Making Packages In R


Teaching: 60 min
Exercises: 30 min
  • How do I collect my code together so I can reuse it and share it?

  • How do I make my own package(s)?

  • How do I integrate my function documentation into R’s help pages system?

  • What helper tools does RStudio provide me with?

  • Let RStudio create the required structure of a simple R package and review it.

  • Build and install the package in RStudio.

  • Use roxygen2 to document functions.

Why should you make your own R packages?

Reproducible research!

An R package is the basic unit of reusable code. If you want to reuse code later or want others to be able to use your code, you should put it in a package.

Making your first R package

In this lesson, we will start building a “personal package”. This is meant to collect any kind of R code that is useful to you. As you continue to evolve it after this lesson, you may move code that belongs to the same publication, topic or a distinct project, into their own packages. Here we begin to realise the benefit of already documenting the functions formally earlier: We can publish more quickly, because we didn’t leave much unfinished clean-up business.

To start working on this personal package, please open RStudio’s File menu and select New Project… > New Directory… > R Package. Give it a unique, but useful name. Your own will work just fine. Bonus points for squeezing in an R ;-)

Also add the source files we created earlier (the first versions of center.R and rescale.R), so that we have some example code right away.

New package in RStudio

In case you have learned about version control already, it would be good practice to create a git repository now and git commit each step of building this package.

Default package files in RStudio's Git pane

RStudio’s “skeleton” package can already be built, using the Build > Install and Restart option. Note the library(...) line that appears in the console. Also, notice there is now a package:YouRName environment that is the parent environment to the global environment.


This means you can now take advantage of the console’s auto-complete just like for any other package. Type cen and/or resc, then Tab and test some examples like center(c(1, 2, 3), 0) or rescale(c(1, 2, 3)).

Folder and file structure of an R package

An R package requires four components:

There are other optional components. Read the “R packages” book and/or the original “Writing R Extensions” documentation for much more information.

.R files

Functions don’t all have to be in one file or each in separate files. How you organize them is up to you. Suggestion: organize in a logical manner so that you know which file holds which functions.


We used RStudio’s import process to include the .R files we already had. However, FAIRer (because richer in metadata) DESCRIPTION files can be generated with usethis::use_description():

Package: PackageName
Type: Package
Version: 0.1.0
Title: What the Package Does (One Line, Title Case)
    person(given = "First",
           family = "Last",
           role = c("aut", "cre"),
           email = "")
Description: What the package does (one paragraph).
    Use four spaces when indenting paragraphs within the Description.
License: What license it uses
Encoding: UTF-8
LazyData: true

The package name can only contain letters and numbers and has to start with a letter.

Provide citation metadata in the DESCRIPTION file

R supports citing R packages. Have a look at the output of citation(YouRName). Does anything seem to be missing? If yes, how and where do you think we can add that information?

Assuming you have an ORCiD, you may want to associate your R package with it. Find out how to add this information, and which additional changes you can make to the DESCRIPTION file.


One useful resource to find the answer to such technical details is GitHub. Search for org:ROpenSci filename:DESCRIPTION (this restricts your search) to a community of practice and its R packages) plus 2019 or orcid for example.


The date is added in ISO 8601 format: date: 2018-07-12.

ORCiDs can only be added to machine-readable Authors@R fields that use the person(…) function. use_description() created this already, so that you can add your ORCiD as a comment = c(ORCID = "…").

In summary: Enabling citation() to convert DESCRIPTION into a rich BibTeX snippet is a side-effect of FAIR metadata for your R package.

Converting function documentation to help pages

Remember that we documented our functions with roxygen comments? Let’s try and look it up:


Why No documentation for '…' in specified packages and libraries? We did write it!

Why do you think the documentation of our package can not be found. Hint: Look at the commit diff.


We did not yet tell R to actually generate the manual files and folders in our package. This needs to be done with roxygen2::roxygenise().

After Install and Restart-ing again, looking up the documentation should work.

What exactly does roxygen2 do? It reads lines that begin with #' as the function documentation for your package. Descriptive tags are preceded with the @ symbol. For example, @param has information about the input parameters for the function.

Exporting “user-level” functions

We haven’t talked about the NAMESPACE file yet! It belongs to the package skeleton, and was set up by RStudio with an exportPattern. Any file name in R/ that matches it is automatically exported, meaning offered to users of your package in the console’s tab-completion.

If you want to publish your package, but keep some functions hidden (maybe because they only do auxiliary tasks), you can delete this default file, remove the @export tag from the auxiliary functions, and rerun roxygenise(). It’s still a good idea to retain their other roxygen tags (esp. @param & @return).

Learn more about this from the “R packages” book.

Finishing up

Please take a look at RStudio’s Files panes now. The man directory should now contain one LaTeX-like formatted .Rd file for each function.

In case you learned about Git already, also view the .Rd files in RStudio’s Git pane and commit the documentation.

How would you word the commit message?

“Add docu” is a bit moot, because that’s obvious from the filenames and contents. Which other messages would better explain the “Why?”, or that would be more useful when browsing the commit history later?


  • “roxygenise() function comments into help pages” because it mentions the command you used
  • “Integrate function documentation into R’s standard help pages”
  • “Render function documentation as R’s standard help pages”

Also, after roxygenise()-ing the function docu, you can tell R to run the examples. Using R’s example() function on another function’s name saves you from scrolling down its help page, copying the example code and pasting it into the console.


This was our basic introduction to packaging up R functions. To go on from here, remember to functionalise R code that you use repeatedly and incorporate it into your personal package. A good resource to find more guidance on packaging R code is ROpenSci’s onboarding guide.

Key Points

  • A package is the basic unit of reusability in R.

  • Every package must have a DESCRIPTION file and an R directory containing code. We have to fill these manually.

  • A FAIR DESCRIPTION means adding rich metadata, best in a machine-readable format.

  • A NAMESPACE file is needed as well, and a man directory containing documentation, but both can be autogenerated.

  • RStudio provides a package skeleton, shortcuts like Build and install, and a Git pane.