Recently, I started to seriously1 think about the tidiness of data analysis project folders, and the implications of tidying up.

I was lucky enough to talk about what I have figured out so far at the Genève R User Group. While I am not done yet with reflecting on this2, I wanted to write down my thoughts that lead to my presentation3. So what follows is just “thinking out loud”.

Presentation trailer made with Maëlle Salmon’s instructions.

What is a “project folder”?

To me a project folder is anything that contains the (R-)scripts necessary to run a data analysis and create the corresponding report. It is like a framed piece of work that you can take and place somewhere else. And probably it will take the form of the Figure from the R4DS book below:

Drawing of a table.
Adapted from Figure in R4DS book.

Ideally you should be able to take that folder as it is, run it on another computer and get the same results. Unfortunately, this is not always the case - at least with my project folders.

I think that the tidiness of a project folder, how it is structured and how it tells the user to execute what and when, correlate strongly with the whole repeatability, replicability and reproducibility aspect.

Why now?

The reason I started to dig deeper into workflow management possibilities in R, is, that I was changing jobs, and I had to clean up my old project folders from almost 5 years of analysing genetic data 😱. And so I faced this gigantic mess a bit of a mess, spread over several servers and computers, some version controlled, others not, with implemented “best practices” from different waves of trying to improve. I tried to clean up as good as I could, but I told myself that this would not happen again. At my new job I would use version control for everything and I would use something make-like (e.g. remake) to indicate the “recipe” of a project and be in control of what is recomputed and what is not4.

Why we tidy up: authority and incentive

I have a long-time interest in tidiness in general and from studying my own behaviour I came up with the theory that tidiness is only present when a) somebody tells you to do it, or b) you are rewarded for it.

Here are some examples:

  • If you want to compile an R-package you have little to no freedom in how to name folders. You must have a given folder and file structure. Otherwise it won’t compile. This dictated and unified folder structure makes it easy for R users to understand what is where in an R-package. No matter who coded it.
Drawing of a table.
R package structure. Figure from
  • If you work on several different projects at them same time, it is beneficial to have structure, so that you can quickly dive back into a project.

  • Following good practices also leaves you more time to do the fun stuff, like modelling and creating data visualisation.


I started by wondering why maintaining a tidy and coherent folder structure was so difficult for me to maintain. So I came up with a list (which is certainly going to change over time):

  • Having different places for computation (Laptop, Server1, Server2, …).
  • Not using git consistently.
  • Unclear separation of the folders data (raw input data), processed-data and output-data (results).
  • Data deliveries: data hardly ever arrives in one tidy folder, but instead comes at different time points and so poses other challenges.
  • Having many different best practices implemented: so each project would have its own set of folder names and file naming convention, leading to little overview of the analysis and its iteration steps → cleaning, modelling, visualisation, reports.
  • Using similar code in many different R scripts → redundant code.
  • Having no punishment for not cleaning up (and also not really seeing the benefit).

What I want

Then I asked myself what I want to achieve with implementing (and sticking to) something new.

  1. Making it easy for colleagues at work to rerun (and understand) the project → “repeatability”
  2. Making it easy for others to rerun and to understand the project → “reproducibility”5
  3. Making it easy for others to rerun the code with different data“replicability”

Next I looked for solutions. First I would need to use coherent folder names. Second I would need to have a file that indicates the recipe of an analysis. Third, I would implement most free floating and redundant code into functions. Fourth, I would minimise unnecessary computation by caching results. Fifth, I would start using unit tests6.

The options

There are many different ready-to-use software packages out there. I was thinking of going back to using make, that I used years ago. Then I came across {remake}, which seemed just what I needed. A colleague at work was using stu and was recommending it. But then the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics offered a course on Make-like declarative workflows with R taught by Kirill Müller, which I could not attend. Luckily, thanks to the awesome online course material, I could learn it by myself.


The presentation Make-like declarative workflows with R presented the R-package {drake} (drake = Data Frames in R for Make7).

