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An Import Mechanism For R
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An Import Mechanism For R


The typical way of using functionality exposed by a package in R scripts is to load (and attach) the entire package with library (or require). This can have the undesirable effect of masking objects in the user's search path and can also make it difficult and confusing to identify what functionality comes from which package when using several library statements.

An alternative is to import a single object from a package, say object <- package::object. The downside of this approach is that the object is placed in the user's global work space, rather than being encapsulated somewhere else in the search path (when using library to load pkg, a namespace package:pkg will be attached in the search path which will contain the exported functions from pkg). Another minor point is that one can only import one object at a time using this approach.

The import package provides a simple alternative to importing and is inspired in part by Python's from some_module import some_function syntax, and will solve the two issues raised above. It is also similar to roxygen2s @importFrom package function1 function2 for packages. While import will also work for package development, it is meant for R scripts.

In addition to being able to import objects from packages, import also allows you to import objects in scripts (i.e. a kind of module). This allows a simple way to distribute and use functionality without the need to write a full package. One example is a Shiny app, where one can place definitions in a script and import only the needed objects where they are used. This avoids workspace clutter and name clashes. For more details see below.

Installation and usage

To install import from CRAN:


You can also install import from GitHub using devtools:


The import package is named to make usage expressive without having to load the package using library. A basic example, which imports a few functions from the dplyr package is:

import::from(dplyr, select, arrange, keep_when = filter)

This does pretty much what it says: three functions are imported from dplyr, two of which will keep their original name, and one which is renamed, e.g. to avoid name clash with stats::filter. The imported objects are placed in a separate entity in the search path (@lionel- suggests naming them "pied-à-terres", meaning living units some distance away from primary residence), which by default is named "imports". It is therefore also easy to get rid of them again with detach("imports"). The main point is that it is clear which functions will be used and where they come from. It's noteworthy that there is nothing special going on: the import::from function is only a convenient wrapper around getExportedValue (as is :: itself) and assign. To import non-exported objects one must use triple-colon syntax: import:::from(pkg, obj). If any of the import functions are called regularly, i.e. without preceding import:: or import:::, an error is raised. If import is attached, a startup message will inform that import should not be attached.

One can also specify which names to use in the search path and use several to group imports:

import::from(magrittr, "%>%", "%$%", .into = "operators") 
import::from(dplyr, arrange, .into = "datatools")

If using pied-à-terres actively, one might prefer the alternative syntax (which does the same but reverses the argument order):

import::into("operators", "%>%", "%$%", .from = magrittr)
import::into("datatools", arrange, .from = dplyr)

If it is desired to place imported objects in the current environment, then import::here is a short-hand function that sets .into = "".

In the examples above most arguments are provided unquoted. A more unambiguous alternative is to quote the inputs, e.g.

import::from("ggplot2", "qplot")

Specifying a library

The import package will by default only use the latest specified library (i.e. the result of .libPaths()[1L]). It is possible to specify a different library using the .library argument in any of the import functions. One import call can only use one library so there will not be ambiguity as to where imports come from.

Using .R scripts as "modules" (currently only in GitHub version)

The import package allows for importing objects defined in script files, which we will here refer to as "modules". The module will be fully evaluated by import when an import is requested, after which objects such as functions or data can be imported. Such modules should be side-effect free, but this is not enforced. Attachments are detached (e.g. packages attached by library) but loaded namespaces remain loaded. This means that values created by functions in an attached namespace will work with import, but functions to be exported should not rely on such functions (use function importing in the modules instead).

If a module is modified, import will realize this and reload the script if further imports are executed or re-executed; otherwise additional imports will not cause the script to be reloaded for efficiency. As the script is loaded in its own environment (maintained by import) dependencies are kept (except those exposed through attachment), as the following small example shows.

Contents of "some_module.R":

## Possible

## But would be better:
#import::here(qplot, .from = ggplot2)

## Note this operator overload is not something you want to `source`!
`+` <- function(e1, e2)
  paste(e1, e2)

## Some function relying on the above overload:
a <- function(s1, s2)
  s1 + rep(s2, 3)

## Another value.
b <- head(iris, 10)

## A value created using a function exposed by attachment 
p <- qplot(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width, data = iris, color = Species)

## A function relying on a function exposed through attachment:
plot_it <- function()
  qplot(Sepal.Length, Sepal.Width, data = iris, color = Species)


import::from(some_module.R, a, b, p, plot_it)

## Works:
a("cool", "import")

## The `+` is not affecting anything here, so this won't work:
# "cool" + "import"

# Works:

## Does not work, as ggplot2 is no longer attached
## (would work with the import statement!):


  • When the arguments are unquoted they will be treated as they are written!
  • If used in a package import will use the package's own namespace.

See also:

For an interesting but slightly different idea of Python-like modules for R, see the modules package package by @klmr.

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