Generating Rd files

Hadley Wickham

Roxygen process

There are three steps in the transformation from roxygen comments in your source file to human readable documentation:

  1. You add roxygen comments to your source file.
  2. roxygen2::roxygenise() converts roxygen comments to .Rd files.
  3. R converts .Rd files to human readable documentation.

The process starts when you add specially formatted roxygen comments to your source file. Roxygen comments start with #' so you can continue to use regular comments for other purposes.

#' Add together two numbers
#' @param x A number
#' @param y A number
#' @return The sum of \code{x} and \code{y}
#' @examples
#' add(1, 1)
#' add(10, 1)
add <- function(x, y) {
  x + y

For the example, above, this will generate man/add.Rd that looks like:

% Generated by roxygen2 (3.2.0): do not edit by hand
\title{Add together two numbers}
add(x, y)
  \item{x}{A number}

  \item{y}{A number}
The sum of \code{x} and \code{y}
Add together two numbers
add(1, 1)
add(10, 1)

Rd files are a special file format loosely based on LaTeX. You can read more about the Rd format in the R extensions manual. With roxygen2, there are few reasons to know about Rd files, so here I’ll avoid discussing them as much as possible, focussing instead on what you need to know about roxygen2.

When you use ?x, help("x") or example("x") R looks for an Rd file containing \alias{x}. It then parses the file, converts it into html and displays it. These functions look for an Rd file in installed packages. This isn’t very useful for package development, because you want to use the .Rd files in the source package. For this reason, we recommend that you use roxygen2 in conjunction with devtools: devtools::load_all() automatically adds shims so that ? and friends will look in the development package. Note, however, that this preview does not work with intra-package links. To preview those, you’ll need to install the package. If you use RStudio, the easiest way to do this is to click the “Build & Reload button”.


Roxygen comments start with #'. Each documentation block starts with some text which defines the title, the description, and the details. Here’s an example showing what the documentation for sum() might look like if it had been written with roxygen:

#' Sum of vector elements.
#' `sum` returns the sum of all the values present in its arguments.
#' This is a generic function: methods can be defined for it directly
#' or via the [Summary()] group generic. For this to work properly,
#' the arguments `...` should be unnamed, and dispatch is on the
#' first argument.
sum <- function(..., na.rm = TRUE) {}

This introductory block is broken up as follows:

Note that you can use markdown formatting within roxygen blocks, as long as you have the following in the DESCRIPTION:

Roxygen: list(markdown = TRUE)

We’ll discuss that more in formatting. Also note the wrapping of the roxygen block. You should make sure that your comments are less than ~80 columns wide.

Object specifics

Further details of roxygen2 depend on what you’re documenting. You use tags like @tag details. Tags must start at the beginning of a line, and the content of a tag extends to the start of the next tag (or the end of the block). The following sections describe the most commonly used tags for functions, S3, S4, and RC objects and data set.


Functions are the mostly commonly documented objects. Most functions use three tags:

We could use these new tags to improve our documentation of sum() as follows:

Indent the second and subsequent lines of a tag so that when scanning the documentation so it’s easy to see where one tag ends and the next begins. Tags that always span multiple lines (like @example) should start on a new line and don’t need to be indented.


S3 generics are regular functions, so document them as such. S3 classes have no formal definition, so document the constructor function. It is your choice whether or not to document S3 methods. You don’t need to document methods for simple generics like print(). If your method is more complicated, you should document it so people know what the parameters do. In base R, you can find documentation for more complex methods like predict.lm(), predict.glm(), and anova.glm().

Generally, roxygen2 will automatically figure the generic associated with an S3 method. It should only fail if the generic and class are ambiguous. For example is the method for all, or the data.frame method for all.equal?. If this happens, you can disambiguate with (e.g.) @method all.equal data.frame.


S4 generics are also functions, so document them as such. Document S4 classes by adding a roxygen block before setClass(). Use @slot to document the slots of the class. Here’s a simple example:

S4 methods are a little more complicated. Unlike S3, all S4 methods must be documented. You can document them in three places:

Use either @rdname or @describeIn to control where method documentation goes. See the next section for more details.


Datasets are usually stored as .rdata files in data/ and not as regular R objects in the package. This means you need to document them slightly differently: instead of documenting the data directly, you quote the dataset’s name.

There are two additional tags that are useful for documenting datasets:

To show how everything fits together, the example below is an excerpt from the roxygen block used to document the diamonds dataset in ggplot2.


As well as documenting every exported object in the package, you should also document the package itself. Relatively few packages do this, but it’s an extremely useful because instead of just listing functions like help(package = pkgname) it organises them and shows the user where to get started.

