Unconfounded Propensity Estimation for Unbiased Ranking


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The goal of unbiased learning to rank~(ULTR) is to leverage implicit user feedback for optimizing learning-to-rank systems. Among existing solutions, automatic ULTR algorithms that jointly learn user bias models (\ie propensity models) with unbiased rankers have received a lot of attention due to their superior performance and low deployment cost in practice. Despite their theoretical soundness, the effectiveness is usually justified under a weak logging policy, where the ranking model can barely rank documents according to their relevance to the query. However, when the logging policy is strong, e.g., an industry-deployed ranking policy, the reported effectiveness cannot be reproduced. In this paper, we first investigate ULTR from a causal perspective and uncover a negative result: existing ULTR algorithms fail to address the issue of propensity overestimation caused by the query-document relevance confounder. Then, we propose a new learning objective based on backdoor adjustment and highlight its differences from conventional propensity models, which reveal the prevalence of propensity overestimation. On top of that, we introduce a novel propensity model called Logging-Policy-aware Propensity (LPP) model and its distinctive two-step optimization strategy, which allows for the joint learning of LPP and ranking models within the automatic ULTR framework, and actualize the unconfounded propensity estimation for ULTR. Extensive experiments on two benchmarks demonstrate the effectiveness and generalizability of the proposed method.
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