Active ranking from pairwise comparisons and when parametric assumptions do not help

Reinhard Heckel, Nihar B. Shah, Kannan Ramchandran, Martin J. Wainwright

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


We consider sequential or active ranking of a set of n items based on noisy pairwise comparisons. Items are ranked according to the probability that a given item beats a randomly chosen item, and ranking refers to partitioning the items into sets of prespecified sizes according to their scores. This notion of ranking includes as special cases the identification of the top-k items and the total ordering of the items.We first analyze a sequential ranking algorithm that counts the number of comparisons won, and uses these counts to decide whether to stop, or to compare another pair of items, chosen based on confidence intervals specified by the data collected up to that point. We prove that this algorithm succeeds in recovering the ranking using a number of comparisons that is optimal up to logarithmic factors. This guarantee does depend on whether or not the underlying pairwise probability matrix, satisfies a particular structural property, unlike a significant body of past work on pairwise ranking based on parametric models such as the Thurstone or Bradley-Terry-Luce models. It has been a long-standing open question as to whether or not imposing these parametric assumptions allows for improved ranking algorithms. For stochastic comparison models, in which the pairwise probabilities are bounded away from zero, our second contribution is to resolve this issue by proving a lower bound for parametric models. This shows, perhaps surprisingly, that these popular parametric modeling choices offer at most logarithmic gains for stochastic comparisons.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3099-3126
Number of pages28
JournalAnnals of Statistics
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Active learning
  • Bradley-Terry-Luce model
  • Multiarmed bandits
  • Online learning
  • Pairwise comparisons
  • Ranking


Dive into the research topics of 'Active ranking from pairwise comparisons and when parametric assumptions do not help'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this