Making packages in R using devtools

Making your own package in R of functions that you commonly use can help you save an incredible amount of time in your data analysis. This lesson will briefly go over the basics of package development in R. For more information on this, I highly highly recommend the book (online and free!) R Packages written by Hadley Wickham (a prolific R package developer and creator of devtools). This book is written in a way that most novice R users (i.e. those slightly familiar with R) would be able to understand what is being explained. Check it out!

So, briefly, developing R packages is done by running:


… Or by using the menu options File -> New Project -> New Directory -> R Package in RStudio.

This creates a new directory called pkg_name (or whatever other name) along with:

Making functions

Make new R functions in the R/ folder. A simple one can be created:

sum_nums <- function(arg1, arg2) {
    arg1 + arg2

You can now access this function in the R console when developing the package by running devtools::load_all() or Ctrl-Shift-L in RStudio. Now, when you start typing sum_ you’ll see the autocompletion list the sum_nums. All new functions can be created this way.

Sometimes you need to use functions from other packages, such as dplyr or ggplot2. R packages access these differently then when running interactively. You can’t include a library() statement in your R functions. So first you do:


This will output a message to the R console, telling you how to use the dplyr package functions. It also adds dplyr to the Import section of the DESCRIPTION file. You also need to prefix dplyr:: to each dplyr function. So, if we create a new function:

filter_down <- function(cutoff = 30) {
    dplyr::filter(swiss, Agriculture < cutoff)

Hit Ctrl-Shift-L to run devtools::load_all() to access the new function. Now type in the console filter_down(40) and it will list off a filtered version of the swiss dataset.

Documenting your functions

It’s often a good idea to document your functions. Put your cursor inside the function and hit Ctrl-Shift-Alt-R. Something like this should be added to the function:

#' Title
#' @param cutoff 
#' @return
#' @export
#' @examples
filter_down <- function(cutoff = 30) {
    dplyr::filter(swiss, Agriculture < cutoff)

These tags are called roxygen document tags.

These tags are used whenever you type ?filter_down, as they are used for the help documentation. To generate the documentation files, hit Ctrl-Shift-D to run devtools::document().

Documenting your package

Depending on how complicated your package is (and even if it isn’t), it helps to write up a more descriptive documentation on how to use your package. These documentations are called vignettes. Even if no one but you will use the package, I would still recommend writing up at least an introduction since you’ll be guaranteed to forget what your package does later in the future (it’s happened to me many many times). So, to start writing up a vignette, type in the console:


This will create a vignette/ folder and an R Markdown file, where you can mix text, code, and code output for a polished tutorial on using your package. You can access this vignette when the package is installed by using:

vignette('introduction', package = 'your_package_name')

Installing your package and other bits

You can install your package by running:


This installs the package and lets you access the functions by using library() command.

There are several other bits of information for building an R package which may not get covered. These include unit testing and integration with Git/GitHub. Unit testing (via the testthat package and devtools::use_testthat()) allows you to include tests to confirm that your functions work as intended (run Ctrl-Shift-T to run devtools::test() and run the unit tests). R packages and RStudio integrate very well with Git and GitHub, so you can make use of them!