A key motivation for knitr is reproducible research: that our results are accompanied by the data and code needed to produce them.

With that in mind, here are a few comments on how to write portable knitr documents: if you give the document and data to someone else, you want them to be able to run it and get the same output.

  1. Avoid absolute paths. I mean, don’t ever use something like /Users/kbroman/Data/blah.csv or even ~/Data/blah.csv. When someone else tries to reproduce things, they won’t have a /Users/kbroman directory, and they may not want to put the data in ~/Data.

  2. Keep all of the data and code within one branch of your file system: some directory and its subdirectories. By that I mean, encapsulate the full project into one directory, and use relative paths (like Data/blah.csv) in the code.

  3. If you must use absolute paths and have data sets in different places, define the various directories with variables at the top of your knitr document (or GNU make file), rather than sprinkling them throughout the document. This way, if someone else wants to run the document, they don’t have to create an exact duplicate of the mess you created. They can just go in and change those variables to point elsewhere.

  4. Use R --vanilla. That is, avoid loading .RData or ~/.Rprofile so that your code doesn’t have undocumented dependencies (e.g., on particular options that you use all the time, or on particular packages that you load all the time). I often use functions in my R/broman package, and so I load it automatically in my ~/.Rprofile file. But then I forget to include library(broman) at the top of knitr documents where I really need to.

    Actually, R --vanilla doesn’t work for me, since I put R packages in ~/Rlibs/ and so need to define R_LIBS=/Users/kbroman/Rlibs in my ~/.Renviron file. So it seems that I have to use

    R --no-save --no-restore --no-init-file --no-site-file

    (That is, R --vanilla but without the --no-environ.)

  5. Use a GNU make file to define how to construct the final product. You might be tempted to define some shell shortcut for knitr, but the person trying to reproduce your results won’t know about that. What’s great about GNU make is that it both automates your workflow and documents it. See my minimal make tutorial, and also read Mike Bostock’s “Why Use Make”.

  6. Include “session info” in your document, preferably at the bottom: this lists the version of R that you’re using plus all of the packages you’ve loaded. There’s a sessionInfo() that’s included with base R (in the utils package), but I recommend instead using session_info() from the devtools package as it provides more detailed information in a nicer layout.

    In R Markdown, include a code chunk like the following; I include the options so that we’re absolutely sure that it will be shown.

    ```{r session_info, include=TRUE, echo=TRUE, results='markup'}
  7. If you do any sort of simulation in the document, consider adding a call to set.seed in the first code chunk. I usually open R and type runif(1, 0, 10^8) and then paste the resulting large number into set.seed() in the first code chunk. If you do this, then the random aspects of your analysis should be repeated the same way exactly whenever it is “knit.”

I learned these things by experience. That is, I failed to do each of these things at various times and was later frustrated by the sloppiness of my prior self.

I’m not the only one who fails to meet the reproducible ideal. Reproducible Research with R and RStudio is quite a good book on the principles and tools for reproducible research, but its github repository (at least for the first edition of the book) had a few problems. I attempted to construct the book from its source but ran into difficulties regarding installation of the necessary packages (it uses a lot), and more importantly with the use of absolute paths. Much of this appears to be corrected with the second edition, but there are still at least a few absolute paths (and some examples in the book use absolute paths).

Also, if the data and source code are not readily available, then the work isn’t really reproducible. For example, the supplement to Earn et al. (2014) Proc Roy Soc B 281(1778):20132570 is a really beautiful document, but it says (on page 2):

…all details are visible in the source code (feversupp.Rnw), which is available upon request from [author’s email].

It’d be better to have it on GitHub, Figshare, or even a personal web page.