Ending the Terror of R Errors

Post provided by Paul Mensink

Last year, I introduced R to petrified first-year biology students in a set of tutorials. I quickly realised that students were getting bogged down in error messages (even on very simple tasks), so most of my time was spent jumping between students like a wayward Markov chain. I would often find a desperate face at the end of a raised hand looking hopelessly towards their R console muttering some version of “What the $%# does this mean?”. I instantly morphed from teacher to translator and our class progress was slower than a for-loop caught in the second Circle.

Error messages are often not very helpful

Error messages are often not very helpful

Fast forward to Ecology Across Borders last December in Ghent, where rOpenSci and special interest groups from the BESGfÖ and NecoV  and Methods in Ecology and Evolution  co-hosted a pre-conference R hackathon. I was elated to see that one of the challenges was focused on translating R error messages into “Plain English” (thanks to @DanMcGlinn for the original suggestion!). Continue reading