Reproducible research

Materials: If you have not already done so, please download the lesson materials for this bootcamp, unzip, then go to the directory reproducible, and open (double click) on the file reproducible.Rproj to open Rstudio.


We're now in the home stretch of the workshop - congratulations! Up to this point, we've talked about how to make your code efficient (good programming practice), accurate (testing), and maintainable (modularization + version control). Now we're going to talk about a final and very important concept known as reproducibility.

In case you hadn't already noticed, science has a growing credibility problem, mostly due to inability of researchers to reproduce published results.

  • Title page from economist: Science goes wrong
    • Results cannot be replicated
    • Cultural issues about publishing, also way we treat code and data
  • This is important
    • Want our science to be high quality
    • Public deserves best quality
    • You could end up in court, and or responsible for people's (or other organisms) lives
    • Scientists nightmare - retractions
  • Journals and reviewers starting to focus on reproducibility
  • Actually, most important reason if for you. Crisis also starts in own own computers:
    • Are you sure your analysis does what you think it does?
    • Can we understand our own code when we return to it after years?
    • Could you show me who contributed what to a project?
    • Can you identify where a bug was introduced and what analyses it affected?
    • Can you reproduce any of the key results from your research in less than a few minutes?

Goals of reproducible research

For our purposes, we can summarize the goal of reproducibility in two related ways, one technical and one colloquial.

In a technical sense, your goal is to have a complete chain of custody (ie, provenance) from your raw data to your finished results and figures. That is, you should always be able to figure out precisely what data and what code were used to generate what result - there should be no "missing links". If you have ever had the experience of coming across a great figure that you made months ago and having no idea how in the world you made it, then you understand why provenance is important. Or, worse, if you've ever been unable to recreate the results that you once showed on a poster or (gasp) published in a paper...

In a colloquial sense, I should be able to sneak into your lab late at night, delete everything except for your raw data and your code, and you should be able to run a single command to regenerate EVERYTHING, including all of your results, tables, and figures in their final, polished form. Think of this as the "push button" workflow. This is your ultimate organizational goal as a computational scientist. Importantly, note that this rules out the idea of manual intervention at any step along the way - no tinkering with figure axes in a pop-up window, no deleting columns from tables, no copying data from one folder to another, etc. All of that needs to be fully automated.

As an added bonus, if you couple this with a version control system that tracks changes over time to your raw data and your code, you will be able to instantly recreate your results from any stage in your research (the lab presentation version, the dissertation version, the manuscript version, the Nobel Prize committee version, etc.). Wouldn't that be nice?

Pulling it all together

So let's look at how the things we've learnt help reproducibility. Throughout the bootcamp we've been giving you all the elements of a reproducible work flow.

Qu: What are these elements

  1. Created a clear and useful directory structure for our project.
  2. Set up (and used) Git to track our changes.
  3. Added the raw data to our project.
  4. Write our code to perform the analysis, including tests.
  5. A master script to reproduce our results

The only one your missing now is the last one. We're going to show you two ways to bind all your work together.

Exporting figures and tables

The first involves simply printing output to file. This works well for final versions of papers. You want a nice short readable analysis script and some functions that produce figures. By default R produces plots and tables in the output window, so our goal is to save these to file.


Saving tables is relatively straight forward using write.csv.

Let's say we have a table of values from

data <- read.csv("data/gapminder-FiveYearData.csv", stringsAsFactors=FALSE)

# For each year, fit linear model to life expectancy vs gdp by continent <- ddply(data, .(continent,year), fit.model, x="lifeExp", y="gdpPercap")

Now we just want to write this table to file:

write.csv(, file="output/table1.csv")

This is good, but there's a couple of problems:

  • row numbers usually not wanted
  • quotes are ugly
  • too many decimal places.

So here's a better version:

write.csv(format(, digits=2, trim=TRUE), file="output/table1.csv", row.names=FALSE, quote=FALSE)


One way of plotting to a file is to open a plotting device (such as pdf or png) run a series of commands that generate plotting output, and then close the device with, e.g.

pdf("my-plot.pdf", width=6, height=4)
  # figure here

Hopefully your figure code is stored as a function, so that you can type something like

data <- read.csv("data/gapminder-FiveYearData.csv", stringsAsFactors=FALSE)
data.1982 <- data[data$year == 1982,]
myplot(data.1982,"gdpPercap","lifeExp", main =1982)

to make your figure. Now you can type

pdf("output/my-plot.pdf", width=6, height=4)
myplot(data.1982,"gdpPercap","lifeExp", main =1982)

However, this still gets a bit unweildly when you have a large number of figures to make (especially for talks where you might make 20 or 30 figures).

A better approach proposed by Rich is to use a little function called to.pdf:

to.pdf <- function(expr, filename, ..., verbose=TRUE) {
  if ( verbose )
    cat(sprintf("Creating %s\n", filename))
  pdf(filename, ...)

Which can be used like so:

to.pdf(myplot(data.1982,"gdpPercap","lifeExp", main=1982), "output/1982.pdf", width=6, height=4)

A couple of nice things about this approach:

  • It becomes much easier to read and compare the parameters to the plotting device (width, height, etc).
  • We're reduced things from 6 repetitive lines to 2 that capture our intent better.
  • The to.pdf function demands that you put the code for your figure in a function.
  • Using functions, rather than statements in the global environment, discourages dependency on global variables. This in turn helps identify reusable chunks of code.
  • Arguments are all passed to pdf via ..., so we don't need to duplicate pdf's argument list in our function.
  • The on.exit call ensures that the device is always closed, even if the figure function fails.

For talks, I often build up figures piece-by-piece. This can be done by adding an option to your function (for a two-part figure) <- function(with.trend=FALSE) {
  x <- runif(100)
  y <- rnorm(100, x)
  par(mar=c(4.1, 4.1, .5, .5))
  plot(y ~ x, las=1)
  if ( with.trend ) {
    fit <- lm(y ~ x)
    abline(fit, col="red")
    legend("topleft", c("Data", "Trend"),
           pch=c(1, NA), lty=c(NA, 1), col=c("black", "red"), bty="n")

Now -- if run with as

just the data are plotted, and if run as

the trend line and legend are included. Then with the to.pdf function, we can do:

to.pdf(,  "output/progressive-1.pdf", width=6, height=4)
to.pdf(, "output/progressive-2.pdf", width=6, height=4)

which will generate the two figures. The general idea can be expanded to more devices, such as png (see this blog post for details).

We can use a similar approach to export figures in png format <- function(expr, dev, filename, ..., verbose=TRUE) {
  if ( verbose )
    cat(sprintf("Creating %s\n", filename))
  dev(filename, ...)
}, "gdpPercap","lifeExp", main=1982), png, "output/1982.png", width=600, height=400)

Reproducible reports with knitr

Another approach for making reproducible outputs is to combine plots, tables, code and a description of content in a single document.

An R package knitr has been developed, which uses a language called Markdown. knitr can be used for many nice features, from reports to full presentations. It can be coded in a specific language called R markdown. For example, this report that we provided to you derived from the Rmd file contained in the project in this zip file. You can find out more about how knitr works (here) and (here).

An ideal paper

Here is what my ideal paper would look like

  • All analyses and data in git repository
    • open on github (some journal now host git repos)
  • Publication version of code archived with paper as supplementary material
  • Raw data also available with article, hosted in open repository, e.g. DRYAD.
  • Code modified to run directly from online data repo so anyone (including you) can rerun analyses at any time.
  • key analyses embedded within a knitr script which produces a nice document for supplementary material.
  • Anyone can build on your research with a few clicks of their mouse.

The work flow that we're following here is just a suggestion. Organizing code and data is an art, and a room of 100 scientists will give you 101 opinions about how to do it best. Consider this material a useful place to get started, and don't hesitate to tinker and branch out as you get a better feel for this process.

Some good examples of reproducible research we know of

  • The code to create the supplementary figures in this paper are here -- the compiled version is here (starts on p 15).
  • This supporting material is completely reproducible.
  • This paper is completely reproducible

Qu: What are some of the additional benefits of this workflow

Qu: What are some of barriers to achieving this workflow?

More reading


This material presented here was adapted from swc by Daniel Falster, incorporating new material from Rich FitzJohn and also views presented by a wide range of people across the twittersphere and within the swc community