Categorizing the Content of GitHub README Files

Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2021-09-15
Keywords: Documentation

Astronomers have to analyze the optical properties of the glass in their telescopes in order to correct for things like chromatic aberration. Equally, software engineering researchers need to study and validate the tools they build to collect and classify data in order to know how reliable those tools are.

Prana2018 is a good example of this. Its authors built a classifier to label the sections in the README files found in GitHub repositories as What, Why, How, When, Who, References, Contribution, or Other. They then evaluated the classifier numerically (F-score of 0.746) and by having twenty programmers check whether the classification helped them find information. Along the way they find that information discussing the What and How of repositories is very common, but many README files don't talk about the purpose and status of the repository. No one is going to start a billion-dollar business based on the result, but it is careful, patient work like this that builds a foundation for other researchers to stand on.

Prana2018 Gede Artha Azriadi Prana, Christoph Treude, Ferdian Thung, Thushari Atapattu, and David Lo: "Categorizing the Content of GitHub README Files". Empirical Software Engineering, 24(3), 2018, 10.1007/s10664-018-9660-3.

README files play an essential role in shaping a developer's first impression of a software repository and in documenting the software project that the repository hosts. Yet, we lack a systematic understanding of the content of a typical README file as well as tools that can process these files automatically. To close this gap, we conduct a qualitative study involving the manual annotation of 4,226 README file sections from 393 randomly sampled GitHub repositories and we design and evaluate a classifier and a set of features that can categorize these sections automatically. We find that information discussing the 'What' and 'How' of a repository is very common, while many README files lack information regarding the purpose and status of a repository. Our multi-label classifier which can predict eight different categories achieves an F1 score of 0.746. To evaluate the usefulness of the classification, we used the automatically determined classes to label sections in GitHub README files using badges and showed files with and without these badges to twenty software professionals. The majority of participants perceived the automated labeling of sections based on our classifier to ease information discovery. This work enables the owners of software repositories to improve the quality of their documentation and it has the potential to make it easier for the software development community to discover relevant information in GitHub README files.