The role of Hypertext in Information Retrieval

This was the early days of the World Wide Web, search engines, and the emergence of Google in the background.

I wrote this paper in 2000 (FOURTEEN years ago), as a written assignment for the subject “Advanced Information Retrieval Systems”. I took a lot of effort to address this topic and it took me on a wonderful journey of MEMEX, hypertext and the chase between ‘nodes’. At that time, no one (not too many at least) would have imagined searching across vast acres and acres of knowledge would be as easy as it is now. I was searching on Web of Science (the print counterpart mind you) to find articles and then going from there to the library stacks to retrieve the journals, and seeking out more articles from the listed references of relevant articles. I enjoyed the search, and then putting all of that together in one document was not the easiest, but not the dreariest either.

Just so that you know: hypertext was the jargon of that day which in effect today is simply referred to as a link.

I am just going to reproduce the entire paper here. Consider this fair warning. Some might find reading through it boring. But when you are on a quest to explain and contextualize Google, this might in deed be helpful.


Synopsis:

ln 1945, Vannevar Bush, in an article titled “As We May Think”, wrote about his vision of a system for tracking and using scientific literature and named it ‘MEMEX’,. The technology of the time made it difficult, if not impossible, to actually create a memex. But over the years, Bush’s ideas inspired Dough Engelbart, Ted Nelson, and other computer visionaries to push the technology toward that end. The results of these early efforts were generally referred to as hypertext because they allowed mostly textual information to be linked in nonlinear ways. The last two-decades has seen a development of a number of hypertext systems like NoteCards, Guide, HyperCard and Hyperties. The latest and most influential system is the World Wide Web, which uses HyperText Transfer Protocol. Through the phenomenal growth of the WWW, hypertext has matured to an everyday technology, albeit in a different form than maybe the original pioneers saw it. Hypertext technology has revolutionised the way information is stored and retrieved. Information retrieval modalities provided by hypertext systems are different from those of conventional lR systems in that information searching is conducted by navigation through the information base and not by direct search by means of a search language. The technology is still in evolution and hence has a number of major drawbacks like user disorientation and cognitive overhead. However, the advantages of hypertext far outweigh the drawbacks and a considerable number of research are in progress to address those issues and also to find ways to improve information retrieval through hypertext. Hypertext does not replace conventional information retrieval systems but enhances it.

INTROCUCTION
Ideas concerning the concept of hypertext and information retrieval can be found as early as in the Atlantic Monthly of 1945 in the paper entitled “As We May Think” by Vannevar Bush, in which the author envisaged-the possibility of storing and retrieving information by using techniques and capabilities that are proper to hypertext and information retrieval systems (Agosti, 1993). This essay aims to discuss the role of Hypertext in information Retrieval (IR) by establishing the origins of hypertext, the function and structure for information retrieval in hypertext and by summarising the advantages and drawbacks of hypertext over conventional IR Systems.

Information retrieval deals with the representation, storage, and access to documents or representatives of documents (Satton & McGill, 1983). An IR system as defined by Salton (1991) is an information system, that is, a system used to store items of information that needs to be processed, searched, retrieved, and disseminated to various user populations. Conventional IR systems were hierarchical in their design; however this is changing in the modern IR systems with the introduction of hypertext as it enables relational and networked arrangement of documents.

Hypertext is defined as nonlinear or nonsequential text, that is, the text is organised so one can easily jump around from topic to topic (Nelson, 1981; Seyer, 1991). One normally reads a book or views a movie, starting at the beginning, continuing to the end, in the sequence imposed by the author. Hyperdocuments, however, are nonlinear – they have neither beginning nor end. According to Seyer (1991), hypertext is best brought to life on a computer; nevertheless, hypertext can be found on simple paper documents (eg. Newspaper since one can easily jump from topic to topic). However, there is contradiction of this definition by authors like Saltin (1991) who states that hypertext is only those nodes connected by electronic links to form a system whose existence is contingent upon the computer – which obviously disqualifies paper documents as hypertext. The technology and terminology are still evolving. Some authors use Hypertext to refer to both text and graphics while others use Hypertext and Hypermedia to differentiate between text only documents and multimedia documents. For the purpose of this article, hypertext has been used interchangeably mainly since it is on IR and hence more text oriented.

