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Combining WordNet and Word Embeddings in Data Augmentation for Legal Texts



Creating balanced labeled textual corpora for complex tasks, like legal analysis, is a challenging and expensive process that often requires the collaboration of domain experts. To address this problem, we propose a data augmentation method based on the combination of GloVe word embeddings and the WordNet ontology. We present an example of application in the legal domain, specifically on decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union. Our evaluation with human experts confirms that our method is more robust than the alternatives.
Proceedings of the Natural Legal Language Processing Workshop 2022, pages 47 - 52
December 8, 2022 ©2022 Association for Computational Linguistics
Combining WordNet and Word Embeddings
in Data Augmentation for Legal Texts
Sezen Perçin1,2,3and Andrea Galassi3B
Francesca Lagioia4and Federico Ruggeri3and Piera Santin4
Giovanni Sartor4and Paolo Torroni3
1Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Bo˘
gaziçi University, Turkey
2Technische Universität München, Munich, Germany
3DISI, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy
4CIRSFID-Alma AI, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy
Creating balanced labeled textual corpora for
complex tasks, like legal analysis, is a chal-
lenging and expensive process that often re-
quires the collaboration of domain experts. To
address this problem, we propose a data aug-
mentation method based on the combination of
GloVe word embeddings and the WordNet on-
tology. We present an example of application
in the legal domain, specifically on decisions
of the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Our evaluation with human experts confirms
that our method is more robust than the alter-
1 Introduction
Many of the state-of-the-art Natural Language
Processing (NLP) techniques are based on deep
learning methods with millions of parameters (De-
vlin et al.,2019;Vaswani et al.,2017), and there-
fore they usually require vast amounts of data to
be trained. Even if a lot of progress has been
made in the development of unsupervised or semi-
supervised methods, many high-level tasks are
still addressed in a supervised fashion, especially
when they concern complex tasks or very spe-
cific domains, such as predictions on legal docu-
ments (Drawzeski et al.,2021;Poudyal et al.,2020;
Zhong et al.,2020). At the same time, creating
corpora for such applications is particularly chal-
lenging and expensive since this process requires
the collaboration of domain experts for the labeling
process. One possible way to address this problem
is data augmentation (Shorten et al.,2021), which
exploits existing data to generate new synthetic
ones. These synthetic samples must be different
enough from the original ones to provide a valuable
contribution to the training. Still, at the same time,
their semantic content must remain similar enough
not to invalidate their labels. In NLP, one possi-
bility is to replace some words or sentences of the
original samples with other ones that hold the same
semantic meaning. This can be done by exploiting
similarities between sub-symbolic representations
of text, such as word and sentence embeddings,
or exploiting relationships in symbolic representa-
tions, such as WordNet (Fellbaum,2010).
Inspired by works regarding semantic related-
ness (Lee et al.,2016;Vasanthakumar and Bond,
2018), we propose to merge graph-structured and
embedding-based augmentation by combining the
use of WordNet and similarity between word em-
beddings. In particular, we create new synthetic
samples by replacing some terms with words with
similar semantic meaning. We exploit WordNet to
compute a set of candidate words and then choose
the most similar one according to its GloVe word
embedding (Pennington et al.,2014).
We present an example of the application of such
a method in the legal domain. Our context is a task
of sentence classification, where we want to au-
tomatically predict whether a sentence extracted
from a judgment is representative of a principle
of law. Since the distribution between the nega-
tive and positive classes is heavily unbalanced, we
need to rely on data augmentation. We compare
different techniques and ask a team of legal experts
to evaluate the new synthetic data. Their evalua-
tion confirms that the quality of the synthetic data
generated through our method is superior to data
generated exploiting only WordNet or GloVe em-
beddings. Our contribution is three-fold:
(i) we propose a novel method to perform
textual data augmentation by mixing the use
of WordNet and Word Embeddings;
(ii) we perform a qualitative evaluation on le-
gal documents, where human domain experts
assess the efficacy of our method with respect
to alternatives;
(iii) we perform a preliminary quantitative
evaluation, using neural language models to
measure the similarity between the augmented
texts and the original ones.
We make our code, data, and evaluation publicly
2 Related Works
Data augmentation is a frequently used strategy
in NLP to introduce diversity in the datasets that
will help models overcome phenomena such as
overfitting (Shorten et al.,2021). In particu-
lar, paraphrasing-based data augmentation tech-
niques (Li et al.,2022) aim to create new synthetic
data preserving the meaning of the original source.
One popular family of augmentation methods
relies on knowledge graphs, thesauruses, and lex-
ical database such as WordNet. WordNet (Fell-
baum,2010) is a lexical database where words
are grouped into sets of cognitive synonyms called
"synsets". Serving as a relational network, it is
widely used as a source of synonyms and for the
measurement of similarity between terms. For ex-
ample, Mosolova et al. (2018) use WordNet to re-
trieve a list of synonyms of a word, and replace
it with one chosen randomly. Xiang et al. (2020)
expand such approach by constraining candidates
according to Part of Speech (POS) tags by selecting
them based on a similarity measure, and test their
approach on various text classification tasks. Wang
and Yang (2015) follow a different approach and
instead they rely on semantic embeddings, embed-
ding words with Word2Vec and replacing candidate
words with their nearest neighbour.
