Package Guidelines

This page gives details concerning guiding principles and formatting required for Bioconductor packages. See also Package Submission for an overview of the submission process and what is expected as a Bioconductor maintainer.


The Bioconductor project promotes high-quality, well documented, and interoperable software. These guidelines help to achieve this objective; they are not meant to put undue burden on package authors, and authors having difficultly satisfying guidelines should seek advice on the bioc-devel mailing list.

Package maintainers are urged to follow these guidelines as closely as possible when developing Bioconductor packages.

General instructions for producing packages can be found in the Writing R Extensions manual, available from within R (RShowDoc("R-exts")) or on the R web site.

Remember these are the minimum requirements for package acceptance and the package will still be subject to other guidelines below and a formal technical review by a Bioconductor team member.

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General Package Development

Version of Bioconductor and R

Package developers should always use the devel version of Bioconductor when developing and testing packages to be contributed.

Depending on the R release cycle, using Bioconductor devel may or may not involve also using the devel version of R. See the how-to on using devel version of Bioconductor for up-to-date information.

Correctness, Space and Time

  1. Bioconductor packages must minimally pass R CMD build (or R CMD INSTALL --build) and pass R CMD check with no errors and no warnings using a recent R-devel. Authors should also try to address all notes that arise during build or check.1

  2. Packages must also pass R CMD BiocCheck with no errors and no warnings. The BiocCheck package is a set of tests that encompass Bioconductor Best Practices. Every effort should be made to address any notes that arise during this build or check.1

  3. Do not use filenames that differ only in case, as not all file systems are case sensitive.

  4. The source package resulting from running R CMD build should occupy less than 4MB on disk.

  5. The package should require less than 5 minutes to run R CMD check --no-build-vignettes. Using the --no-build-vignettes option ensures that the vignette is built only once.2

  6. Vignette and man page examples should not use more than 3GB of memory since R cannot allocate more than this on 32-bit Windows.

  7. For software packages, individual files must be <= 5MB. This restriction exists even after the package is accepted and added to the _Bioconductor_ repository.

  8. The raw package directory should not contain unnecessary files, system files, or hidden files such as .DS_Store, .project, .git, cache file, log files, .Rproj, .so, etc.. These files may be present in your local directory but should not be commited to git (see .gitignore).

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The DESCRIPTION file must be properly formatted. The following section will review some important notes regarding DESCRIPTION fields and associated files.

  1. “Package:” field: This is the name of the package. This should match the github repository name and is case sensitive. A package name should be descriptive and not already exist as a current package (case-insensitive) in Bioconductor or CRAN. Avoid names that are easily confused with existing package names, or that imply a temporal (e.g., ExistingPackage2) or qualitative (e.g., ExistingPackagePlus) relationship. An easy way to check whether your name is already in use is to check that the following command fails

     ## try http:// if https:// URLs are not supported
  2. “Title:” field: Have a brief but descriptive Title

  3. “Version:” field: All Bioconductor packages use an x.y.z version scheme. See Version Numbering for specifics to how the release and devel Bioconductor versioning proceeds. When first submitted to Bioconductor, a package should have pre-release version 0.99.0. The following rules apply:

    • x is usually 0 for packages that have not yet been released.
    • y is even for packages in release, and odd for packages in devel. Generally, do not bump this number especially in pre-release.
    • z is incremented whenever committing changes to a package.
  4. “Description:” field: The description should be a relatively short but detailed overview of what the package functionality entails. It should be one or more complete sentences.

  5. “Authors@R or Author/Maintainer:” fields: Use either Authors@R field or Author: and Maintainer: fields, not both. A maintainer designation is required with an actively maintained email. This email will be used for contact regarding an issues that arise with your package in the future.

  6. “License:” field: should preferably refer to a standard license (see wikipedia) using one of R’s standard specifications. Be specific about any version that applies (e.g., GPL-2). Core Bioconductor packages are typically licensed under Artistic-2.0. To specify a non-standard license, include a file named LICENSE in your package (containing the full terms of your license) and use the string “file LICENSE” (without the double quotes) in this “License:” field. The package should contain only code that can be redistributed according to the package license. Be aware of the licensing agreements for packages you are depending on in your package. Not all packages are open source even if they are publicly available.

  7. “LazyData:” field: For packages that include data, we recommend not including LazyData: TRUE. This rarely proves to be a good thing. In our experience it only slows down the loading of packages with large data.

