Feedback from vignette survey

January 8, 2012

(This article was first published on mages' blog, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Many thanks to all who participated in the survey about writing R package vignettes.

Following my post last Thursday the responses came in quickly in the evening and all day on Friday. Since Saturday the response rate has been decreasing constantly and I think it is time for a summary based on the 56 responses received.

Summary – Things to keep in mind for a vignette

  • Length: Trust yourself, but aim for about 20 pages.
  • Language: Don’t use language which assumes that the reader is an R and/or subject expert.
  • Structure: Include at least the following sections:
    • Examples
    • Introduction
    • Case studies
    • References

    It would be nice to include also sections on:

    • Support
    • Motivation
    • Road map
  • Examples: Use lots of examples and don’t repeat just the examples from the help pages.
  • Get inspiration from: Rcpp, reshape, plyr, vegan, and see below for more.
  • Secrets of good vignettes:
    • Provide an introduction with a clear purpose of the package.
    • Work with case studies, walk the reader through a task from start to finish.
    • Demonstrate the non-default arguments of the package functions, highlight why and when you want to change them.
    • Write briefly and concisely, but provide reference/footnotes to relevant literature and further help.
    • Provide dummy data to play with.
    • Discuss limitations.
  • What else: Potentially split the vignette into several documents, see Rcpp for an example.

About the survey participants

  • Expertise: Most participants seem to be medium to advanced R users. This is not a surprise – how else would they know about my blog or R-bloggers? Over 50% write their own functions and a further 45% create R packages.
  • Usage of vignettes: Over 75% use them often (based on ratings with 4/5 or 5/5). Thus, vignettes are worth wile writing. They are often the starting point to learn more about a new package.
  • Writing experience: About 1/5 of the participants have written vignettes themselves and about another third have published papers, but not written vignettes or help pages.


This was an interesting experiment and I am really pleased with the turn out. The survey was completed by a good mixture of people, with varied experience and it showed the value of vignettes.

My big learning point is to focus more on the non-default arguments of the key package functions. I can see, that this really helps the reader to get a better understanding of the package and will help them to apply it better to their own problems and needs.

I was surprised by the relative high request for a support section in the vignette. Over 60% say that a support section would be at least nice to have. Even 14% think it is required. I wonder, if this means just an email address for questions, a mailing list, or commercial support. I would very much appreciate your feedback, either via email or comments below the post.


About the survey participants

R version 2.14.0 (2011-10-31) • googleVis-0.2.14 • Google Terms of Use • Data Policy

R code

You can access the R code for all charts via github.

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