Investigating queries and search failures in academic search

Bob Schijvenaars, Maarten de Rijke, Xinyi Li

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Academic search concerns the retrieval and profiling of information objects in the domain of academic research. In this paper we reveal important observations of academic search queries, and provide an algorithmic solution to address a type of failure during search sessions: null queries. We start by providing a general characterization of academic search queries, by analyzing a large-scale transaction log of a leading academic search engine. Unlike previous small-scale analyses of academic search queries, we find important differences with query characteristics known from web search. E.g., in academic search there is a substantially bigger proportion of entity queries, and a heavier tail in query length distribution. We then focus on search failures and, in particular, on null queries that lead to an empty search engine result page, on null sessions that contain such null queries, and on users who are prone to issue null queries. In academic search approximately 1 in 10 queries is a null query, and 25% of the sessions contain a null query. They appear in different types of search sessions, and prevent users from achieving their search goal. To address the high rate of null queries in academic search, we consider the task of providing query suggestions. Specifically we focus on a highly frequent query type: non-boolean informational queries. To this end we need to overcome query sparsity and make effective use of session information. We find that using entities helps to surface more relevant query suggestions in the face of query sparsity. We also find that query suggestions should be conditioned on the type of session in which they are offered to be more effective. After casting the session classification problem as a multi-label classification problem, we generate session-conditional query suggestions based on predicted session type. We find that this session-conditional method leads to significant improvements over a generic query suggestion method. Personalization yields very little further improvements over session-conditional query suggestions.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)666-683
Number of pages18
JournalInformation Processing and Management
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2017


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