Why and how developers fork what from whom in GitHub

Jing Jiang, David Lo, Jiahuan He, Xin Xia, Pavneet Singh Kochhar, Li Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)


Forking is the creation of a new software repository by copying another repository. Though forking is controversial in traditional open source software (OSS) community, it is encouraged and is a built-in feature in GitHub. Developers freely fork repositories, use codes as their own and make changes. A deep understanding of repository forking can provide important insights for OSS community and GitHub. In this paper, we explore why and how developers fork what from whom in GitHub. We collect a dataset containing 236,344 developers and 1,841,324 forks. We make surveys, and analyze programming languages and owners of forked repositories. Our main observations are: (1) Developers fork repositories to submit pull requests, fix bugs, add new features and keep copies etc. Developers find repositories to fork from various sources: search engines, external sites (e.g., Twitter, Reddit), social relationships, etc. More than 42 % of developers that we have surveyed agree that an automated recommendation tool is useful to help them pick repositories to fork, while more than 44.4 % of developers do not value a recommendation tool. Developers care about repository owners when they fork repositories. (2) A repository written in a developer’s preferred programming language is more likely to be forked. (3) Developers mostly fork repositories from creators. In comparison with unattractive repository owners, attractive repository owners have higher percentage of organizations, more followers and earlier registration in GitHub. Our results show that forking is mainly used for making contributions of original repositories, and it is beneficial for OSS community. Moreover, our results show the value of recommendation and provide important insights for GitHub to recommend repositories.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)547-578
Number of pages32
JournalEmpirical Software Engineering
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Fork
  • GitHub
  • Open source software

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