Empirical software engineering papers, at places like ICSE (the International Conference on Software Engineering), used to be terrible.
There were exceptions, of course, most famously papers by Basili, Zelkowitz, Tichy, Berry, Humphrey, Gilb, Boehm, Lehmann, Belady and a few others, who kept hectoring the community about the need to base our opinions and practices on evidence rather than belief. But outside of these cases the typical ICSE empirical paper — I sat through a number of them — was depressing: we made these measurements in our company, found these results, just believe us. A question here in the back? Can you reproduce our results? Access our code? We'd love you to, but unfortunately we work for a company — the Call for Papers said industry contributions were welcome, didn't it? — and we can't give you the details. So sorry. But trust us, we checked our results.
Actually, there was another kind of empirical paper, which did not suffer from such secrecy: the university study. Hi, I am professor Bright, the well-known author of the Bright method of software development. Everyone knows it's the best, but we wanted to assess it scientifically through a rigorous empirical study. I gave the same programming problem to two groups of third-year undergraduates; one group was told to use the Bright method, the other not. Guess what? The Bright group performed 67.94% better! I see the session chair wanting to move to the next speaker; see the details in the paper.
For years, this was most of what we had: unverifiable industry reports and unconvincing student experiments.
And suddenly the scene has changed. Empirical software engineering studies are in full bloom; the papers are flowing, and many are good!
What triggered this radical change is the availability of open-source repositories. Projects such as Linux, Eclipse, Apache, EiffelStudio and many others have records going back 10, 15, sometimes 20 years. These records contain the true history of the project: commits (into the configuration management system), bug reports, bug fixes, test runs and their results, developers involved, and many more elements of project data. All of a sudden empirical research has what any empirical science needs: a large corpus of objects to analyze.
Open-source projects have given the decisive jolt, but now we can rely on industrial data as well: Microsoft and other companies have started making their own records selectively available to researchers. In the work of authors such as Zeller from Sarrebruck, Gall from Uni. Zurich or Nagappan from Microsoft, systematic statistical techniques yield answers, sometimes surprising, to questions on which we could only speculate. Do novices or experts cause more bugs? Does test coverage correlate with software quality, and if so, positively or negatively? Little by little, we are learning about the true properties of software products and processes, based not on fantasies but on quantitative analysis of meaningful samples.
The trend is unmistakable, and irreversible.
Not all is right yet; in the second installment of this post I will describe some of what still needs to be improved for empirical software engineering to achieve full scientific rigor.
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