The interaction of hypertext and the conventional IR systems enhances information retrieval. A Hypertext IR System can simply be defined as a collection of information that can be accessed non-sequentially. lt consists of nodes and logical links between nodes. As Luceralla & Zanzi (1993) state, the variety of nodes and links that can be defined makes hypertext a very flexible structure in which information is provided both by what is stored in each node and by the way the information nodes are linked to each other.

ORIGINS AND APPLICATIONS

Hypertext has a fascinating history. The technology is very recent and is still evolving and there is a tremendous amount of research carried out and published on various aspects of hypertext. lt was Ted Nelson who is credited with coining the term ‘hypertext’, in 1965, to refer to nonlinear text, which it would be inconvenient to produce or represent on paper (Ellis, 1991; Hashim, 1990). He tried using words like: linktext, jumptext, non-sequential text, and zapwrite. However, it was Bush who expressed the idea of a hypertext system in his 1945 paper titled ‘As we may think’. Moreover, even if Nelson came up with the term ‘Hypertext’ and is recognised as one of the pioneers of hypertext, it was Douglas Engelbart (also acknowledged as the inventor of word processing, outline processing, screen windows, and the mouse device) who is credited with developing the first operational hypertext system in the early 1960s (Ellis, 1991).

Bush’s “MEMEX” (memory extender) was simply a hypothetical device for information retrieval, which most experts regard as the prototype of a hypertext system. Bush notes that the retrieval systems of the time stored information in classificatory hierarchies, with complex rules for identifying the appropriate class and, typically, employing linear paths through these classificatory hierarchies to locate material. Furthermore, unless duplicates were made, the information could only be stored in one place. Bush considered that, in contrast, the human mind worked by association, and envisaged a retrieval system, which by utilising associational trials more nearly reflected human psychology (Ellis, 1991). As Bush and others acknowledge, the technology of the time made it difficult, if not impossible, to actually create a Memex; however, today it is well recognised that hypertext and the modern computer can be used to implement many of the functionalities of Bush’s Memex (Chowdhury, 1999).

ln 1963, while at the Stanford Research Institute, Engelbart, inspired by Bush’s article, outlined his ideas on what he called “augmentation”, as in “augmenting human intellect” in his article’s conceptual framework for the augmentation of man’s intellect’. ln 1968 he implemented the oN Line System (NLS) which included a mouse, multiple windows, electronic mail, and tele-conferencing capabilities (Hashim, 1 990).

As Engelbart was developing his “Augment” system, Nelson was working on a system that would change the way we read and write using computers (Hashim, 1990). Nelson considered that Bush’s description of memex provided a clear description of hypertext – the hypertexts consisting of the networks of items with their association trails. Nelson’s system, “Xanadu”, has been under development for several years. The long-range plan for the project is to incorporate the entire world’s literature outline into a giant hypertext system with additional features like accounting to distribute royalties. According to Knee & Atkinson (1990), Nelson’s ideas are exciting and visionary, but only time will tell if they are practical; however, as Ellis (1991) explains, the project has not been merely idealistic and visionary; considerable work has been undertaken in the analysis of the underlying conceptual problems and the associated programming solutions.

While the works mentioned above are considered pioneers of hypertext, a considerable number of other hypertext systems were developed through the last two decades. They include: Hypertext Editing System developed by Andries Van Dam and his team at Brown University in 1968; File Retrieval System (FRESS, completed in 1982) by Andries Van Dam; ZOG, developed at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1972; Intermedia in 1983, also a project of Brown University; KMS (Knowledge Management System), a commercial implementation of ZOG ih 1983; Guide, invented by Peter Brown in 1982; NoteCards in 1986; HyperCard and Hyperties in 1987 (Berk & Devlin, 1991); and the latest and most powerful is the World Wide Web or WWW, introduced in the late 1980s, which utilises HyperText Mark-up Language. As Spark Jones and Willet (1997) suggests, hypertext gained its popularity with the introduction of World Wide Web, especially with the introduction of Mosaic browser in the early 1990s. Hypertext on the Web, which most of us are familiar with, provides the ability to save storage space. Web of Science is a good example of an IR system using hypertext as envisaged by Bush, to some extent, as it has the ability to trace references backwards as well as forward but lacks full text.