  8. “Depends/Imports/Suggests/Enhances:” fields:

    • All packages must be available via Bioconductor or CRAN; users and the automated build system have no way to install packages from other sources.
    • Reuse, rather than re-implement or duplicate, well-tested functionality from other packages. Make use of appropriate existing packages (e.g., biomaRt, AnnotationDbi, Biostrings) and classes (e.g., SummarizedExperiment, GRanges, Rle, DNAStringSet), and avoid duplication of functionality available in other Bioconductor packages. See Common Bioconductor Methods and Classes. Bioconductor Reviewers are very strict on this point! New packages should be interoperable with existing Bioconductor classes and not reimplement functionality especially with regards to importing/reading data.
    • A package can be listed only once between Depends/Imports/Suggests/Enhances. Determine placement of package based on the following guidelines:

      • Imports: is for packages that provide functions, methods, or classes that are used inside your package name space. Most packages are listed here.
      • Depends: is for packages that provide essential functionality for users of your package, e.g., the GenomicRanges package is listed in the Depends: field of GenomicAlignments. It is unusual for more than three packages to be listed as ‘Depends:’.
      • Suggests: is for packages used in vignettes or examples, or in conditional code.
      • Enhances: is for packages such as Rmpi or parallel that enhance the performance of your package, but are not strictly needed for its functionality.
  9. “SystemRequirements:” field: This field is for listing any external software which is required, but not automatically installed by the normal package installation process. If the installation process is non-trivial, a top-level README file should be included to document the process.

  10. “biocViews:” field: REQUIRED! Specify one or more biocViews categories. Multiple terms are encouraged but terms must come from the same package type (Software, AnnotationData, ExperimentData, Workflow).

  11. “BugReports:” field: It is encouraged to include the relevant links to Github for reporting Issues.

  12. “URL:” field: This field directs users to source code repositories, additional help resources, etc; details are provided in “Writing R Extensions”, RShowDoc("R-exts").

  13. “Video:” field: This field displays links to instructional videos.

  14. “Collates:” field: This may be necessary to order class and method definitions appropriately during package installation.

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A Namespace file defines the functions, classes, and methods that are imported into the name space, and exported for users. Bioconductor reviewers will be looking for:

  1. Exported functions should use camel case or underscoring and not include “.” indicate S3 dispatch.

  2. Generally importFrom() is encouraged over importing an entire package, however if there are many functions from a single package, import() is okay.

  3. Exporting all functions with exportPattern("^[[:alpha:]]+") is strongly discouraged.

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A NEWS file should be included to keep track of changes to the code from one version to the next. It can be a top level file or in the inst/ directory. Specifics on formatting can be found on the help page for ?news. Bioconductor uses the NEWS file to create the semi-annual release announcement. It must include list elements and cannot be a plain text file. An example format:

Changes in version 0.99.0 (2018-05-15)
+ Submitted to Bioconductor

Changes in version 1.1.1 (2018-06-15)
+ Fixed bug. Begin indexing from 1 instead of 2
+ Made the following significant changes
  o added a subsetting method
  o added a new field to database

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Appropriate citations must be included in help pages (e.g., in the see also section) and vignettes; this aspect of documentation is no different from any scientific endeavor. The file inst/CITATION can be used to specify how a package is to be cited.

Whether or not a CITATION file is present, an automatically-generated citation will appear on the package landing page on the Bioconductor web site. For optimal formatting of author names (if a CITATION file is not present), specify the package author and maintainer using the Authors@R field as described in Writing R Extensions.

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Including Data

An excellent practice is to develop a software package, and to provide or use an existing experiment data package, annotation data or data in the ExperimentHub or AnnotationHub to give a comprehensive illustration of the methods in the software package.

If existing data is not available or applicable, or a new smaller dataset is needed for examples in the package, data can be included either as a separate data package (for larger amounts of data) or within the package (for smaller datasets).

Additional Experiment Data Package

Experimental data packages contain data specific to a particular analysis or experiment. They often accompany a software package for use in the examples and vignettes and in general are not updated regularly. If you need a general subset of data for workflows or examples first check the AnnotationHub resource for available files (e.g., BAM, FASTA, BigWig, etc.). Bioconductor encourages creating an experiment data package that utilizes ExperimentHub or AnnotationHub (See Creating an Experiment Hub Package or Creating an Annotation Hub Package) but a traditional package that encapsulates the data is also okay. See the Package Submission package for submitting related packages.

