Render reports directly from R scripts


This post is really about workflow. Specifically a data-science workflow, although it should be relevant for others. It will probably resonate most (if at all) with those who have some experience (mostly positive) generating reports from Rmarkdown files with knitr, but might have some gripes. Maybe not gripes, maybe just feelings of uncertainty over whether it makes sense to contain your hard work in an Rmarkdown file or an R script, or both.

Generate reports with Rmarkdown (Rmd) files

With Rmarkdown, you can generate these stylish reports with code like this.

Generate reports directly from R scripts

One can also cut out the middle-man (Rmd) and generate the exact same HTML, PDF and Word reports using native R scripts. This was news to me until this week. It’s a subtle difference, but one that I’ve found nimble and powerful in all the right places. Check this out for a quick intro.

How it works: Code as normal. Tweak the comments in your code to render the document text, headers, format, style, etc. of your report however you like. You can compile any old R script, regardless of it’s structure, but there are a lot of options at your disposal for formatting and prettifying, if that’s your thing. Then it’s a one liner to compile into a report:


Rmarkdown vs R

  • Rmd != R: You can’t source an Rmarkdown file like you would an R script. I have no doubt there are tools that exist (or can be easily developed) to strip the code chunks from an Rmarkdown file, but this seems cumbersome.

  • Competing incentives: presentation vs. workflow: When you’ve got tons of code chunks with just a few lines each, it can be annoying to test your code without knitting (compiling) your entire document. I often purposely keep chunks big to facilitate running blocks of selected code interactively. This makes for smooth coding, but slightly more obtuse documents. One strategy I’ve tried is to “Rmarkdownify” my code only after I’ve thoroughly developed and tested it… but then when it comes time to re-examine, change or pipe code someplace else, you’ve got this Rmarkdown document to overhaul. And in my work (many more parts analysis than development), I’m rarely ever done or know when I’m done.

  • No need to duplicate Rmd and R scripts: Say you’re writing some data wrangling code that pulls from a handful of data sources, merges them all together, aggregates, scales and transforms them into an analytics ready dataset. You want to document this process… but you also want to be able to pipe this piece of ETL code elsewhere. I’ve been tempted in the past to maintain both a bare-bones R script and a verbose flowery Rmd file describing the process. This keeps both the developers (on your team or within yourself) happy and the consumers of your analysis happy… but it will probably drive you crazy maintaining two versions of more-or-less the same thing. With an R script formatted with markdown-style comments, you might be able to get the two birds with one stone.

  • Run-time: This isn’t very well addressed by either method, but I certainly find it easier to work with bigger data anything computationally intensive using native R scripts. When I knit a big Rmarkdown script, I often cross my fingers and hope it doesn’t bug 95% through and I have to start over. By default, knitting .Rmd files does not persist objects to the Global Environment, although I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a way to change this.

  • All pros, no cons: If you’re working on a team that doesn’t want to use knitr and Rmarkdown, no matter. Your team members might gaze at seemingly strange comments in your R scripts, but they can run, read, edit and pipe your code as if it was their own. You can even compile their code into reports. This will essentially just separate code from output and plots printed to the console. It might not be the prettiest, but it sure beats saving off graphics and results and copying and pasting into slides somewhere. And I find it’s easier to find your chart, finding, or what-have-you in a compiled document than within a script where you have to run code, dependencies and likely muddle up the current environment in which you’re working.

Rendered report in the flesh

All the features I’m used to using with Rmarkdown documents worked when embedded in native R scripts.

The script below (also here) generates this html document (below).

HTML report generated by R script below

R script that generates the html report above

This is perhaps not a great example of how a typical R script would look. A typical R script/document would probably have significantly more code and less comments. However, I know how code appears in a report – my purpose is really to test the markdown functionality.

#' ---
#' title: Sample HTML report generated from R script
#' author: Andrew Brooks
#' date: March 4, 2015
#' output:
#'    html_document:
#'      toc: true
#'      highlight: zenburn
#' ---

#' ## Generate document body from comments
#' All the features from markdown and markdown supported within .Rmd documents, I was able to
#' get from within R scripts.  Here are some that I tested and use most frequently:  
#' * Smart comment fomatting in your R script generate the body and headers of the document
#'     * Simply tweak your comments to begin with `#'` instead of just `#`  
#' * Create markdown headers as normal: `#' #` for h1, `#' ##` for h2, etc.
#' * Add two spaces to the end of a comment line to start a new line (just like regular markdown)
#' * Add `toc: true` to YAML frontmatter to create a table of contents with links like the one at the 
#' top of this page that links to h1, h2 & h3's indented like so:
#'     * h1
#'         * h2
#'             * h3
#' * Modify YAML to change syntax highlighting style (I'm using zenburn), author, title, theme, and all the good stuff
#' you're used to setting in Rmd documents.
#' * Sub-bullets like the ones above are created by a `#' *` with 4 spaces per level of indentation.
#' * Surround text with `*` to *italicize*  
#' * Surround text with `**` to **bold**  
#' * Surround text with `***` to ***italicize & bold***  
#' * Skip lines with `#' <br>`
#' * Keep comments in code, but hide from printing in report with `#' <!-- this text will not print in report -->`  
#' * Add hyperlinks:
#'     * [Rmarkdown cheatsheet](
#'     * [Rmarkdown Reference Guide](
#'     * [Compiling R notebooks from R Scripts](

# comments without the extra tick show up like this.  And get included in code blocks
# loading mtcars data

#' ## Messing with data

#' ### 3 ways to print an object
#' ...specifically a data.frame in this case.  Ordered from least to most pretty (in my opinion).

