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Research and Statistical Support - University of North Texas

RSS Matters

You can link to the last RSS article here: Statistical Software and Windows Vista - Ed.

Can Somebody Give Me Some Help Here?
R:  A Short Guide For The Uninitiated

By  Dr. Rich Herrington, Academic Computing and User Services, CITC

R is a collection of public domain software projects, most of which are licensed under the GNU license (see CRAN).  Seasoned R users, in describing the R system to the uninitiated, usually DO NOT describe R as a "statistical package", but rather as a programming and development environment for statistical and graphical data analysis.  This declaration can have a rather "off-putting" sound to it; however, to characterize the R project (and related projects, e.g. Omega Project) as merely a "stat" package is at best an understatement, and at worst a gross  mischaracterization.  R is NOT just an amazing collection of modern data analysis and statistical modeling tools - it is something more. The R project may have started as a "stone soup" collaborative, but it has in more than 10 years time grown in both size, and respectability within the communities of both academic and practicing statisticians and computational scientists.  For example, a number of inter-disciplinary conferences have been organized to encourage the innovative use of R in training and research in the computational sciences and, in general,  various scientific disciplines. Two notable conferences are the UseR! and DSC conferences. Perhaps, to underscore the importance of this initiative from the perspective of a wider audience, it is interesting to point out that the UseR! 2006 was in part sponsored by such notable corporate entities as:  American Airlines, Merck, Wiley, Springer, Taylor and Francis (among others), and (in my mind) most importantly the American Statistical Association.   To quote the UseR! 2006 website:  "....the program will focus on: 

  • R as the `lingua franca' of data analysis and statistical computing.

  • providing a platform for R users to discuss and exchange ideas how R can be used to do statistical computations, data analysis, visualization and exciting applications in various fields.

  • giving an overview of the new features of the rapidly evolving R project......"

Surely, part of the excitement regarding R, is that the development of R has NOT only focused on the theoretical and methodological aspects of data analysis and graphical visualization.  In other words, R is NOT just a "statistical package". R bears a strong resemblance to a scripting or programming language that allows for operating system level activities.  For example, R could be thought of as having a strong resemblance in its capabilities to such indispensable operating system tools such as Perl or Bash.   The R development team (and thousands of contributors worldwide) have reused much of the GNU utilities and applications to great advantage.  Here is a listing of a few notable examples:  

This discussion of the versatility of R for system level activities might deemphasize the fact that the R system is primarily used for most researchers as a data analysis and statistical modeling tool.   Although, in previous columns,  I have emphasized the advantages in using R in an educational setting for teaching elementary and advanced statistics.  There are far more user contributed packages available covering the statistical and graphical modeling of data (there are over a thousand user contributed packages available on the CRAN website).  The "CRAN Task View" of the package content on CRAN gives a thematic view of the available packages and should help in locating information on packages that are of primary interest:

CRAN Task View

Searching Web Forums For Help Using R

Q: What About R and Windows Vista?

R has a very well developed help system which includes both windows compiled help files (CHM) and browser based HTML help files.  Additionally, many high quality manuals are provided. The user community contributes through active forums and user contributed documents and tutorials .  A number of websites feature Google searching of the archives of the many available forum websites  (e.g. Jonathon Baron's website).  With so many packages, so much functionality, and so many websites devoted to R, how is one to find help and direction that one needs during an ongoing session? Here, we will demonstrate the use of a function within R that capitalizes on R's ability to function as a web client.  In an active R session we search within the R help for the function "RSiteSearch":


First we use the help function to look for the details on the "RsiteSearch" function.   Our question concerns any discussions that might be related to the use of Windows Vista with R.  Searching on "Windows Vista" opens the default web browser and returns search results that are graded according to the degree of match with your query:


Lastly, I would like point out that my experience with the R user community has been very positive. Folks are quick to give tips and advice....but remember, as with most computer oriented user forums RTFM is mandatory if you wish to avoid being flamed.  Good luck in your forays into the world of R!.  

Web References

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