A study, a replication, and a rebuttal; SE research is starting to become serious

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

tldr; A paper makes various claims based on suspect data. A replication finds serious problems with the data extraction and analysis. A rebuttal paper spins the replication issues as being nothing serious, and actually validating the original results, i.e., the rebuttal is all smoke and mirrors.

When I first saw the paper: A Large-Scale Study of Programming Languages and Code Quality in Github, the pdf almost got deleted as soon as I started scanning the paper; it uses number of reported defects as a proxy for code quality. The number of reported defects in a program depends on the number of people using the program, more users will generate more defect reports. Unfortunately data on the number of people using a program is extremely hard to come by (I only know of one study that tried to estimate number of users); studies of Java have also found that around 40% of reported faults are requests for enhancement. Most fault report data is useless for the model building purposes to which it is put.

Two things caught my eye, and I did not delete the pdf. The authors have done good work in the past, and they were using a zero-truncated negative binomial distribution; I thought I was the only person using zero-truncated negative binomial distributions to analyze software engineering data. My data analysis alter-ego was intrigued.

Spending a bit more time on the paper confirmed my original view, it’s conclusions were not believable. The authors had done a lot of work, this was no paper written over a long weekend, but lots of silly mistakes had been made.

Lots of nonsense software engineering papers get published, nothing to write home about. Everybody gets writes a nonsense paper at some point in their career, hopefully they get caught by reviewers and are not published (the statistical analysis in this paper was probably above the level familiar to most software engineering reviewers). So, move along.

At the start of this year, the paper: On the Impact of Programming Languages on Code Quality: A Reproduction Study appeared, published in TOPLAS (the first was in CACM, both journals of the ACM).

This replication paper gave a detailed analysis of the mistakes in data extraction, and the sloppy data analyse performed in the original work. Large chunks of the first study were cut to pieces (finding many more issues than I did, but not pointing out the missing usage data). Reading this paper now, in more detail, I found it a careful, well argued, solid piece of work.

This publication is an interesting event. Replications are rare in software engineering, and this is the first time I have seen a take-down (of an empirical paper) like this published in a major journal. Ok, there have been previous published disagreements, but this is machine learning nonsense.

The Papers We Love meetup group ran a mini-workshop over the summer, and Jan Vitek gave a talk on the replication work (unfortunately a problem with the AV system means the videos are not available on the Papers We Love YouTube channel). I asked Jan why they had gone to so much trouble writing up a replication, when they had plenty of other nonsense papers to choose from. His reasoning was that the conclusions from the original work were starting to be widely cited, i.e., new, incorrect, community-wide beliefs were being created. The finding from the original paper, that has been catching on, is that programs written in some languages are more/less likely to contain defects than programs written in other languages. What I think is actually being measured is number of users of the programs written in particular languages (a factor not present in the data).

Yesterday, the paper Rebuttal to Berger et al., TOPLAS 2019 appeared, along with a Medium post by two of the original authors.

The sequence: publication, replication, rebuttal is how science is supposed to work. Scientists disagree about published work and it all gets thrashed out in a series of published papers. I’m pleased to see this is starting to happen in software engineering, it shows that researchers care and are willing to spend time analyzing each others work (rather than publishing another paper on the latest trendy topic).

From time to time I had considered writing a post about the first two articles, but an independent analysis of the data meant some serious thinking, and I was not that keen (since I did not think the data went anywhere interesting).

In the academic world, reputation and citations are the currency. When one set of academics publishes a list of mistakes, errors, oversights, blunders, etc in the published work of another set of academics, both reputation and citations are on the line.

I have not read many academic rebuttals, but one recurring pattern has been a pointed literary style. The style of this Rebuttal paper is somewhat breezy and cheerful (the odd pointed phrase pops out every now and again), attempting to wave off what the authors call general agreement with some minor differences. I have had some trouble understanding how the rebuttal points discussed are related to the problems highlighted in the replication paper. The tone of the medium post is that there is nothing to see here, let’s all move on and be friends.

An academic’s work is judged by the number of citations it has received. Citations are used to help decide whether someone should be promoted, or awarded a grant. As I write this post, Google Scholar listed 234 citations to the original paper (which is a lot, most papers have one or none). The abstract of the Rebuttal paper ends with “…and our paper is eminently citable.”

The claimed “Point-by-Point Rebuttal” takes the form of nine alleged claims made by the replication authors. In four cases the Claim paragraph ends with: “Hence the results may be wrong!”, in two cases with: “Hence, FSE14 and CACM17 can’t be right.” (these are references to the original conference and journal papers, respectively), and once with: “Thus, other problems may exist!”

The rebuttal points have a tenuous connection to the major issues raised by the replication paper, and many of them are trivial issues (compared to the real issues raised).

Summary bullet points (six of them) at the start of the Rebuttal discuss issues not covered by the rebuttal points. My favourite is the objection bullet point claiming a preference, in the replication, for the use of the Bonferroni correction rather than FDR (False Discovery Rate). The original analysis failed to use either technique, when it should have used one or the other, a serious oversight; the replication is careful and does the analysis using both.

