ASKs; and, that all elements of information retrieval systems ought to be based on the user's ASK. We have developed a relatively freeform interview technique for eliciting problem statements, and a statistical word cooccurrence analysis for deriving network representations of the problem statements and abstracts. Structural characteristics of the representations have been used to determine classes of ASKs, and both ASK and information structures have been evaluated by, respectively, users and authors. Some results are: that interviewing appears to be a satisfactory technique for eliciting problem statements from which ASKs can be determined; that the statistical analysis produces structures which are generally appropriate both for documents and problem statements; that ASKs thus represented can be usefully classified according to their structural characteristics; and, that of thirty-five subjects, only two had ASKs for which traditional ‘best match’ retrieval would be intuitively appropriate. The results of the design study indicate that at least some of our premises are reasonable, and that an ASK-based information retrieval system is at least feasible.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)61-71
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Documentation
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1982
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • Library and Information Sciences


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