4 min read

Read the R source!

Ever heard the phrase “Read the source, Luke”? It’s a play on “Use the force, Luke” from Star Wars, with no definite source 😉 that we could find1; and it underlines how important and useful it can be to read the source code of a tool instead of just its docs.

In this blog post, we shall explain why and how to read the source code of your R tools, be they base R or packages, and how an R-hub service is part of the reason why this process has gotten easier.

Why read the source?

In which cases would you want to read the actual code of a function or of a whole package? Here are a few that come to mind:

  • You want to know what is going on, because you’re not sure of e.g. the variance definition used in that statistical thing you’re trying to use.

  • You want to build on the function/package for your own goals.

  • You’re just curious. Good for you, you’ll learn a ton. 🤓

  • You want to know how to use a given R idiom or function inside your code, so you’re trying to find examples in the wild.

How to read the source of a function/package

Sometimes, finding the source of a function might be as easy as writing its name in the console and voilà! you’ll get to read the code. Alas, this won’t always work (S3 generics, compiled code…). Jenny Bryan wrote a detailed how-to for each case, that Jim Hester automated as an R package, lookup, so all you need to do is to learn how to use lookup… as well as read its source, of course! 😉

Let’s explore its basic usage.

library("lookup")
rhub::check_for_cran

The snippet above will open the source code of the function, check-cran.R.

lookup(body)
lookup_browse()

This last snippet will first show the body of the body() function locally, and then open a browser window pointing at it in the GitHub mirror of the R source.

All in all, lookup is a handy package. 👌 How does it work under the hood? We’ll let you read its source, but part of the magic is supported by mirrors of R code hosted on GitHub:

How to search the source

What if you don’t know whose source code you’d like to read, i.e. you’d like to see how vapply() is used in the wild? That’s another case where the code mirrors mentioned previously can help you! All these mirrors are based on GitHub repos, so to use them, you can

If you only want to search for code usage on CRAN, you can… use lookup!

lookup::lookup_usage("vapply")

will open https://github.com/search?l=r&q=%22vapply%22+user%3Acran+language%3AR&ref=searchresults&type=Code&utf8=%E2%9C%93, i.e. a GitHub search URL, restricted to R-hub’s CRAN source code mirror.

Conclusion

Reading the R source is useful, and the process of finding it got smoother thanks to the lookup package. A piece of the machinery behind it is R-hub’s CRAN source code mirror, about which you can find out more in our docs. And once you’re browsing our docs, stay a while and have a look at our other free services helping R package development!


  1. We erroneously first linked to a rather recent blog post but Robert Link corrected us in a comment that we reproduce here in case the post gets separated from its comments: ”“Use the Source, Luke” goes way back before 2012, and probably even before blogs were a thing. Here’s a mention in the New Hacker’s Dictionary: http://catb.org/jargon/html/U/UTSL.html. The earliest version I’ve been able to find is from August of 1991: http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/oldversions/jarg296.txt, but I suspect it was in use long before then. “ [return]