FUNCTION AND STRUCTURE OF HYPERTEXT
The main function of hypertext in IR is to bring together the universe of knowledge under one umbrella. This is reflected in the hypothesis behind Bush’s MEMEX in which “an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanised so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility”. Bush’s aim was to have easy retrieval as well as to show semantic relations between documents. As commonly agreed, computers do a good job of storing, retrieving and presenting vast quantities of data than the human mind.

Hypertext builds upon the relative strengths of the human mind and the digital computer: the computer holds the data and presents it to the human, the human chooses which way to go by pointing at each juncture. lt is an intuitive approach in which the ability to link associated text matches the brain’s natural tendency to think associatively (Devlin, 1991). The main difference between conventional printed documents and hypertext systems is that the latter follow a nonlinear structure while conventional types have a linear structure. A book follows a linear structure; there is one line or one sequence to follow (it could be argued that printed texts are generally not linear, either in their semantic structure or the way in which skilled readers use them (McKnight et al., 1991) as one can read selectively) – and it never changes; however, while in a hypertext document, one can jump anywhere in the text instantly by following a link. Some conventional paper documents such as encyclopaedias, dictionaries, and other reference works are usually used non-sequentially by readers which reflects the early introduction of hypertext form for these types of documents.

The functions of hypertext can be summarised as providing the user with a tool that opens the possibility of managing or retrieving a textual document in a nonlinear way, storing a large collection of textual and multimedia documents, and building up a network of semantic relationships among the different components of the database. These functions are achieved through the nonsequential structure of hypertext, which has a combination of chunks of information and a means to show the relationship of one chunk to another.

Hashim (1990) provides a clear example of the structure of hypertext using a system, which is very familiar to many of us, a card catalogue in a library. He explains how the cards in a card catalogue capture a vast amount of information in one catalogue of index cards. A user consults the card catalogue for a specific topic, copies the title and book number and then goes to the shelves. When the user finds the book, and realises that it is not what s/he wants, the user then scans some of the books next to it and soon finds a number of books that can cover the user’s topic.

In essence, hypertext systems work in a similar fashion. Hypertext consists of a network of nodes (or chunks of information) and logical links between nodes (Lucerella & Zanzi,1993). ln a card catalogue, the nodes can be the actual documents on the shelves and the link can be the cards in the catalogue, which indicates where a document can be found. ln a computerised environment, the links, with the help of a pointing device, are used to go from one chunk of information to another. ln other words. a link is an electronic cross-reference between nodes (Berk, 1991). A node is a portion of the document, which covers one concept. A node may fit on a single screen or it can be as small as a word or as large as a whole book. The development in computer technology has resulted in computer systems supporting different types of data including graphics and sounds. Hence a node can contain a combination of text, graphics, sounds, and/or other forms of data.

INFORMATION RETRIEVAL MODALITIES
Information retrieval modalities provided by hypertext systems are different from those of conventional IR systems in that information searching is conducted by navigation or browsing through the information base and not by direct search by means of a search language (Agosti, 1996). Cox (1992) defines browsing as an interactive search activity in which the direction of the search is determined by the user on the basis of immediate feedback from the system being browsed. Links between traditional bibliographic records have traditionally been made using conventions such as “see references” and controlled vocabulary terms; however, many users do not think according to indexing or sorting rules hence the problems in conventional retrieval systems, both paper-based and Boolean-based electronic systems (Wolfram & Dimitroff, 1998). Browsing has some advantages over the traditional Boolean searches or natural language queries that map to weighted list of terms. As Littleford (1991) states, many limitations of current approaches to lR are due to the fact that most searching procedures rely exclusively on syntax. The syntax-based searches require a working knowledge of the subject, enough to know the buzzwords, appropriate proper nouns and what subject they relate to (Littleford, 1991). As Wolfram & Dimitroff (1998) suggest, Boolean searches are best for defining broad subject searches and for combining concepts while the browsing available through hypertext linkages may be useful in quickly identifying smaller subjects or relevant documents or to enhance the browsability of a retrieval system.

