Waiting for the funerals: culture in software engineering research

A while ago I changed my opinion about why software engineering academics very rarely got/get involved in empirical/experimental based research.

I used to think it was because commercial data was so hard to get hold of.

In practice commercial data does not seem to be that hard to get hold of. At least for academics in business schools, and I have not experienced problems gaining access to commercial data (but it is very hard finding a company willing to allow me to make an anonymised version of its data public). There are many evidence-based papers published using confidential data (i.e., data that cannot be made public).

I now think the reasons for non-evidence-based research are culture and preference for non-people based research.

In the academic world the software side of computing often has a strong association is mathematics departments (I know that in some universities it is in engineering). I have had several researchers tell me that it would raise eyebrows, if they started doing more people oriented research, because this kind of research is viewed as being the purview of other departments.

Software had its algorithm era, which is now long gone; but unfortunately, many academics still live in a world where the mindset of TEOCP holds sway.

Baffled looks are common, when I talk to software engineering academics. They are baffled by the idea that it is possible to run experiments in software engineering, and they are baffled by the idea of evidence-based theories. I am still struggling to understand the mindset that produces the arguments they make against the possibility of experiments and evidence being useful.

In the past I know that some researchers have had problems getting experiment-based papers published. Hopefully this problem is now in the past, given that empirical/experimental papers are becoming more common.

Max Planck, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, found that physicists trained in what we now call classical physics, were not willing to teach or adopt a quantum mechanics world view; Planck observed: “Science advances one funeral at a time”.