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A Systematic Review of Theory Use in Software Engineering Experiments

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3 Author(s)

Empirically based theories are generally perceived as foundational to science. However, in many disciplines, the nature, role and even the necessity of theories remain matters for debate, particularly in young or practical disciplines such as software engineering. This article reports a systematic review of the explicit use of theory in a comprehensive set of 103 articles reporting experiments, from of a total of 5,453 articles published in major software engineering journals and conferences in the decade 1993-2002. Of the 103 articles, 24 use a total of 40 theories in various ways to explain the cause-effect relationship(s) under investigation. The majority of these use theory in the experimental design to justify research questions and hypotheses, some use theory to provide post hoc explanations of their results, and a few test or modify theory. A third of the theories are proposed by authors of the reviewed articles. The interdisciplinary nature of the theories used is greater than that of research in software engineering in general. We found that theory use and awareness of theoretical issues are present, but that theory-driven research is, as yet, not a major issue in empirical software engineering. Several articles comment explicitly on the lack of relevant theory. We call for an increased awareness of the potential benefits of involving theory, when feasible. To support software engineering researchers who wish to use theory, we show which of the reviewed articles on which topics use which theories for what purposes, as well as details of the theories' characteristics

Published in:

IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering  (Volume:33 ,  Issue: 2 )