[R] Proposal for New R List: Criticism? Comments?

John Fox jfox at mcmaster.ca
Fri Sep 10 03:01:29 CEST 2004

Dear Bert,

I believe that you've identified an important issue -- and one that's
occasionally been discussed on this list previously -- but I'm not sure that
another email list is a good solution. Some method of indexing functions in
packages that would allow people to more easily locate them (e.g.,
author-supplied [i.e., not simply standard] keywords for each public object
in a package) seems to me a more promising approach.


> -----Original Message-----
> From: r-help-bounces at stat.math.ethz.ch 
> [mailto:r-help-bounces at stat.math.ethz.ch] On Behalf Of Berton Gunter
> Sent: Thursday, September 09, 2004 11:50 AM
> To: r-help at stat.math.ethz.ch
> Subject: [R] Proposal for New R List: Criticism? Comments?
> Folks:
> I would like to propose a new R list, tentatively labeled 
> r-contents. I wish to briefly explain the purpose and format 
> here and solicit public comments, pro or con, so feel free to 
> criticize or suggest a better name and other improvements or 
> alternatives.
> R presently consists of a suite of about a dozen core 
> recommended packages and several hundred contributed packages 
> comprising thousands -- perhaps tens of thousands -- of 
> functions. Hopefully, this will continue to grow rapidly. No 
> one can possibly keep track of all of this, and it is 
> therefore a daunting task for someone seeking specific 
> functionality to find it, especially when they are relatively 
> new to R. 
> Of course, R and CRAN (and Google and ...)  have various 
> search capabilities that help, but these are essentially 
> keyword-based and so require the searcher to guess search 
> terms that are at least reasonably close to function names 
> and keywords. A lot of the time this works, but it can be 
> tedious; some of the time one guesses wrong, and it doesn't work.
> S-Plus and much other software addresses this by providing a 
> semantically-based Contents Index (or something like it) in 
> their Help functionality. I find this quite useful, but 
> creating and maintaining such an index seems to me to be 
> extremely labor intensive, fraught with its own issues (what 
> heading should I look under?), and, I think, not a good fit 
> to the spirit and dynamics of R anyway.
> Not surprisingly, as a result, many of the questions 
> addressed to r-help are of the form: "I want to do such and 
> such. How do I do it?" While this certainly gives answers, I 
> think the breadth of r-help and its etiquette and posting 
> conventions result in an abruptness to many of our replies 
> ("Read the posting guide! Read the Help files and do what 
> they say!") that discourages many users -- especially casual 
> ones -- from posting questions, and thus may thus discourage 
> use of R. Clearly, if true, this is not a good thing; on the 
> other hand, I think that given r-help's purpose and 
> practices, many of these abrupt replies may well be 
> appropriate (I'm a curmudgeon at heart!).
> Hence, there is a mismatch between user needs and r-help 
> services. To address this mismatch, I would like to propose a 
> new list, r-contents, to essentially serve the same purpose 
> as the S-Plus Contents index. Hence, it would serve as a 
> place for users to post queries ** only ** of the form: "I 
> want to do such and such. How do I do it?" and receive 
> answers that would all be **single phrases ** of the form 
> "package suchandsuch" or "?suchandsuchfunction." No further 
> explanations regarding usage would be provided, though users 
> would be free to follow up answers with private questions to 
> the responder, although there should be no expectation of any 
> response. Queries could be framed with as much or as little 
> supporting detail as desired, with the obvious consequence 
> that a more clearly framed question would be more likely to 
> get a (better) response. No other posting conventions (aside 
> from the usual ones regarding civility and adherence to
> topic) would be expected.
> My hope is that such a list would both reduce unnecessary 
> traffic on r-help and satisfy a genuine need in a less 
> threatening way. I can certainly see downsides (I often learn 
> a lot from "How can I do this?" queries), but I think, on 
> balance, this approach might be useful. So I would like to 
> subject the idea to public scrutiny and criticism, as well as 
> the opportunity for improvement from suggested modifications 
> or alternatives. If it's useful, this will be recognized; if 
> it's not and/or no one is interested, that, too, will be made 
> manifest. I would be especially grateful for the opinions of 
> casual users or newbies, either publicly or privately.
> Cheers,
> -- Bert Gunter
> Genentech Non-Clinical Statistics
> South San Francisco, CA

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