Our approach stems from Xiang et al.’s and fol-
lows the intuition of Wang and Yang. We rely on
WordNet to select a pool of candidate words, but
we choose the replacement by measuring the simi-
larity between their GloVe word embeddings (Pen-
nington et al.,2014). However, we provide a sim-
pler definition of the candidate list considering the
synsets collected from the WordNet opening room
for syntactic differences while preserving the se-
mantic integrity of the sentences. Moreover, we
address the challenging domain of legal documents,
in which retaining domain-specific validity while
introducing textual diversity is a critical factor. Fi-
nally, we provide an evaluation of synthetic sam-
ples involving human experts.
Other possible data augmentation strategies
include rule-based approaches (Wei and Zou,
2019), syntactic alterations (¸Sahin and Steedman,
2018), interpolation approaches (Zhang et al.,
2018), generative data augmentation and back-
translation (Sennrich et al.,2016), and random ma-
nipulation of words (Yan et al.,2019). Additional
information can be found in the surveys by Shorten
et al. (2021) and Li et al. (2022).
3 Method
Our augmentation method
the use of the lexical database WordNet (WN) with
the properties of the vector space defined by GloVe
pre-trained word embeddings (GV).
Given a sample sentence, composed of a list
of words
{w1, ..., wn}
, we randomly choose one
word to be replaced among those that are adjec-
tives, nouns, or adverbs. We do so by computing
the POS tags of each word
P OSwi
through the
NLTK library and considering only the words for
P OSwi {N N, N N S, N N P, N N P S,
given a word
to replace, we proceed as follows:
we retrieve from WordNet the synsets with a
meaningful relationship and the related lem-
we create a list of 10 candidate lemmas, ex-
cluding the original word and giving priority
to the synsets whose WordNet POS tag corre-
sponds to P OSwj;3
we encode the word
and each candidate
through pre-trained GloVe (Pennington et al.,
2014) embeddings of size 100;
we select the candidate
that is most similar
and perform the replacement through
cosine similarity.
We compared our method against four baselines:
follows our method for the selection
of candidates, but then the choice is not based
on GloVe but rather on random selection;
is similar to the previous base-
line, but additionally only candidates
We included RP words since they can be used as adverbial
For example, the WordNet POS tag
correspond to the
NLTK POS tags N N, N N S, N N P, N NP S.
P OSwk
correspond to
P OSwj
are con-
sidered; in this way we enforce two POS con-
straints: one on the synsets level, and one on
the lemmas level;
does not rely on WordNet, but only on
the vector space properties of the pre-trained
GloVe word embeddings, replacing the orig-
inal word with the most similar one among
those present in the vocabulary.
is a neural augmentation
method (Shorten et al.,2021) based on
Legal-BERT language model (Chalkidis
et al.,2020): firstly the candidate word is
replaced with a mask token, then the sentence
is inputted to the neural language model, and
finally, the model generates a novel word in
place of the mask token.
4 Evaluation
To perform a preliminary evaluation of our method,
we generated a small set of synthetic samples and
then asked domain experts to judge them. We also
measure the difference between the augmented sen-
tences and the original ones in terms of similarity
between their embeddings.
We generated the synthetic starting from a given
textual sentence, randomly selecting one suitable
candidate word in it, and applying one augmen-
tation method to it. The original sample and the
synthetic one thus obtained would therefore differ
only for one term. This process was then applied
multiple times to the synthetic sample, replacing
other words and generating new samples. We re-
peated this process until we replaced about 60% of
the candidate terms of the original sentence.
4.1 Data
We conducted our experimentation on segments
of texts in English language extracted from deci-
sions of the Court of Justice of the European Union
(CJEU) on fiscal state aid. In particular, we have
chosen sentences that are representative of a prin-
ciple of law (legal maxims or rationes decidendi).
Such sentences are used to highlight the decisive
principle of law contained in each judgement, that
will be useful to assure the uniform interpretation
of the law with respect to the courts of first or sec-
ond instance. Out of the 334 segments extracted by
domain experts from 41 documents, we randomly
selected 10 of them. We have chosen to work with
CJEU decisions because they usually contain a rich
and diverse set of legal principles established in a
case that determine the judgment.