As Lucarella & Zanzi (1993) state, it is reasonable to conceive that the interaction of hypertext and IR systems can bring obvious advantages to the process of knowledge transfer. On the one hand, hypertext tends to be under-directed, allowing users to pick and choose their path through the information map, ignoring some things and exploring others in-depth. On the other hand, a retrieval system tends to steer the user down a path determined by the answer to the user request. By combining the features of both kinds of systems, it is possible to make two-way communication. The system can present the user with information and guidance in a way that its retrieval strategy suggests, and the user can go off to explore or learn more about the pieces of knowledge along the way.

As Ellis (1996) states, a number of studies have been undertaken in the area of Hypertext and lIR with different approaches being adopted, ranging from work with plausible inference techniques (Lucerella & Zanzi,1993; Croft & Turtle, 1993), in particular Bayesian inference and spreading activation (Savoy, 1993), work employing semantic techniques (Pollard, 1993; Rada et al, 1993), and with cognitive and behavioural approaches (Belkin et al, 1993) to identifying and modelling optimal forms for user interaction with hypertext.

ADVANTAGES AND DRAWBACKS OF HYPERTEXT
Information retrieval from hypertext has some advantages and disadvantages over conventional IR Systems. The advantages as summarised by Conklin (1987) include the ease with which references can be followed whether forwards or backwards and the ease with which new references, annotations, comments, or links can be created so that the user can develop his or how own personalised information network. Hypertext provides for both hierarchical and non-hierarchical structuring of information, and browsers enable the user of a hypertext system to have both an overview of the databases and to focus in on local areas of it. ln addition, it allows the customisation of documents to serve different purposes and the modularity of information on a hypertext database means that there is no need to duplicate points in different places. Another notable feature of Hypertext IR Systems over the conventional IR systems is the “more like this” or “related” feature provided in most of the search engines on the WWW. This enables the user to select the most relevant document retrieved using the searching language and then choosing the “related” option to browse other documents related to the selected one. This would increase the precision of retrieval when compared to using searches based on syntax only.

Despite their many advantages, hypertext systems do have their drawbacks. Conklin (1987) summarises the disadvantages or limitations in two major categories: user disorientation and cognitive overhead. User disorientation can be defined as the tendency to lose one’s sense of location and direction in a nonlinear document. Nonlinear organisation of hypertext means that it is largely unstructured and while the lack of structure is often beneficial allowing the user to navigate freely in hypertext without the conventional constraints of linearity, the structureless nature leads to user disorientation (Boyle & Snell, 1990). Littleford (1991) terms this phenomena as “lost in hyperspace” which is when a reader of the document has been following a long chain of hypertext links and suddenly finds s/he has lost the chain of thought or position in the document. As Berk (1991) explains, the lost in hyperspace phenomenon is manifested in a number of ways: reader can’t get back to a node, or forgets which node s/he intended to find. The other major drawback, cognitive overhead, as defined by Conklin (1987), is the additional effort and concentration necessary to maintain several tasks or trails at one time. This is related to the navigation problem as users must, in addition to browsing and reading, concentrate on coming back to the original document from many layers of links. Hypertext navigation necessarily confronts readers with a new and unfamiliar cognitive burden, in addition to the customary burdens associated with reading (Conklin, 1987). There are other drawbacks. For example, missing links can lead to user frustration, while searching through hypertext can be time-consuming. There is a tremendous growth in research on these issues like effect of link display and link density (Khan, 1998), navigation (Simpson & McKnight,1990; Parunak, 1991; McDonald & Stevenson, 1998) and other aspects (Lucarella & Zanzit, 1996), hence the possibility of overcoming these drawbacks in the near future.

