Neural network-based detection of self-Admitted technical debt: From performance to explainability

Xiaoxue Ren, Zhenchang Xing, Xin Xia, David Lo, Xinyu Wang, John Grundy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)


Technical debt is a metaphor to reflect the tradeoff software engineers make between short-Term benefits and long-Term stability. Self-Admitted technical debt (SATD), a variant of technical debt, has been proposed to identify debt that is intentionally introduced during software development, e.g., temporary fixes and workarounds. Previous studies have leveraged human-summarized patterns (which represent n-gram phrases that can be used to identify SATD) or text-mining techniques to detect SATD in source code comments. However, several characteristics of SATD features in code comments, such as vocabulary diversity, project uniqueness, length, and semantic variations, pose a big challenge to the accuracy of pattern or traditional text-mining-based SATD detection, especially for cross-project deployment. Furthermore, although traditional text-mining-based method outperforms pattern-based method in prediction accuracy, the text features it uses are less intuitive than human-summarized patterns, which makes the prediction results hard to explain. To improve the accuracy of SATD prediction, especially for cross-project prediction, we propose a Convolutional Neural Network (CNN) based approach for classifying code comments as SATD or non-SATD. To improve the explainability of our model's prediction results, we exploit the computational structure of CNNs to identify key phrases and patterns in code comments that are most relevant to SATD. We have conducted an extensive set of experiments with 62,566 code comments from 10 open-source projects and a user study with 150 comments of another three projects. Our evaluation confirms the effectiveness of different aspects of our approach and its superior performance, generalizability, adaptability, and explainability over current state-of-The-Art traditional text-mining-based methods for SATD classification.

Original languageEnglish
Article number15
Number of pages45
JournalACM Transactions on Software Engineering and Methodology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2019


  • Convolutional neural network
  • cross project prediction
  • Model adaptability
  • model explainability
  • Model generalizability
  • Self-Admitted technical debt

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