Why duplication is more acceptable in tests

by Jason Swett,

It’s often taught in programming that duplication is to be avoided. But for some reason it’s often stated that duplication is more acceptable in test code than in application code. Why is this?

We’ll explore this, but first, let’s examine the wrong answers.

Incorrect reasons why duplication is more acceptable in tests

“Duplication isn’t actually that bad.”

Many programmers hold the opinion that duplication isn’t something that should be avoided fastidiously. Instead, a certain amount of duplication should be tolerated, and when the duplication gets to be too painful, then it should be addressed. The “rule of three” for example says to tolerate code that’s duplicated twice, but clean it up once the duplication reaches three instances.

This way of thinking is overly simplistic and misses the point. The cost of duplication doesn’t depend on whether the duplication appears twice or three times but rather on factors like how easy the duplication is to notice, how costly it is to keep the duplicated instances synchronized, and how much “traffic” the duplicated areas receive. (See this post for more details on the nature of duplication and its costs.)

The heuristic for whether to tolerate duplication shouldn’t be “tolerate some but don’t tolerate too much”. Rather the cost of a piece of duplication should be assessed based on the factors above and weighed against any benefits that piece of duplication has. If the costs aren’t justified by the benefits, then the duplication should be cleaned up.

“Duplication in test code can be clearer than the DRY version”

It’s true that duplication in test code can be clearer than the DRY version. But duplication in application code can be clearer than the DRY version too. So if duplicating code can make it clearer, why not prefer duplication in application code to the same exact degree as in test code?

This answer doesn’t actually answer the question. The question is about the difference between duplication in test code and application code.

The real reason why duplication is more acceptable in test code

In order to understand why duplication is more acceptable in test code than application code, it helps to get very clear on what exactly duplication is and why it incurs a cost.

What duplication is and why it costs

Duplication doesn’t mean two identical pieces of code. Duplication is two or more copies of the same behavior. It’s possible to have two identical pieces of code that represent different pieces of behavior. It’s also possible to have the same behavior expressed more than once but in different code.

Let’s also review why duplication incurs a cost. The main reason is because it leaves the program susceptible to logical inconsistencies. If one copy of a behavior gets changed but the other copies don’t, then the other behaviors are now wrong and there’s a bug present. The other reason duplication incurs a cost is because it creates a maintenance burden. Updating something in multiple places is obviously more costly than updating it in just one place.

The difference between test code and application code

The difference between test code and application code is that test code doesn’t contain behaviors. All the behaviors are in the application code. The purpose of the test code is to specify the behaviors of the application code.

What in the codebase determines whether the application code is correct? The tests. If the application code passes its tests (i.e. its specifications), then the application code is correct (for a certain definition of “correct”). What in the code determines whether the tests (specifications) are correct? Nothing! The program’s specifications come entirely from outside the program.

Tests are always correct

This means that whatever the tests specify is, by definition, correct. If we have two tests containing the same code and one of the tests changes, it does not always logically follow that the other test needs to be updated to match. This is different from duplicated application code. If a piece of behavior is duplicated in two places in the application code and one piece of behavior gets changed, it does always logically follow that the other piece of behavior needs to get updated to match. (Otherwise it wouldn’t be in instance of duplication.)

This is the reason why duplication is more acceptable in test code than in application code.

Takeaways

  • Duplication is when one behavior is specified multiple times.
  • Duplication in application code is costly because multiple, among other reasons, copies of the same behavior are subject to diverging, thus creating a bug.
  • Since test code is a human-determined specification, it’s by definition always correct. If one instance of a duplicated piece of code changes, it’s not a logical necessity that the other piece needs to change with it.

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