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Using Rscript

Learning Objectives:

  • Invoking and running Rscript
  • Understand the command Rscript
  • Execute some scripts

Command Rscript

Another very useful and interesting way to run R in non-interactive mode is the command Rscript. This command is officially referred to as the Scripting Front-End for R because this is an alternative front end originally designed to be used in bash (#!) scripts and other scripting applications.

  • Rscript is the alternative front-end of R CMD BATCH
  • output goes to standard output (stdout)
  • Rscript has default options --slave --no-restore

In R, you can check the help documentation with help(Rscript). Also, you can consult the R manual An Introduction to R and read the section Scripting with R

The usage of Rscript has the following form:

Rscript [options] [-e expr [-e expr2 ...] | file] [args]
  • options are options beginning with double dash --. These can be any of the standard R front-end.
  • expr (further expressions expr2 ...) refers to any R expression, and must be properly quoted
  • file is the name of the input file containing R commands
  • args are arguments to be passed to the script in file

Executing simple expressions

One basic use of Rscript is to execute simple expressions using the flag -e. For example, to compute the sum 2 + 2, type the following in the command line:

Rscript -e '2 + 2'

You can run more than one expression using as many -e flags as expressions to be executed (make sure to properly quote them)

Rscript -e '2 + 3' -e '2 * 3' -e '2 ^ 3'

You can also execute a compound expression with multiple commands separated with semicolons ;

Rscript -e '2 + 3; 2 * 3; 2 ^ 3'

Here are some more examples that you can try:

# some math
Rscript -e 'sqrt(81) + abs(-10) - sin(pi/2)'

# some text
Rscript -e 'sprintf("the girl spent $%s in books", 10)'

# quadratic equation
Rscript -e 'a=1; b=2; c=3; x=1; a*x^2 + b*x + c'

# date
Rscript -e 'paste("today is", substr(date(), 1, 10), substr(date(), 21, 24))'

# time
Rscript -e 'paste("the time is", substr(date(), 12, 19))'

Using Rscript with R script files

Rscript can be used to execute files with R code. If the script file to be run does not require the user to pass arguments, then you can run it in several ways:

Rscript myscript.R

Another alternative is to call the source() function via an expression with the -e flag (be careful with the quotes):

Rscript -e 'source("myscript.R")'

Here's one example of how to render an .Rmd (R markdown) file from the command line (again, be careful with the quotes):

Rscript -e 'library(rmarkdown); render("document.Rmd")'

Here's the same command as above, but now swaping the types of quotes:

Rscript -e "library(rmarkdown); render('document.Rmd')"

Passing arguments to Rscript

Some times you want to provide arguments that will be passed to the input file. The way to invoke Rscript and passing arguments is like this:

Rscript script_file.R arg1 arg2
  • The main command is Rscript.
  • The name of the input R file is script_file.R
  • Supplied arguments are: arg1 and arg2

Toy Example: Normal Vector

Consider the hypothetical example of having a minimalist script normal-vector.R that generates a vector of normal random numbers---via the function rnorm(). This script could look like:

# vector of random numbers
x <- rnorm(n, mean, sd)

In this case, it would be nice if you can supply values for n, mean, and sd when executing the script. For instance, say you want n to be 100, mean 5, and sd 1.5, you could invoke the script as:

Rscript normal-vector.R 100 5 1.5

The folder scripts/ does actually include such a normal-vector.R file for you to test (keep in mind that it is a toy script).

Extracting Supplied Arguments

So how do you access any supplied arguments when calling Rscript from the command line? When you pass arguments to Rscript, these can be retrieved as a charactervector with the commandArgs() function. For example, including a line like the one below inside the input file:

args <- commandArgs(trailingOnly = TRUE)

creates a character vector args that contains the supplied arguments. In other words, commandArgs() extracts the provided command line arguments.

Let's take a look at the code in the normal-vector.R example:

# reading arguments ('n', 'mean', 'sd')
args <- commandArgs(trailingOnly = TRUE)

n <- as.numeric(args[1])
mean <- as.numeric(args[2])
sd <- as.numeric(args[3])

x <- rnorm(n, mean, sd)
cat(x, '\n')

As you can tell from the snippet above, commandArgs(TRUE) returns a character vector with the supplied arguments. These values can then be accessed individually (e.g. args[1]). Because the arguments are in the form of a character vector, it's good practice to convert them into numbers with as.numeric().

More about commandArgs()

The function commandArgs() takes a logical parameter called trailingOnly. If you use the parameter trailingOnly = FALSE inside commandArgs(), the character vector of arguments will include the default options of calling Rscript. For instance, the file show-args.R in the sripts/ folder consists of the following code:

args <- commandArgs(trailingOnly = FALSE)

for (i in 1:length(args)) {
	cat(args[i], '\n')

which will print all the supplied arguments (even the default ones). When you execute show-args.R from the command line without supplying any arguments, you should be able to see an output like the following one:

Rscript show-args.R

as you can tell, the output shows four arguments: the first one refers to the location of the executable R; the other values (--slave, --no-restore, and --file=show-args.R) are the default options when calling Rscript.

Excluding default options as arguments

To exclude the default ("non-relevant") arguments, you have to use commandArgs(trailingOnly = TRUE). The scripts/ folder of this tutorial contains the script listing-args.R. This is a simple R script that reads any provided arguments, and displays the number of arguments as well as their values. You can try it like so:

# no arguments provided
Rscript listing-args.R

# one argument provided
Rscript listing-args.R 10

# various arguments provided
Rscript listing-args.R 1 a TRUE NA yes

Example: Normal Histogram

Our last example will consider the R script normal-distribution.R that produces a histogram from a randomly generated vector. If you look at the code in normal-histogram.R, you'll see that the generated vector has length 1000. Since the vector has a fixed size, we just need to pass arguments for mean, and sd:

Rscript normal-distribution.R 0 1

If you execute this script, the produced histogram will be saved in the file normal-histogram.png


Using Rscript in shell scripts

Besides invoking Rscript directly from the command line, there is another way to use it inside shell scripts. We'll discuss this topic in the section 04-bash-script/.