A Pretrainer's Guide to Training Data: Measuring the Effects of Data Age, Domain Coverage, Quality, & Toxicity

Shayne Longpre, Gregory Yauney, Emily Reif, Katherine Lee, Adam Roberts, Barret Zoph, Denny Zhou, Jason Wei, Kevin Robinson, David Mimno, Daphne Ippolito

Pretraining is the preliminary and fundamental step in developing capable language models (LM). Despite this, pretraining data design is critically under-documented and often guided by empirically unsupported intuitions. To address this, we pretrain 28 1.5B parameter decoder-only models, training on data curated (1) at different times, (2) with varying toxicity and quality filters, and (3) with different domain compositions. First, we quantify the effect of pretraining data age. A temporal shift between evaluation data and pretraining data leads to performance degradation, which is not overcome by finetuning. Second, we explore the effect of quality and toxicity filters, showing a trade-off between performance on standard benchmarks and risk of toxic generations. Our findings indicate there does not exist a one-size-fits-all solution to filtering training data. We also find that the effects of different types of filtering are not predictable from text domain characteristics. Lastly, we empirically validate that the inclusion of heterogeneous data sources, like books and web, is broadly beneficial and warrants greater prioritization. These findings constitute the largest set of experiments to validate, quantify, and expose many undocumented intuitions about text pretraining, which we hope will help support more informed data-centric decisions in LM development.

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