Neural Transfer Learning with Transformers for Social Science Text Analysis

Sandra Wankmüller

During the last years, there have been substantial increases in the prediction performances of natural language processing models on text-based supervised learning tasks. Especially deep learning models that are based on the Transformer architecture (Vaswani et al., 2017) and are used in a transfer learning setting have contributed to this development. As Transformer-based models for transfer learning have the potential to achieve higher prediction accuracies with relatively few training data instances, they are likely to benefit social scientists that seek to have as accurate as possible text-based measures but only have limited resources for annotating training data. To enable social scientists to leverage these potential benefits for their research, this paper explains how these methods work, why they might be advantageous, and what their limitations are. Additionally, three Transformer-based models for transfer learning, BERT (Devlin et al., 2019), RoBERTa (Liu et al., 2019), and the Longformer (Beltagy et al., 2020), are compared to conventional machine learning algorithms on three social science applications. Across all evaluated tasks, textual styles, and training data set sizes, the conventional models are consistently outperformed by transfer learning with Transformer-based models, thereby demonstrating the potential benefits these models can bring to text-based social science research.

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