#' including `#+ results='asis'` chunk option for formatting
#+ results='asis'

#' ### Plotting
plot(mtcars$mpg, mtcars$disp, col=mtcars$cyl, pch=19)

#' We can change the chunk options we would use for a code block using `knitr` by using a comment that starts with `#+`.
#' For example, to change the plot size, we can specify `#+ fig.width=4, fig.height=4` before plotting.  
#' <br>
#' A new chunk is automatically generated (chunk settings reset) whenever we add document text with `#'` or change.
#' However, it is possible to specify global chunk options, if desired.
#' chunk options again with `#+`.  

#' `#+ fig.width=4, fig.height=4` <!-- simply for illustrative purposes in the document-->
#+ fig.width=4, fig.height=4
plot(mtcars$mpg, mtcars$disp, col=mtcars$cyl, pch=19)

#' Small plots often render with strange resolution and relative sizings of labels, axes, etc.  The `dpi` chunk option can be used 
#' to fix this.  Just be sure to adjust the fig.width and fig.height accordingly.
#' **Bad plot: ** `#+ fig.width=2, fig.height=2`
#+ fig.width=2, fig.height=2

#' **Good plot: ** `#+ fig.width=4, fig.height=4, dpi=50`
#+ fig.width=4, fig.height=4, dpi=50

#' Generate a series of plots from a loop
#+ fig.width=3, fig.height=3
for(i in 1:ncol(mtcars)) hist(mtcars[,i], breaks=40, xlab='', main=names(mtcars)[i])

#' ### Let's build a random forest model  
#' ... and explore some model output.  First here's a big chunk of text from the random forest documentation:  
#' <br>
#' **Random forest documentation:**  
#' randomForest implements Breiman's random forest algorithm (based on Breiman and Cutler's original Fortran code) 
#' for classification and regression. It can also be used in unsupervised mode for assessing proximities among data points.  
#' <br>
#' **Note:**  
#' The forest structure is slightly different between classification and regression. For details on how the trees are stored, see the help page for getTree.    
#' <br>
#' If xtest is given, prediction of the test set is done “in place” as the trees are grown. If ytest is also given, and do.trace is set to some positive integer, 
#' then for every do.trace trees, the test set error is printed. Results for the test set is returned in the test component of the resulting randomForest object. 
#' For classification, the votes component (for training or test set data) contain the votes the cases received for the classes. If norm.votes=TRUE, the fraction 
#' is given, which can be taken as predicted probabilities for the classes.  
#' <br>
#' For large data sets, especially those with large number of variables, calling randomForest via the formula interface is not advised: There may be too 
#' much overhead in handling the formula.  
#' <br>
#' The “local” (or casewise) variable importance is computed as follows: For classification, it is the increase in percent of times a case is OOB 
#' and misclassified when the variable is permuted. For regression, it is the average increase in squared OOB residuals when the variable is permuted.  

# OK. now let's actually use random.forest
mtcars$am <- as.factor(mtcars$am)
rf <- randomForest(am~., ntree=100, data=mtcars)

#' Here's the resulting confusion matrix on the training data.  Not very clear to a non-technical or non-forest savvy audience.

#' ### Dynamic comments
#' We can get fancy and actually dynamically generate some commentary around these results.  That is we can auto-fill parts of our document text
#' with objects from the R environment.  This could be useful with analyses that involve stochastic 
#' elements changing from run to run like random forest.  Or any analysis where results are subject to change.    
#' <br>  
#' `r rf$confusion[1,1]` cars are correctly classified as 0.  
#' `r rf$confusion[2,2]` cars are correctly classified as 1.  
#' `r rf$confusion[1,2]` cars are misclassified as 1.  
#' `r rf$confusion[2,1]` cars are misclassified as 0.  
#' These numbers were generated by wrapping the R expression to excute into the ticks like so: 
#' I don't know how to write this within a `#'` comment without evaluating it, so I'm documenting here as a
#' character string:  
#+ echo=F, eval=T
cat("#' `r rf$confusion[2,1]` cars are misclassified as 0. ")
#' <br>
#' ### Generate comments in a loop
#' This is useful if you want to generate lots of text without writing it manually.  

#' `#+ results='asis'`
#+ results='asis'
for (i in 1:10) {
  rf <- randomForest(am~., ntree=100, data=mtcars)
  cat("iteration ",i, ": ", rf$confusion[1,1], "cars are correctly classified as 0", "\n")

#' ## Toggle chunk settings globally by R variables
#' Much like we used R objects to dynamically generate text to print in the document (in the form of comments),
#' we can use R objects to dynamically specify chunk options.  

#' When we set `evaluateStuff` to `TRUE` or `FALSE`, the following 3 chunks will evaluate (or not) as we choose.
#' We can toggle them all with one variable, instead of manually changing the chunk settings with `#+ eval=T`
#' in the R script multiple times.  Simply
#' include the variable you want to execute in the chunk comments with ticks.   
#' Like so:  **#+ eval=\`evaluateStuff\`**

evaluateStuff <- T

#+ eval=`evaluateStuff`
cat('first thing to evaluate')
#+ eval=`evaluateStuff`
cat('second thing to evaluate')
#+ eval=`evaluateStuff`
cat('third thing to evaluate')

#' <br>
#' Now let's just print the code and not evaluate anything.
evaluateStuff <- F

#+ eval=`evaluateStuff`
cat('first thing to evaluate')
#+ eval=`evaluateStuff`
cat('second thing to evaluate')
#+ eval=`evaluateStuff`
cat('third thing to evaluate')

#' ## Converting R Script to HTML/PDF  
#' If you did everyhing right, above this is the easy part.  Simply render the script as desired with the `render` function from `rmarkdown`.  

#' `rmarkdown::render('/Users/you/Documents/yourscript.R')`