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

Adaikalavan Ramasamy ramasamy at cancer.org.uk
Fri Sep 10 04:54:44 CEST 2004

There is another issue to be considered. Currently you need to have the
relevant packages installed before help.search() bring it up. My work
around this is to install all available packages just in case the
function I need is nestled in some non-standard packages. I also update
them rather frequently. This is clearly unattractive to some, especially
busy system administrators.

For some suggestions to this problem, see my posting at

Regards, Adai

On Fri, 2004-09-10 at 02:01, John Fox wrote:
> 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.
> Regards,
>  John
> > -----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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