Package documentation should describe the overall purpose of the package and point out the most important functions. The title and description are automatically inherited from the DESCRIPTION, so generally you should only need to supply additional details in @details

Package documentation should be placed in pkgname.R. Here’s an example:

I recommend using @keywords internal for package documentation.

Some notes:

Package documentation is a good place to list all options() that a package understands and to document their behaviour. Put in a section called “Package options”, as described below.


You can add arbitrary sections to the documentation for any object with the @section tag. This is a useful way of breaking a long details section into multiple chunks with useful headings. Section titles should be in sentence case and must be followed by a colon. Titles may only take one line.

#' @section Warning:
#' Do not operate heavy machinery within 8 hours of using this function.

To add a subsection, you must use the Rd \subsection{} command, as follows:

#' @section Warning:
#' You must not call this function unless ...
#' \subsection{Exceptions}{
#'    Apart from the following special cases...
#' }

Sections with identical titles will be merged. This is especially useful in conjunction with the @rdname tag:

#' Basic arithmetic
#' @param x,y numeric vectors.
#' @section Neutral elements:
#'   Addition: 0.
add <- function(x, y) x + y

#' @rdname add
#' @section Neutral elements:
#'   Multiplication: 1.
times <- function(x, y) x * y

For very long documentation files, you might consider using a vignette instead.

Do repeat yourself

There is a tension between the DRY (do not repeat yourself) principle of programming and the need for documentation to be self-contained. It’s frustrating to have to navigate through multiple help files in order to pull together all the pieces you need. Roxygen2 provides three ways to avoid repeating yourself in code documentation, while assembling information from multiple places in one documentation file:


There are two tags that make it easier for people to navigate around your documentation: @seealso and @family.

@seealso allows you to point to other useful resources, either on the web <> or to other documentation with [functioname()].

If you have a family of related functions, you can use the @family <family> tag to automatically add appropriate lists and interlinks to the @seealso section. Because it will appear as “Other :”, the @family name should be plural (i.e., “model building helpers” not “model building helper”). You can make a function a member of multiple families by repeating the @family tag for each additional family. These will then get separate headings in the seealso section.

For sum, these components might look like:

Inheriting documentation from other topics

You can inherit documentation from other functions in a few ways:

All of these work recursively so you can inherit documentation from a function that has inherited it from elsewhere.

You can also inherit documentation from functions provided by another package by using pkg::source_function.

Documenting multiple functions in the same file

You can document multiple functions in the same file by using either @rdname or @describeIn tag. It’s a technique best used with care: documenting too many functions in one place leads to confusion. Use it when all functions have the same (or very similar) arguments.

@describeIn is designed for the most common cases:

It generates a new section, named either “Methods (by class)”, “Methods (by generic)” or “Functions”. The section contains a bulleted list describing each function, labelled so that you know what function or method it’s talking about. Here’s an example, documenting an imaginary new generic:

An alternative to @describeIn is @rdname. It overrides the default file name generated by roxygen and merges documentation for multiple objects into one file. This gives you complete freedom to combine documentation however you see fit. There are two ways to use @rdname. You can add documentation to an existing function:

Or, you can create a dummy documentation file by documenting NULL and setting an informative @name.

Evaluating arbitrary code

A new and powerful technique is the @eval tag. It evaluates code and treatments the result as if it was a literal roxygen tags. This makes it possible to eliminate duplication by writing functions.

Roxygen templates

Roxygen templates are R files that contain only roxygen comments and that live in the man-roxygen directory. Use @template file-name (without extension) to insert the contents of a template into the current documentation.

You can make templates more flexible by using template variables defined with @templateVar name value. Template files are run with brew, so you can retrieve values (or execute any other arbitrary R code) with <%= name %>.

Note that templates are parsed a little differently to regular blocks, so you’ll need to explicitly set the title, description and details with @title, @description and @details.

Other tags

Title, description, details

You can also use explicit @title, @description, and @details tags. This is unnecessary unless you want to have a multi-paragraph description.


Use @keywords keyword1 keyword2 ... to add standardised keywords. Keywords are optional, but if present, must be taken from the predefined list replicated in the keywords vignette.

Keywords are not very useful, except for @keywords internal. Using the internal keyword removes the function from the documentation index and is useful for functions aimed primarily at other developers, not typically users of the package.


Three other tags make it easier for the user to find documentation:

Back references

The original source location is added as a comment to the second line of each generated .Rd file in the following form:

% Please edit documentation in ...

roxygen2 tries to capture all locations from which the documentation is assembled. For code that generates R code with Roxygen comments (e.g., the Rcpp package), the @backref tag is provided. This allows specifying the “true” source of the documentation, and will substitute the default list of source files.

Use one tag per source file: