The Devil is in the Tails: How Long-Tailed Code Distributions Impact Large Language Models

Xin Zhou, Kisub Kim, Bowen Xu, Jiakun Liu, DongGyun Han, David Lo

Research output: Working paperPreprint


Learning-based techniques, especially advanced Large Language Models (LLMs) for code, have gained considerable popularity in various software engineering (SE) tasks. However, most existing works focus on designing better learning-based models and pay less attention to the properties of datasets. Learning-based models, including popular LLMs for code, heavily rely on data, and the data's properties (e.g., data distribution) could significantly affect their behavior. We conducted an exploratory study on the distribution of SE data and found that such data usually follows a skewed distribution (i.e., long-tailed distribution) where a small number of classes have an extensive collection of samples, while a large number of classes have very few samples. We investigate three distinct SE tasks and analyze the impacts of long-tailed distribution on the performance of LLMs for code. Our experimental results reveal that the long-tailed distribution has a substantial impact on the effectiveness of LLMs for code. Specifically, LLMs for code perform between 30.0\% and 254.0\% worse on data samples associated with infrequent labels compared to data samples of frequent labels. Our study provides a better understanding of the effects of long-tailed distributions on popular LLMs for code and insights for the future development of SE automation.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 7 Sept 2023

Publication series

Name2023 38th IEEE/ACM International Conference on Automated Software Engineering (ASE)
ISSN (Print)1938-4300
ISSN (Electronic)2643-1572


  • cs.SE

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