Adding Data to Existing Package

Bioconductor strongly encourages the use of existing datasets but if not available data can be included directly in the package for use in the examples found in man pages, vignettes, and tests of your package. This is a good reference by Hadley Wickham concerning data. As mentioned Bioconductor, however does not encourage using LazyData: True despite its recommendataion in this article. Some key points are summarized below.

Exported Data and the data/ Directory

Data in data/ is exported to the user and readily available. It is made available in an R session through the use of data(). It will require documentation concerning its creatation and source information. It is most often a .RData file created with save() but other types are acceptible as well, see ?data(). Please remember to compress the data.

Raw Data and the inst/extdata/ Directory

It is often desirable to show a workflow which involves parsing or loading of raw files. Bioconductor recommends finding existing raw data already provided in another package or the hubs, however if this is not applicable, raw data files should be included in the inst/extdata. Files of these type are often accessed utilizing system.file(). Bioconductor requires documentation on these files in an inst/script/ directory.

Internal Data

Rarely, a package may require parsed data that is used internal but should not be exported to the user. An R/sysdata.rda is often the best place to include this type of data.

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Package Documentation

Package documentation is important for users to understand how to work with your code. Bioconductor requires a vignette with executable code that demonstrates how to use the package to accomplish a task, man pages for all exported functions with runnable examples, well documented data structures especially if not a pre-exiting class, and well documented datasets for data in data and in inst/extdata. References to the methdos used as well as to other simlar or related project/packages is also expected. If data structures differ from similar packages, Bioconductor reviewers will expect some justification as to why. Keep in mind it is always possible to extend existing classes.


A vignette demonstrates how to accomplish non-trivial tasks embodying the core functionality of your package. There are two common types of vignettes. A Sweave vignette is an .Rnw file that contains LaTeX and chunks of R code. The R code chunk starts with a line «»=, and ends with @. Each chunk is evaluated during R CMD build, prior to LaTeX compilation to a PDF document. An R markdown vignette is similar to a Sweave vignette, but uses markdown instead of LaTeX for structuring text sections and resulting in HTML output. The knitr package can process most Sweave and all R markdown vignettes, producing pleasing output. Refer to Writing package vignettes for technical details. See the BiocStyle package for a convenient way to use common macros and a standard style.

A vignette provides reproducibility: the vignette produces the same results as copying the corresponding commands into an R session. It is therefore essential that the vignette embed executed R code. short-cuts (e.g., using a LaTeX verbatim environment, or using the Sweave eval=FALSE flag, or equivalent tricks in markdown) undermine the benefit of vignettes and are generally not allowed; exceptions can be made with proper justification and are at the Bioconductor Reviewers discretion.

All packages are required to have at least one vignette. Vignettes go in the vignettes directory of the package. Vignettes are often used as stand-alone documents, so best practices are to include an informative title, the primary author of the vignette, the last modified date of the vignette, and a link to the package landing page. We encourage the use of BiocSytle for formatting.

Some best coding practices for Biocondcutor vigenttes are as follow:

  1. Add an “Introduction” section that serves as an abstract to introduce the objective, models, unique functions, key points, etc that distinguish the package from other packages of similar type.

  2. Add an “Installation” section that show to users how to download and load the package from Bioconductor.

  3. If appropriate, we strongly encourage a table of contents

  4. Non-trival executable code is a must!!! Static vignettes are not acceptable.

  5. Include a section with the SessionInfo()

  6. Only the vignette file (.Rnw or .Rmd) and any necessary static images should be in the vignette directory. No intermediate files should be present.

  7. Remember to include any relavent references to methods.

‘man’ Pages

All exported functions and classes will have a man page. Bioconductor also encourages having a package man page with an overview of the package and links to the main functions. Data man pages must include source information and data structure information. Man pages describing new classes must be very detailed on the structure and what type of information is stored. All man pages should have an runnable examples. See Writing R Extensions section on man pages for detailed instruction or format information for documenting a package, functions, classes, and data sets. All help pages should be comprehensive.

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The scripts in this directory can vary. Most importantly if data was included in the inst/extdata/, a related script must be present in this directory documenting very clearly how the data was generated. It should include source urls and any important information regarding filtering or processing. It can be executible code, sudo code, or a text description. A user should be able to download and be able to roughly reproduce the file or object that is present as data.

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Unit Tests

Unit tests are highly recommended. We find them indispensable for both package development and maintenance. Two of the main frameworks for testing are RUnit and testthat. Examples and explanations are provided here.