CONCLUSION
Despite the very short history of hypertext, it has gained considerable attention as an enabling technology for a variety of textual and non-textual applications, from many fields, like information science, computer science, education, architecture and psychology (Ellis, 1996). Furthermore, the proliferation of hypertext systems, both experimental and operational (Frisse & Cousins, 1662), the continuing variety of approaches to retrieval in hypertext, as evidenced by recent statistical (Dunlop, 1993), probabilistic (Savoy, 1994), semantic (Frei, 1995), cognitive (Vatcharaporn et al. 1994), and behavioural (Qui, 1993) studies, and the potential for integration of hypertext and intelligent IR techniques, (Caranoda, 1989; Carlson, 1988; Nicolson, 1991;Shafer, 1988) seems likely to ensure that the area will continue to represent a focal point of research and one which will also attract researchers from disparate backgrounds and with a variety of different orientation (Ellis, 1996). A recent study on hypertext vs Boolean-based searching (Wolfram & Dimitroff, 1998) reported that their findings have implications for the design of future lR systems that take advantage of the best features of both approaches for more effective and efficient retrieval of highly structured databases.

ln conclusion, hypertext gives the user the possibility for creating, managing and linking parts of text, to give the user a multi-dimensional document that can be used and explored by following different paths through it. This is enabled through the nonsequential structure of hypertext, which consists of a network of nodes and logical links between nodes; each sequence of nodes connected by links constitutes a possible exploration path of the hypertext. Hypertext is becoming very popular and essential in modern IR despite its drawbacks; predictably these will be eliminated over time since the field is attracting a considerable amount of research. Hypertext is an access mechanism and as such has a potential role to play in all situations where information is accessed and used.

Based on the findings of various researches carried out in the area of hypertext and IR, it has to be concluded that hypertext has a vital role to play in the field of modern IR. This can be reflected in the adoption ol hypertext in major IR systems like the citation indexes. Hypertext does not replace the conventional IR Systems strategies, namely syntax searching. However, the former complements the latter by providing the users with flexible browsing of extracted sets, particularly where linear browsing of a large set is tedious and where specificity in the query would reduce recall. And it also would increase the precision of the retrieval as the links given in the hypertext are semantically related, which is often difficult to define in search statements. As Smeaton (1992) points out, there are limitations with both approaches: hypertext in relation to search facilities and with conventional IR in relation to browsing facilities, and lR and hypertext are not competing technologies but rather complementary access methods.

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Looking back on the writing job – I am starting to think. Wow! This is the reason behind my current research interest. I was fascinated by hypertext even then and the current Google environment is nothing more than a mesh of hyperlinks creating magic.

Anyone reading the above essay, do note that it was submitted as an assignment for a Master of Commerce (in Information & Library Management) subject titled Advanced Information Retrieval Systems. This is not refereed, reviewed, nor edited accordingly. It was read by my lecturer suggesting only very minor typos. I did receive quite good feedback for my work with a DN+.

Let me quote Connie:

“Anthu! A very good review of the literature & I believe that with a little more editing etc, it can be submitted as a journal article. I will be happy to help. See me if interested.”

I did follow it up – not because I was genuinely interested. But because I felt it was the right thing to do, the polite thing to do. The reason why I wasn’t interested was simply because I was not confident enough to believe I was good enough to be published! I mean, I just managed to synthesise expertise knowledge — I did not create anything of  my own! I couldn’t even dream up of coming with something like that on my own.

So yes, I promised to follow it up, flew home after completing the program about 5 months later, and somehow I just did not get enough time and did not have the energy to follow it up.

If I had, I would have been published two years before I did. I know, I do come across a bit vain here. 🙂

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aminath

I write as I think. I think as I write.

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