Deep Learning for NLP Best Practices

This post is a collection of best practices for using neural networks in Natural Language Processing. It will be updated periodically as new insights become available and in order to keep track of our evolving understanding of Deep Learning for NLP.

There has been a running joke in the NLP community that an LSTM with attention will yield state-of-the-art performance on any task. While this has been true over the course of the last two years, the NLP community is slowly moving away from this now standard baseline and towards more interesting models.

However, we as a community do not want to spend the next two years independently (re-)discovering the next LSTM with attention. We do not want to reinvent tricks or methods that have already been shown to work. While many existing Deep Learning libraries already encode best practices for working with neural networks in general, such as initialization schemes, many other details, particularly task or domain-specific considerations, are left to the practitioner.

This post is not meant to keep track of the state-of-the-art, but rather to collect best practices that are relevant for a wide range of tasks. In other words, rather than describing one particular architecture, this post aims to collect the features that underly successful architectures. While many of these features will be most useful for pushing the state-of-the-art, I hope that wider knowledge of them will lead to stronger evaluations, more meaningful comparison to baselines, and inspiration by shaping our intuition of what works.

I assume you are familiar with neural networks as applied to NLP (if not, I recommend Yoav Goldberg’s excellent primer [43]) and are interested in NLP in general or in a particular task. The main goal of this article is to get you up to speed with the relevant best practices so you can make meaningful contributions as soon as possible.

I will first give an overview of best practices that are relevant for most tasks. I will then outline practices that are relevant for the most common tasks, in particular classification, sequence labelling, natural language generation, and neural machine translation.

Disclaimer: Treating something as best practice is notoriously difficult: Best according to what? What if there are better alternatives? This post is based on my (necessarily incomplete) understanding and experience. In the following, I will only discuss practices that have been reported to be beneficial independently by at least two different groups. I will try to give at least two references for each best practice.