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GNU Make rules for Data Analysis and Reporting

Also see the blog site for this and related material.

Comprehensive documentation will soon be available as Peter Baker (2020) Using GNU Make to Manage the Workflow of Data Analysis Projects, Journal of Statistical Software.

GNU Make is a commonly used tool as part of the process for managing software projects.

Data analysis can involve many steps including reading data; cleaning and transforming data; plotting data, statistical analysis and finally writing reports. While we can try and keep track of each step manually by using good documentation and being highly organised, it can prove to be more efficient to employ computer tools to augment these practices. One such approach is to use a tool like GNU Make. Such an approach does not obviate the need to be organised and document the work but it can certainly prove helpful, especially as a project grows in size.

While it is far from perfect, make is widely used and generally proves to be useful for efficiently carrying out tasks in data analysis. Unfortunately, make does not provide standard rules for producing .Rout files from .R files, .pdf files from .Rnw files, .docx files from .Rmd files and so on.

The file can be included in a standard Makefile to facilitate a more efficient workflow.

NB: For macOS, make (like many other programs), is pretty ancient in computing terms. You may prefer to install a recent version of GNU Make. IMHO, the best way is to install via homebrew - see Use gmake which will run the new version instead of make which runs the old one.


  1. Download the file to a directory you use for such files. Ideally, this would something like:
    • ~/lib or C:\MyLibrary or /usr/local/include
  2. put the following line in your Makefile
    • include ~/lib/ where ~ will be expanded to be your HOME directory, or
    • include C:/MyLibrary/ (in windows), or
    • include if location in system directory for Makefile includes (eg /usr/local/include)

Note: the very simplest way to run make would be to simply create a new text file named Makefile in your working directory or a system directory like /usr/local/include with a single line above including the file If you have an R syntax file named say mySpecialAnalysis.R then, in a terminal, you can run R to produce an output file by typing 'make mySpecialAnalysis.Rout' or produce a notebook using Rmarkdown by typing 'make mySpecialAnalysis.pdf'.

However, you will miss out on the power of make which you can harness by describing the dependencies among files.

To actually use these rules in practice, we may have several prerequisite files like an R syntax file and several data files. In the Makefile we may specify the dependencies as

readData.Rout: readData.R data1.csv data2.csv oldData.RData

so we can run the syntax file by typing ‘make readData.Rout’ at the command prompt. If any of the files readData.R, data1.csv, data2.csv or oldData.RData have changed recently, and so are newer than the target file readData.Rout, then the predefined R batch command is run to get a new output file, otherwise readData.Rout is ‘up to date’. Of course, it is better if we set up our Makefile so that 'readData.Rout' gets built automatically and so we can just type 'make'.

To take advantage of make, the best approach is to define all necessary targets and dependencies in project Makefile(s).

Example Makefiles

.PHONY : all
all: test.pdf test.html test.docx test2.pdf test-stitch.Rout test-stitch.pdf \
     myTalk_ioslides.html myTalk_beamer.pdf myTalk_Present.pdf

## produce pdf, html, docx from test.Rmd
test.pdf: ${@:.pdf=.Rmd}
test.html: ${@:.html=.Rmd}
test.docx: ${@:.docx=.Rmd}

## produce pdf from test2.rmd
test2.pdf: ${@:.pdf=.rmd}

## use stitch to produce pdf via rmarkdown (exactly as in RStudio)
test-stitch.pdf: ${@:.pdf=.R}

## produce a beamer & ioslides presentation from .Rmd file
myTalk_ioslides.html: myTalk.Rmd
myTalk_beamer.pdf: myTalk.Rmd

## produce a beamer presentation from .Rnw file
myTalk_Present.pdf: myTalk.Rnw

## if you have in ~/lib directory uncomment line below and comment
##include ~/lib/

You can then run this with the command make or make all at the shell prompt. Any target that is not up to date will be created by running the appropriate commands. Even better: set up RStudio or your favourite editor to do this at the press of a button. Note also that because of the rules defined in, you can use make to produce targets not actually defined in the Makefile. For instance, to use stitch to create pdf output newAnalysis.pdf from the file newAnalysis.R simply type make newAnalysis.pdf at the prompt.

More usually, if there is a sequence of steps relying on a data file myData.csv your Makefile may look something like

.PHONY:	all
all: report.pdf

## produce report from .Rmd once previous steps carried out
report.pdf: ${@:.pdf=.Rmd} summaryAndPlots.Rout

## summarise data
summaryAndPlots.Rout: ${@:.Rout=.R} readData.Rout

## read data
readData.Rout: ${@:.Rout=.R} myData.csv

include ~/lib/


To use these makefile definitions you need to install

Note that Windows users can install Rtools (available via CRAN) to get a working version of make and may also need to install pandoc and latex to produce pdf files if they haven't already. Miktex is recommended although texlive will also work well.

macOS users can install gnu make from homebrew or macports. Homebrew versions of latexmk and pandoc are also available but MacTex is available as a binary package at Some rules may need a newer version of make than comes with XCode so using gmake is highly recommended.


Definitions in '' have been developed and tested on linux. These rules have also been reasonably well tested on windows (Rtools) and macOS (homebrew 'gmake' - not macOS Xcode gnu 'make' which is 10 years old). Some tweaking may be required and is indeed encouraged.

Extra rules for SAS, STATA, PSPP, python and perl are very preliminary and not extensively tested.

Once you have a Makefile which includes the file '' you can type 'make help' at the command prompt for further information. You can also tweak the variables like $R, $R_OPTS defined in '' to change the defaults without needing to rewrite ''.

Finally, there are two bash scripts to help use these R pattern rules. Firstly, 'checkInstalled' checks that the pattern rules, Makefile templates etc in ~/lib or ~/bin are the same and highlights differences using the unix command 'diff'.The 'cpMakeTemplate' bash script can be put in your path to copy a Makefile template to the current directory. Several templates are available. Please see 'cpMakeTemplate -h' and 'checkInstalled -h' for details. The file 'install.txt' gives advice and some commands for installing these files to make them readily available.


R related Makefile definitions


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