A genomicist friend of mine asked me what the best way to make sure code used for biological analyses would be useful for other people. I started to respond, then realized the subject was way to big to explain clearly with a phone keyboard and might be helpful outside of just her case. Hence this blog post.

I plan on splitting the subject into three posts: things one must do, things one should do, and things that are nice to do. This first post will focus on the “Must do” category.

I did an undergrad in a CS program, and I’m two years into a computational biology PhD. The past few years have been enough time to make a ton of mistakes, which will inform these posts. That being said, this list is likely not comprehensive or entirely correct. If you disagree or have something to add, feel free to DM me on twitter or email me to tell me about how I’m wrong.

Table of Contents:

Must Dos


To do reproducible research it is helpful to think about your code as a part of your methods section. There are a lot of small details that if omitted make your research difficult or impossible for others to reproduce. Unfortunately it isn’t immediately obvious what several of these are. The following sections consist of various ways that I have failed to write useful code, which are shared with you so you can avoid the same fate.

Version Control

Version control is listed first, because it is the first thing to do in any project. When creating the folder that contains your project, initialize a version control system such as git. In computational projects version control acts a lot like a lab notebook. If you are making a commit each time you add a feature or an analysis, you end up with a record of what you did and when you did it.

I have wasted a lot of time in the past by not using version control in small projects. I will frequently make a mistake that breaks everything, or not remember how to do something in code that I deleted. If I spent the few extra seconds to commit my code, I could have saved hours of time rewriting things.

From a reproducibility perspective, version control lets people run the same code you ran. Even if you change your code later, you can specify a timestamp or commit to show people the exact analysis you ran.

Further Reading

Atlassian has good tutorials for how to set up and use git as a version control system.

Hosting your code in the cloud leads to easier backups and sharing. GitHub, GitLab, and BitBucket are all good ways to do this. I personally use Github, and a tutorial for how to do so is here.

If you aren’t comfortable with the command line GitHub has an app that keeps you from having to use it.

Recording Data Access

Keeping track of what data you use is surprisingly difficult in biological projects. In an ideal world you would include yourd data with your code, but large datasets and patient privacy make doing so difficult in many cases. Every project is different, and I don’t have a single answer for the best way to make your data available. Instead, this section covers a number of options and things to think about.

Data Access on the Web

When working with publicly available data, you will likely have a website or other easy interface to download your data. I encourage you not to use it.

If your dataset is contained in a single file, it is better to write a simple script like the one below to download it. By writing a download script instead of manually writing out instructions for how to find the file, you can ensure that someone reproducing your work has the same data.


curl <URL of the data file> -o <location you want the data to be saved to>

Datasets are often not a single file though. Not to fear, the websites providing such datasets typically have a way to interact with them programmatically! For example, the NCBI has an API for accessing assorted genetic information.

Taking the time to learn how to access data programmatically is a valuable investment. I’ve accidentally deleted entire directories on more than one occasion. If I hadn’t backed up my code and my method for redownloading data, it would have been a week long setback. Instead, it only took a couple hours to get everything back to how it was.

Private Data

Due to patient privacy regulations, you may generate data that you can’t make publicly available. In these cases it is important to document in your README file precisely what data you used and when you accessed it. Failing to do so makes it difficult or impossible for others to reproduce your analysis.

Large Datasets

It can be difficult to share data with others when you have generated a large dataset. Zenodo is the best way I know of. It’s a free large datastore hosted by CERN explicitly for researchers to share code and data. You can also get a DOI for your dataset and code, allowing others to cite your dataset even if it doesn’t have an associated paper.

Git Large File Storage can also be used to keep your data with your code, but the free storage limit is a single gigabyte. If your data falls within that limit, you can use it to save the step of setting up a Zenodo record. You won’t be able to get a DOI in that case though.

Further Reading

Rachael Tatman has a great guide going deeper into how to structure your code and data. Her guide also contains a number of stylistic notes that might be useful and information on how to upload data to Kaggle, which is another place you can store your project.

Library Management

Installing libraries (or packages or modules, depending on your language of choice) is a great way to add functionality to your code without having to implement it yourself. Most analyses will use libraries not installed by default though. Consequently, it is necessary to specify the location and versions of these packages.

You might be asking “Ben, shouldn’t helping users install libraries be in the Should Do section, not the Must Do section?”. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There’s no requirement for libraries to keep the same functions when they change versions. If you specify a library without a version, someone might have to manually install the past ten versions one at a time just to get your code to run. Additionally, if there are dependencies between the libraries you’re including, finding the right version gets multiplicatively harder. I’ve played games of Library Version Battleship in the past, and I don’t wish the same fate on the scientists of the future.

The best way to handle packages is language dependant. I’ll cover Python and R since they’re the most commonly used languages in biology (sorry Perl people).