I would be very surprised if the Rebuttal paper, in its current form, gets published in any serious journal; it’s currently on a preprint server. It is not a serious piece of work.

Somebody who has only read the Rebuttal paper would take away a strong impression that the criticisms in the replication paper were trivial, and that the paper was not a serious piece of work.

What happens next? Will the ACM appoint a committee of the great and the good to decide whether the CACM article should be retracted? We are not talking about fraud or deception, but a bunch of silly mistakes that invalidate the claimed findings. Researchers are supposed to care about the integrity of published work, but will anybody be willing to invest the effort needed to get this paper retracted? The authors will not want to give up those 234, and counting, citations.

First language taught to undergraduates in the 1990s

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

The average new graduate is likely to do more programming during the first month of a software engineering job, than they did during a year as an undergraduate. Programming courses for undergraduates is really about filtering out those who cannot code.

Long, long ago, when I had some connection to undergraduate hiring, around 70-80% of those interviewed for a programming job could not write a simple 10-20 line program; I’m told that this is still true today. Fluency in any language (computer or human) takes practice, and the typical undergraduate gets very little practice (there is no reason why they should, there are lots of activities on offer to students and programming fluency is not needed to get a degree).

There is lots of academic discussion around which language students should learn first, and what languages they should be exposed to. I have always been baffled by the idea that there was much to be gained by spending time teaching students multiple languages, when most of them barely grasp the primary course language. When I was at school the idea behind the trendy new maths curriculum was to teach concepts, rather than rote learning (such as algebra; yes, rote learning of the rules of algebra); the concept of number-base was considered to be a worthwhile concept and us kids were taught this concept by having the class convert values back and forth, such as base-10 numbers to base-5 (base-2 was rarely used in examples). Those of us who were good at maths instantly figured it out, while everybody else was completely confused (including some teachers).

My view is that there is no major teaching/learning impact on the choice of first language; it is all about academic fashion and marketing to students. Those who have the ability to program will just pick it up, and everybody else will flounder and do their best to stay away from it.

Richard Reid was interested in knowing which languages were being used to teach introductory programming to computer science and information systems majors. Starting in 1992, he contacted universities roughly twice a year, asking about the language(s) used to teach introductory programming. The Reid list (as it became known), was regularly updated until Reid retired in 1999 (the average number of universities included in the list was over 400); one of Reid’s ex-students, Frances VanScoy, took over until 2006.

The plot below is from 1992 to 2002, and shows languages in the top 3% in any year (code+data):

Normalised returned required for various elapsed years.

Looking at the list again reminded me how widespread Pascal was as a teaching language. Modula-2 was the language that Niklaus Wirth designed as the successor of Pascal, and Ada was intended to be the grown up Pascal.

While there is plenty of discussion about which language to teach first, doing this teaching is a low status activity (there is more fun to be had with the material taught to the final year students). One consequence is lack of any real incentive for spending time changing the course (e.g., using a new language). The Open University continued teaching Pascal for years, because material had been printed and had to be used up.

C++ took a while to take-off because of its association with C (which was very out of fashion in academia), and Java was still too new to risk exposing to impressionable first-years.

A count of the total number of languages listed, between 1992 and 2002, contains a few that might not be familiar to readers.

          Ada    Ada/Pascal          Beta          Blue             C 
         1087             1            10             3           667 
       C/Java      C/Scheme           C++    C++/Pascal        Eiffel 
            1             1           910             1            29 
      Fortran       Haskell     HyperTalk         ISETL       ISETL/C 
          133            12             2            30             1 
         Java  Java/Haskell       Miranda            ML       ML/Java 
          107             1            48            16             1 
     Modula-2      Modula-3        Oberon      Oberon-2     ObjPascal 
          727            24            26             7            22 
       Orwell        Pascal      Pascal/C        Prolog        Scheme 
           12          2269             1            12           752 
    Scheme/ML Scheme/Turing        Simula     Smalltalk           SML 
            1             1            14            33            88 
       Turing  Visual-Basic 
           71             3 

I had never heard of Orwell, a vanity language foisted on Oxford Mathematics and Computation students. It used to be common for someone in computing departments to foist their vanity language on students; it enabled them to claim the language was being used and stoked their ego. Is there some law that enables students to sue for damages?

The 1990s was still in the shadow of the 1980s fashion for functional programming (which came back into fashion a few years ago). Miranda was an attempt to commercialize a functional language compiler, with Haskell being an open source reaction.

I was surprised that Turing was so widely taught. More to do with the stature of where it came from (university of Toronto), than anything else.

Fortran was my first language, and is still widely used where high performance floating-point is required.

ISETL is a very interesting language from the 1960s that never really attracted much attention outside of New York. I suspect that Blue is BlueJ, a Java IDE targeting novices.