Empirical software engineering experts on the use of students and professionals in experiments

Davide Falessi, Natalia Juristo, Claes Wohlin, Burak Turhan, Jürgen Münch, Andreas Jedlitschka, Markku Oivo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

[Context] Controlled experiments are an important empirical method to generate and validate theories. Many software engineering experiments are conducted with students. It is often claimed that the use of students as participants in experiments comes at the cost of low external validity while using professionals does not. [Objective] We believe a deeper understanding is needed on the external validity of software engineering experiments conducted with students or with professionals. We aim to gain insight about the pros and cons of using students and professionals in experiments. [Method] We performed an unconventional, focus group approach and a follow-up survey. First, during a session at ISERN 2014, 65 empirical researchers, including the seven authors, argued and discussed the use of students in experiments with an open mind. Afterwards, we revisited the topic and elicited experts’ opinions to foster discussions. Then we derived 14 statements and asked the ISERN attendees excluding the authors, to provide their level of agreement with the statements. Finally, we analyzed the researchers’ opinions and used the findings to further discuss the statements. [Results] Our survey results showed that, in general, the respondents disagreed with us about the drawbacks of professionals. We, on the contrary, strongly believe that no population (students, professionals, or others) can be deemed better than another in absolute terms. [Conclusion] Using students as participants remains a valid simplification of reality needed in laboratory contexts. It is an effective way to advance software engineering theories and technologies but, like any other aspect of study settings, should be carefully considered during the design, execution, interpretation, and reporting of an experiment. The key is to understand which developer population portion is being represented by the participants in an experiment. Thus, a proposal for describing experimental participants is put forward.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)452-489
Number of pages38
JournalEmpirical Software Engineering
Volume23
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2018
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • Experimentation
  • Generalization
  • Participants in experiments
  • Subjects of experiments
  • Threats to validity

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