{Drake} was created by Will Landau and reviewed by rOpenSci. On the github page it says that {drake} is a “general-purpose workflow manager for data-driven tasks”. Sounds perfect!

The way I understand it, is, that it is based on make (and overlaps with the R-package {remake}). Therefore when making a change to an analysis and re-running it, it only re-compute the dependent parts. But compared to make, {drake} is much more convenient to use. Plus it is scalable to parallel computing. And it is intuitive to use, meaning, colleagues can learn it quickly.

Getting started

Best is, to run the mini example provided in the package, and then go from there. Drake has many other examples provided, you can check them by running drake::drake_examples().

  1. install.packages("drake")
  2. Run drake::drake_example("main") → this will download a folder called main.
  3. Go to the terminal. You can look at all the files contained in main by writing tree main (this works on MacOS)
├── clean.R
├── make.R
├── raw_data.xlsx
└── report.Rmd
  1. Next, open make.R. The key functions are drake_plan() and make().
  2. Add the following bit before and after make(plan).
config <- drake_config(plan) 
  1. Run all code for a first time.
  2. Change something (e.g. the plot function).
  3. Rerun and watch the colors change in vis_drake_graph(config).
  4. Use functions readd() and loadd() to work with the produced output.
  5. checkout .drake/ folder. This is where all the cached work is stored.

By running this example, you will see that drake_plan() is used to create a recipe of the analysis and make() is used to execute that recipe. make() will create objects, such as fit and hist in the example and store them in the folder .drake/.

readd() is used to return an object from cache. This is handy when we only want to diplay an object. loadd() on the other hand is used to load an object into our session (similarly to load).

To checkout further options I recommend the slides from Christine Stawitz (presented at R-Ladies Seattle in June 2018). The slides contain a really good overview of the options {drake} provides.


I also created some tiny examples that use genetic data. It has four folders:

  1. wild-west: this is how I was structuring folders till now (this example was used to introduce the analysis during the presentation).
  2. wild-west-pro: same as 1. but with an
  3. drake: implementing 1. into drake.
  4. drake-adv: implementing 1. into a more realistic, hierarchical folder structure.

The examples use genetic data that was originally used in the crowdAI openSNP height prediction challenge. The full openSNP data set was prepared by my colleague Olivier Naret and can be downloaded here. The examples use a small subset of the full dataset that can be downloaded here.


Here are a bunch of resources that helped me understand {drake}:

But wait: drake does not care about messy folders

True! I can have a make.R file anywhere and it will still work. But I believe that the shift in logic that you have to get used to with {drake} makes you care more about folder structure.

What is next?

I am currently reading the PlosCompBio paper Good enough practices in scientific computing - great read, giving me lots of ideas!

I want to use {drake} in a more complex setting. There are also other R-packages that help with project workflows. And I should invest some time to come up with a test suite for data analysis projects.

When is the right time to tidy

At the Genève RUG meetup we were also discussing when we think is the right time to tidy up.

Project folders evolve over time. Especially in the beginning of a project, we are busy figuring things out, wrangling data, fitting models, making plots and telling people what we found out. This can take some time. But at one point we are ready to write a report.

It is probably at that stage (when we write a report) that we can “frame” that project into something that is “stable” and “portable”.

Although - I am not sure we have to wait that long. I think the benefits of {drake} (e.g. caching) already help us at an earlier stage.

Is it really worth it

I think there is a trade-off between dedicating days to tidying up and not caring about structure at all. Same with tooling. For example, if we use a tool, say make but no one else but us knows how to use it, it is going to be hard for colleagues to understand and use project folders that use make. We have to keep that balance in mind.

  1. Seriously, meaning, different from previous, half-hearted attempts.

  2. Just started reading Good enough practices in scientific computing - great paper!

  3. Thanks to Maëlle for pointing out that this is a good thing to do!

  4. And while at it, I would totally decrease my coffee consumption too and never procrastinate again 😉.

  5. The terminology is really confusing at times. I rely on this definition.

  6. Thanks to my colleague for the idea!

  7. I am still wondering how “Data Frames in R for Make” adds up to “drake” 🤔.