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R Code and Best Practices

Everyone has their own coding style and formats. There are however some best practice guidelines that Bioconductor will look for (see coding style). There are also some other key points:

  1. Only contain code that can be distributed under the license specified.

  2. Many common coding and sytax issues are flagged in R CMD check, and R CMD BiocCheck. (see the R CMD check cheatsheet and BiocCheck vignette. Some of the more promenient offenders:

    • Use vapply() instead of sapply() and use the various apply functions instead of for loops.
    • Use seq_len() or seq_along() instead of 1:...
    • Use TRUE/FALSE instead of T/F
    • Avoid class()== and class()!= instead use is()
    • Use system2() instead of system
    • Do not use set.seed in any internal R code.
    • No browser() calls should be in code
    • Avoid the use of <<-.
    • Avoid use of direct slot access with @ or slot(). Accessor methods should be created and utilized
  3. Some additional formatting and syntax guidelines

    • Use <- instead of = for assignment
    • Function names should be camel case or utilize the underscore _ and not have a dot . which indicates S3 dispatch.
    • Use to start a graphics drive if necessary. Avoid using x11() or X11() for it can only be called on machines that have access to an X server.
  4. Avoid re-implementing functionality or classes. Make use of appropriate existing packages (e.g., biomaRt, AnnotationDbi, Biostrings, GenomicRanges) and classes (e.g., SummarizedExperiment, AnnotatedDataFrame, GRanges, DNAStringSet) to avoid duplication of functionality available in other Bioconductor packages. See also Common Bioconductor Methods and Classes. This encourages interoperability and simplifies your own package development. If new representation is needed, see the Essential S4 interface section of Robust and Efficient Code.

  5. Avoid large chunks of repeated code. If code is being repeated this is generally a good indication a helper function could be implemented.

  6. Excessively long functions should also be avoided. Write small functions. It’s best if each function has only one job that needs to do. And it’s also best if it does that job in as few lines of code as possible. If you find yourself writing great big functions that wrap on for more than a screen then you should probably take a moment to split it up into smaller helper functions. Smaller functions are easier to read, debug and to reuse.

  7. Argument names to functions should be descriptive and well documented. Arguments should generally have default values. Check arguments against a validity check.

  8. Vectorize! Many R operations are performed on the whole object, not just the elements of the object (e.g., sum(x), not x[1] + x[2] + x[2] + ...). In particular, relatively few situations require an explicit for loop. See the Vectorize section of Robust and Efficient Code for additional detail.

  9. Follow guiding principles on Querying Web Resources if applicable

  10. For parallel implementation please use BiocParallel. See also the Parallel Recommendations section of Robust and Efficient Code.

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C or Fortran code

If the package contains C or Fortran code, it should adhere to the standards and methods described in the System and foreign language interfaces section of the Writing R Extensions manual. In particular:

Third-party code

Use of external libraries whose functionality is redundant with libraries already supported is strongly discouraged. In cases where the external library is complex the author may need to supply pre-built binary versions for some platforms.

By including third-party code a package maintainer assumes responsibility for maintenance of that code. Part of the maintenance responsibility includes keeping the code up to date as bug fixes and updates are released for the mainline third-party project.

For guidance on including code from some specific third-party sources, see the external code sources section of the C++ Best Practices guide.

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The .gitignore File

Bioconductor requires a git repository for submission. There are certain system files that should not be git tracked and are unacceptable to include. These files can remain on a local system but should be excluded from the git repository which is possible by including a .gitignore file.

The following are files that are checked by Bioconductor and flagged as unacceptable:

hidden_file_ext = (
    ".renviron", ".rprofile", ".rproj", ".rproj.user", ".rhistory",
    ".rapp.history", ".o", ".sl", ".so", ".dylib", ".a", ".dll",
    ".def", ".ds_store", "unsrturl.bst", ".log", ".aux", ".backups",
    ".cproject", ".directory", ".dropbox", ".exrc", ".gdb.history",
    ".gitattributes", ".gitmodules", ".hgtags", ".project", ".seed",
    ".settings", ".tm_properties"


The following exercise [How to Build Bioconductor Package with RStudio][] may also be helpful.

Remember that every Bioconductor package goes through a formal review process and may still receive technical feedback from the assigned Bioconductor Team Reviewer. An overview of the submission process may be found here and a package may be submitted to the new package tracker.

  1. The Bioconductor team member assigned to review the package during the submission process will expect all ERROR, WARNINGS, and NOTES to be addressed. If there are any remaining, a justification of why they are not corrected will be expected.  2

  2. This is true for Software Packages. Experiment Data, Annotation, and Workflow packages are allowed additional space and check time. 

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