4.2 Metrics
For the human evaluation, two domain experts have
analyzed each single augmentation step, assigning
a value between
. We have chosen to
use a 3-values scale to identify not only replace-
ments that are completely correct (+1) and those
that are incorrect (-1), but also those that are im-
precise or too informal for our specific domain
(0). The evaluation was performed by both ex-
perts together, solving disagreements through dis-
cussion. We measured which augmentation method
preserves better the meaning of the original text
by summing together the scores obtained at each
step. To perform a fair comparison, we used the
same original samples for each of our augmenta-
tion methods, and in each step, we replace the same
term. Figure 1and Table 1respectively report an
example of an augmented sample and the related
As an additional evaluation, we also measured
how much the synthetic samples differ from the
original ones in terms of distance between their em-
beddings. We used Legal-BERT (Chalkidis et al.,
2020) to generate the sentence embeddings of the
two samples and then measured their cosine simi-
4.3 Results
As can be seen in Table 2, our method seems to be
the more robust. Indeed, in the evaluation of the
single sources it obtains a negative score only two
times, its performance is close to the best method
in each case, and it outperforms the alternatives
in the total score. Nonetheless, the performance
on different legal maxims is highly variable, with
scores ranging from +8 to -1.
The performance of
is comparable to
in most cases, with the remarkable
exception of document #10, where the difference
between the two scores is above 10 points. An-
other difference between the two methods is that
the substitutions performed through
to preserve the grammatical rules of the sentences,
while the same can not be said for augWN+GV.
The worst performing method is
it is also the only one to obtain a negative total
score. The introduction of additional constraints
The need to take account of requirements relat-
ing to environmental protection, however legiti-
mate, cannot justify the exclusion of selective
measures, even specific ones such as environ-
mental levies, from the scope of Article 87(1)
EC, as account may in any event usefully be
taken of the environmental objectives when the
compatibility of the State aid measure with the
common market is being assessed pursuant to
Article 87(3) EC.
The need to take account of requirements relat-
ing to environmental protection, however legiti-
mate, cannot
of selective
, even
ones such as environ-
, from the scope of
EC, as
may in any
usefully be taken
of the environmental
when the com-
patibility of the
department of state assistance
measure with the
usual marketplace
is being
assessed pursuant to clause 87(3) EC.
Figure 1: Example of one legal maxim and a synthetic sample obtained after the application of multiple augmenta-
tion steps.
Table 1: Human evaluation of single word replacements, with respect to the context.
Word Replacement Score Word Replacement Score
justify excuse +1 event result +1
exclusion expulsion 0 objectives objective +1
measures measure +1 State deparment of state -1
specific particular +1 aid assistance 0
levies impose 0 common usual -1
article clause 0 market marketplace 0
account report +1
Table 2: Evaluation of augmentation methods over 10 legal maxims samples. For each augmentation method we
report the score obtained for each legal maxim, the sum of such scores, and the average cosine similarity between
the sentence embeddings of the synthetic sentence and the original one.
Human Evaluation Avg LB
Method #1 #2 #3 #4 #5 #6 #7 #8 #9 #10 Total similarity
augWN -3 -5 -2 1-2 -6 -2 -7 -1 -1 -28 0.763
augWN+POS -2 -1 2 -2 4 -1 1 3 2 9 15 0.779
augGV -3 0-4 -1 6 0 -3 1 0 7 3 0.879
augLB 2 -1 3-1 10 6 181 -4 25 0.886
our proposal
augWN+GV 8-1 2 -1 8 5 24 0 8 35 0.894
greatly improves the previous
method by about 40 points.
does not per-
form well, obtaining a positive score only in 3
For what concerns the similarities between em-
beddings, our method outperforms all the oth-
ers. However, it is important to remark that
the difference between
, and
amounts to a few decimals. Surprisingly,
does not perform well, obtaining a
score about 0.1 lower than augGV.
5 Conclusion
We presented a data augmentation method that
leverages both the symbolic information available
in knowledge graphs and the sub-symbolic infor-
mation provided by word embeddings. We have
applied this technique to the challenging domain
of legal documents and asked a team of experts to
evaluate each replacement. The results confirm the
quality of our method with respect to alternative
approaches, yet they emphasize that more work
is needed to obtain satisfactory results. We relied
on GloVe since is a popular and widely adopted
representation with a low computational footprint.
Nonetheless, our proposal can be adapted to other
In future work, we plan to further test this tech-
nique in a task-based setting where we train a ma-
chine learning model to recognize the sentences
that contain a principle of law. Moreover, we will
apply it to other legal tasks where data is difficult
to produce or where some classes are greatly under-
represented. Examples of these tasks are argument
mining (Poudyal et al.,2020;Habernal et al.,2022;
Grundler et al.,2022) and identification of unfair
clauses in contracts (Galassi et al.,2020;Drawzeski
et al.,2021;Ruggeri et al.,2022).
This work has been partially funded by the Euro-
pean Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innova-
tion Programme under grant agreement 101017142
(StairwAI), by the European Union’s Justice
programme under grant agreement 101007420
(ADELE), by the European Horizon 2020 ERC
project CompuLaw (Computable Law) under grant
agreement 833647, and by the Italian Ministry of
Education and Research’s PRIN programme under
grant agreement 2017NCPZ22 (LAILA).
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