From Distillation to Hard Negative Sampling: Making Sparse Neural IR Models More Effective


Neural retrievers based on dense representations combined with Approximate Nearest Neighbors search have recently received a lot of attention, owing their success to distillation and/or better sampling of examples for training – while still relying on the same backbone architecture. In the meantime, sparse representation learning fueled by traditional inverted indexing techniques has seen a growing interest, inheriting from desirable IR priors such as explicit lexical matching. While some architectural variants have been proposed, a lesser effort has been put in the training of such models. In this work, we build on SPLADE – a sparse expansion-based retriever – and show to which extent it is able to benefit from the same training improvements as dense models, by studying the effect of distillation, hard-negative mining as well as the Pre-trained Language Model initialization. We furthermore study the link between effectiveness and efficiency, on in-domain and zero-shot settings, leading to state-of-the-art results in both scenarios for sufficiently expressive models.