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Are Refactorings to Blame? An Empirical Study of Refactorings in Merge Conflicts

Reviewed by Nazmus Sakeef / 2021-12-13
Keywords: Benchmarking, Code Smells

Merge conflicts are one of the biggest difficulties developers face when using separate development branches. Many developers believe that code refactoring makes the situation worse, but are the refactorings solely to blame? How big of a difference do they make when it comes to merge conflicts?

Using data from roughly 3000 open-source Java software repositories, Mahmoudi2019 examined the association between merge conflicts and 15 prominent refactoring patterns, and at how difficult it is to settle refactoring-related disagreements. They used a tool called RefactoringMiner to detect refactorings and investigated the relationship between refactorings and merge conflicts; they also developed and presented methods to detect complicated refactorings from refactoring and evolutionary change overlap. When assessing whether a conflict is caused by refactoring or by other modifications that are intertwined with refactoring, the authors refrained from declaring that the refactoring directly created the conflict, which I believe is a crucial and logical statement from the author.

Mahmoudi2019 found that:

  • Refactorings are used in 22% of merging circumstances with at least one conflicting Java file. More specifically, 11% of conflicting regions contain at least one refactoring.
  • Conflicting areas with refactorings are typically more complex than conflicting regions without refactorings. Furthermore, conflicting merge cases including refactorings contain more evolutionary changes than conflicts without refactorings.
  • Conflicts are more involved in cases of "Extract Interface" and "Extract Superclass", albeit with minimal effect sizes.

Mahmoudi2019 Mehran Mahmoudi, Sarah Nadi, Nikolaos Tsantalis: "Are Refactorings to Blame? An Empirical Study of Refactorings in Merge Conflicts". 2019 IEEE 26th International Conference on Software Analysis, Evolution and Reengineering (SANER) 10.1109/SANER.2019.8668012.

With the rise of distributed software development, branching has become a popular approach that facilitates collaboration between software developers. One of the biggest challenges that developers face when using multiple development branches is dealing with merge conflicts. Conflicts occur when inconsistent changes happen to the code. Resolving these conflicts can be a cumbersome task as it requires prior knowledge about the changes in each of the development branches. A type of change that could potentially lead to complex conflicts is code refactoring. Previous studies have proposed techniques for facilitating conflict resolution in the presence of refactorings. However, the magnitude of the impact that refactorings have on merge conflicts has never been empirically evaluated. In this paper, we perform an empirical study on almost 3,000 wellengineered open-source Java software repositories and investigate the relation between merge conflicts and 15 popular refactoring types. Our results show that refactoring operations are involved in 22% of merge conflicts, which is remarkable taking into account that we investigated a relatively small subset of all possible refactoring types. Furthermore, certain refactoring types, such as EXTRACT METHOD, tend to be more problematic for merge conflicts. Our results also suggest that conflicts that involve refactored code are usually more complex, compared to conflicts with no refactoring changes.