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Challenges and pitfalls on surveying evidence in the software engineering technical literature: an exploratory study with novices

Abstract

The evidence-based software engineering approach advocates the use of evidence from empirical studies to support the decisions on the adoption of software technologies by practitioners in the software industry. To this end, many guidelines have been proposed to contribute to the execution and repeatability of literature reviews, and to the confidence of their results, especially regarding systematic literature reviews (SLR). To investigate similarities and differences, and to characterize the challenges and pitfalls of the planning and generated results of SLR research protocols dealing with the same research question and performed by similar teams of novice researchers in the context of the software engineering field. We qualitatively compared (using Jaccard and Kappa coefficients) and evaluated (using DARE) same goal SLR research protocols and outcomes undertaken by similar research teams. Seven similar SLR protocols regarding quality attributes for use cases executed in 2010 and 2012 enabled us to observe unexpected differences in their planning and execution. Even when the participants reached some agreement in the planning, the outcomes were different. The research protocols and reports allowed us to observe six challenges contributing to the divergences in the results: researchers’ inexperience in the topic, researchers’ inexperience in the method, lack of clearness and completeness of the papers, lack of a common terminology regarding the problem domain, lack of research verification procedures, and lack of commitment to the SLR. According to our findings, it is not possible to rely on results of SLRs performed by novices. Also, similarities at a starting or intermediate step during different SLR executions may not directly translate to the next steps, since non-explicit information might entail differences in the outcomes, hampering the repeatability and confidence of the SLR process and results. Although we do have expectations that the presence and follow-up of a senior researcher can contribute to increasing SLRs’ repeatability, this conclusion can only be drawn upon the existence of additional studies on this topic. Yet, systematic planning, transparency of decisions and verification procedures are key factors to guarantee the reliability of SLRs.

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  1. http://www.jabref.org/

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Acknowledgments

We thank Daniela Cruzes, Marcela Genero, Martin Höst, Natalia Juristo, Nelly Condori-Fernandez, Oscar Dieste and Oscar Pastor for the initial discussions at ISERN 2009 that started this work; Vitor Faria Monteiro for his contribution to the original protocol planning; David Budgen for suggestions regarding an earlier version of this study report; all students for their engagement during the Experimental Software Engineering course in 2010 and 2012, and also the CNPq and CAPES for supporting this research. Prof. Travassos is a CNPq Researcher.

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Correspondence to Talita Vieira Ribeiro.

Additional information

Communicated by: Emerson Murphy-Hill

Appendices

Appendix 1

Table 17 Teams’ Research Questions

Appendix 2

Table 18 Teams’ Main Search Strings

Appendix 3

Table 19 Main Search Concepts – Search Strings Coding

Appendix 4

Table 20 Teams’ Search Engines Configuration

Appendix 5

Table 21 Teams’ Control Articles

Appendix 6

Table 22 Teams’ Inclusion Criteria

Appendix 7

Table 23 Teams’ Exclusion Criteria

Appendix 8

Table 24 Teams’ Quality Assessment Criteria

Appendix 9

Table 25 Teams’ Extraction Forms

Appendix 10

Table 26 Included Papers by the Teams and the Authors

Appendix 11

Table 27 Teams’ Answers to the Research Questions – Quality Attributes for Use Case

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Ribeiro, T.V., Massollar, J. & Travassos, G.H. Challenges and pitfalls on surveying evidence in the software engineering technical literature: an exploratory study with novices. Empir Software Eng 23, 1594–1663 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10664-017-9556-7

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10664-017-9556-7

Keywords

  • Novice researchers
  • Systematic literature review
  • Evidence-based software engineering
  • Exploratory study