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How do developers really feel about bug fixing?: Directions for automatic program repair

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

Article number4
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>1/04/2023
<mark>Journal</mark>IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering
Issue number4
Number of pages19
Pages (from-to)1823-1841
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date27/07/22
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Automatic program repair (APR) is a rapidly advancing field of software engineering that aims to supplement or replace manual bug fixing with an automated tool. For APR to be successfully adopted in industry, it is vital that APR tools respond to developer needs and preferences. However, very little research has considered developers' general attitudes to APR or developers' current bug fixing practices (the activity APR aims to replace). This article responds to this gap by reporting on a survey of 386 software developers about their bug finding and fixing practices and experiences, and their instinctive attitudes towards APR. We find that bug finding and fixing is not necessarily as onerous for developers as has often been suggested, being rated as more satisfying than developers' general work. The fact that developers derive satisfaction and benefit from bug fixing indicates that APR adoption is not as simple as APR replacing an unwanted activity. When it comes to potential APR approaches, we find a strong preference for developers being kept in the loop (for example, choosing between different fixes or validating fixes) as opposed to a fully automated process. This suggests that advances in APR should be careful to consider the agency of the developer, as well as what information is presented to developers alongside fixes. It also indicates that there are key barriers related to trust that would need to be overcome for full scale APR adoption, supported by the fact that even those developers who stated that they were positive about APR listed several caveats and concerns. We find very few statistically significant relationships between particular demographic variables (for example, developer experience, age, education) and key attitudinal variables, suggesting that developers' instinctive attitudes towards APR are little influenced by experience level but are held widely across the developer community.