There are two main schools of thought in Python package management. One uses venv and pip to handle dependencies. Under this system packages are installed using pip and which packages are used for a given project is determined by the venv virtual environment. There are good tutorials on how to use venv and pip, so I won’t go over that here. The key part for reproducibility is the requirements.txt file. The requirements.txt file lists which versions of which packages you are using, allowing others to install the same libraries with a single pip install -r requirements.txt command.

The second school of thought combines virtual environments and package installation together into a single tool called Conda. In addition to combining two tools together, Conda also has the ability to manage your R and Python packages simultaneously (sometimes). Again, there are many tutorials on exactly how to use Conda so I won’t get into it. The part to ensure you have for the sake of reproducibility is the environment.yml file, which plays the same role that the requirements.txt file did in pip.

Regardless of which system you choose, the important part is that you keep the your requirements.txt or environment.yml file up to date.


I am by no means an expert on R. That being said, I frequently find myself needing to use libraries from R in a largely python-based analysis. While Conda works well for this, it can be difficult to find the correct channels for R libraries. If your project is entirely R-based, a more R-oriented package manager might be better.

As far as I can tell, Packrat seems to be the best one. It keeps track of which libraries you have installed in a given directory, and allows you to share the library information and your code with the packrat::bundle() command. Details on its usage can be found on its website.

Further Reading

  • If you don’t want to use the command line, Anaconda Navigator is a graphical user interface that lets you do the same things as standard Conda.
  • If you’re an RStudio user, this tutorial on Packrat will probably be more useful to you than the one linked above.

Random seeds

Many algorithms ubiquitous in biology use randomness so that they finish running prior to the heat death of the universe. While such efficiency is a desirable property in a program, it also causes different results each time the program is run. Thankfully random number generators on computers aren’t truly random, they draw from a list of pseudorandom numbers. As a result, you can pick a location on that list to start picking numbers from. This location is called a random seed.

How to set your random seeds depends on the program. Often standalone programs will have an option to set their seed via a command line argument. In Python, you can set your random seeds with the code below, though be aware that many libraries like NumPy, Scikit-Learn, TensorFlow, and PyTorch will require their own seeds to be set.

import random


In R, you set the random seed as follows:


Setting random seeds might seem like an inconsequential thing, but it is nearly impossible to reproduce the results of your research if you don’t know what seed was set at runtime. Pixar actually ran into this problem when converting Finding Nemo into 3D, so if you’re waffling on whether to set all your random seeds, just do it for Nemo.

Manual steps

A few weeks ago someone opened an issue on one of my GitHub repositories. Their comment said something to the effect of “Your code opens a file with this function, but that shouldn’t work if the file is actually in the format you stated.” Upon examining the code I realized that they were correct, my code shouldn’t work. I then had to think back to design decisions I had made four years prior to figure out why I did what I did. It turns out that I had written a one-liner to convert the format of all my data files, but never bothered to record it as a script.

Don’t be like Ben circa 2016. Even if something is easy enough to do that it only takes a single command line command, it should still be made into a bash script. Doing so makes it possible for others to reproduce your analysis, and saves you from having to remember things that you did years in the past.


In a lot of ways your code is a crystallization of your thought process. While this makes coding beautiful as an art form, it also means that how to use your code may not be immediately apparent to others. The standard way to help bridge the gap between your thoughts and others’ is to provide an instruction manual called a README. A bare bones README should contain three things:

  1. A description of what the project does
  2. Instructions on how to install the dependencies for your code (which will be easier if you use some type of package manager
  3. Instructions on how to reproduce your analysis (which scripts to run, how, and in which order)

There are more sections that can be added to a README, which will be covered in future posts. For now though, the three components listed above are critical for others to be able to run your code.

Publishing code

“Code available upon request” is equivalent to saying “Methods section available upon request”. Unless every detail of your implementation is written into your methods section, it isn’t possible to reproduce your analysis without your code. Thankfully, platforms like GitHub and BitBucket make it free and easy to publish your code.

Further Reading


If your project has everything in this list, you’re on the right track. Keeping track of all of these details can seem like a chore when you’re first starting, but they are absolutely necessary. Creating reproducible code ensures that others can use your code, and also that your code will be useful to your future self.


Thanks to Trang Le for advice on clarifying the section on randomness, and to Mervin Fansler for pointing out that I shouldn’t use Conda and Anaconda interchangeably.

BibTex Citation:

@misc{Heil_2020, title={Reproducible Programming for Biologists Who Code - Part 1: Must Dos}, url={https://autobencoder.com/2020-06-16-mustdo/}, journal={AutoBenCoding}, author={Heil, Benjamin J.}, year={2020}, month={06}}