Development of R packages

Development of R packages

Package structure

The basic structure of the directory is as follows:

  • R
  • man
  • vignettes


DESCRIPTION is the file that contains the important metadata of the package.

R packages listed in either Imports and Depends ensures that the package is installed. However, there is a difference: Imports loads the package; Depends attaches it. Loading a package will load the code, data and dynamic libraries, register S3 and S4 methods, and run .onLoad(); all of this without putting the package in the search path, so it will not be usable without ::. Attaching it will actually put the package in the search path. Usually packages should always be self-contained, minimizing the changes on the global environment, and hence be listed under Imports.


When a function is called, R has to locate the object associated to that name. First, R searches the global environment. If unsuccessful, it checks the search path i.e. the list of all the attached packages. The namespace of a package provides a context where to look for the object associated with a name. They are recorded in the NAMESPACE file. A correct organization of the NAMESPACE file will contain the package. There are two questions to consider, imports and exports:

  • Imports define how a function in one package finds a function from another package.
    • export() to export functions.
    • exportPattern() to export all functions matching a pattern.
    • exportClasses() and exportMethods() to export S4 classes and methods.
    • S3method() to export S3 methods.
  • Exports define which functions are available outside of a package.
    • import() to import all functions from a package.
    • importFrom() to import selected functions.
    • importClassesFrom() and importMethodsFrom() to import S4 classes and methods.
    • useDynLib() to import a function from C.

NAMESPACE in roxygen2

Hadley recommends letting roxygen2 the trouble of writing the NAMESPACE:

  • #' @export will export an object from our package.
  • #' @import methods
  • ##' @importFrom package function imports a function from a package.


For general notes on testing see Testing. To start your testing process in an R package, do


This creates the tests/testhat directory, where all the test files will live, always as test*.R. Also, the file tests/testthat.R, which will run all the tests. Test files group multiple related tests. To run all your test, just go


Example of test file from stringr:

context("String length") # provide a human readable name

# a test
# groups multiple expectation to test the output of a single unit of functionality.
test_that("str_length is number of characters", {
  expect_equal(str_length("a"), 1) # expectation: the atom of testing. Checks value and class match; if not, throw error.
  expect_equal(str_length("ab"), 2) # other expectation
  expect_equal(str_length("abc"), 3)

# other test
test_that("str_length of factor is length of level", {
  expect_equal(str_length(factor("a")), 1)
  expect_equal(str_length(factor("ab")), 2)
  expect_equal(str_length(factor("abc")), 3)


Tests group several expectations related to a unit of functionality. The idea is that, if it fails, we will know with certain precision which part of the code might be failing.


Expectations have two arguments: the first one is the actual result, the second is the expected. Some common expectation functions:

  • Equality: expect_identical(), or expect_equal() for some numerical tolerance.
  • Match a grepl() regular expression: expect_match() and its variations for different types of output (expect_output(), expect_message(), expect_warning() and expect_error()).
  • Class: expect_is().
  • Misc: expect_true(), expect_false().
  • Complicated outputs: expect_equal_to_reference() caches the result the first time its run, and then compares it to subsequent runs.


Rcpp is a package that offers an easy-to-use interface between R and C/C++. Its core is an C++ library against which any library that makes use of this interface must be linked. (This, as well as any other used library, must appear in the LinkingTo field in the DESCRIPTION).

Package structure

A package with C++ code includes some additional file structures over a “classic” R package. Those are:

  • R
    • RcppExports.R
  • src: the location of the C++ code.
    • *.cpp
    • Makevars
    • RcppExports.cpp


R/RcppExports.R is an automatically generated file that contains the R functions that can be called.


C++ files are located under the src folder. By adding some tags, we control how Rcpp will handle it:

  • // [[Rcpp::export]] preceding a function will cause it to be exported for its use in R. Note that all the functions in R must have a valid interface. For example, data.frame can be converted into an eigen::MatrixXd thanks to RcppEigen, but it is not the case for every R data structure.
  • // [[Rcpp::interfaces(r, cpp)]] will include a header file in inst/include/PACKAGE.h that can be included by other packages.


Makevars is an optional file that overrides the default R Makefile. It might be necessary, for example, if we use external libraries. It contains flags for the compiler and the linker:

  • PKG_LIBS: linker flags (e.g. PKG_LIBS=-LLIBRARY/build/release -lLIBRARY).
  • PKG_CPPFLAGS: pre-processor flags (e.g. include directories PKG_CPPFLAGS=-ILIBRARY/include).
  • PKG_CFLAGS & PKG_CXXFLAGS: C and C++ flags.


We can interactively debug the C/C++ code through the following steps:

  1. Start R, specifying the debugger (e.g. R --debugger=lldb if we compiled with clang or R --debugger=gdb if we compiled with gcc). This will open the debugger.
  2. Start R by typing process start (lldb) or run (gdb).
  3. Load your library normally, and execute the code that causes the crash. Now, when it occurs, the interactive debugger will be prompted.