R Library for Working with RDF
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Project Status: Active – The project has reached a stable, usable state and is being actively developed. Travis-CI Build Status Coverage Status

RDF4R: R Library for Working with RDF


RDF4R is an R package for working with Resource Description Framework (RDF) data. It was developed as part of the OpenBiodiv project but is completely free of any OpenBiodiv-specific code and can be used for generic purposes requiring tools to work with RDF data in the R programming environment.


RDF4R depends on the following packages (list may change in future releases):

Please, first install these packages with install.packages. Pay attention to error messages during their installation as additional OS-level components may need to be installed.

Then, install RDF4R from GitHub with the following command:


We are currently in the process of submitting the package to a repository and making it available through the standard installation facilities of R. Our intention is to publish it through CRAN and/or rOpenSci. In addition to that this README is being prepared as a software description/ R package paper in the RIO Journal.


RDF4R has the features listed in the following subsections.

Connection to a triple-store

Triple-stores, also known as quad-stores, graph databases, or semantic databases, are databases that store RDF data and allow the quering of RDF data via the SPARQL query language. RDF4R can connect to triple-stores that support the RDF4J server REST API such as GraphDB. It is possible to establish both basic connections (requiring no password or requiring basic HTTP user-pass authentication) or connection secured with an API access token.

Work with repositories on a triple-store

Once a connection to a triple-store has been established, it is possible to inspect the talk protocol version, view the list of repositories on the database, execute SPARQL Read (SELECT keyword and related) and SPARQL Update (INSERT and related) queries on the database, as well as submit serialized RDF data directly to the database.

Function factories to convert SPARQL queries to R functions

An important feature of RDF4R are its facilities for converting SPARQL queries and the like to R functions. This conversion is realized by a family of functions that return functions (function factories). In a nutshell, given a parameterized SPARQL query (parametrization syntax is explained in the "Using RDF4R" vignette), the query_factory function returns a function whose arguments are the parameters of the query. Upon called this function submits the query a SPARQL endpoint and returns the results.

Work with literals and identifiers

The building blocks of RDF are literals (e.g. strings, numbers, dates, etc.) and resource identifiers. RDF4R provides classes for literals and resource identifiers that are tightly integrated with the other facilities of the package.

Prefix management

Prefixes are managed automatically during serialization by being extracted from the resource identifiers.

Creation and serialization of RDF

RDF4R uses an amortized vector data structure to store RDF triples as mutable R6 objects (third element). Blank nodes are partially supported: a triple may contain an anonymous RDF object (a list of triples with the same subject) as its object. In this case, the parent RDF is serialed as Turtle by using the bracket syntax. Current serialization only supports Turtle (and its variant Trig) and only supports adding new triples.

A basic vocabulary of semantic elements

RDF4R has some basic resource identifiers for widely used classes and predicates predifined (e.g. for rdf:type, rdfs:label, etc.).


The usage of the package is discussed in detail in the vignette "Using RDF4R". After installing the package, you can open the vignette from R with:


If you would like an overview of all package facilities grouped by category, please consult the package documentation available via ?rdf4r.


We would like now to compare RDF4R to other programs designed for a similar purpose and critically discuss some of its features.

Related Packages

Perhaps, the closest match to RDF4R is the rdflib R package by Carl Boettiger. rdflib's' first official release was on Dec 10, 2017, whereas work on the codebase that is now known as RDF4R began at Pensoft around mid-2015 at the onset of the OpenBiodiv project. This explains why two closely related R packages for working with RDF exist. In our opinion, the packages have different design philosophies and are thus complementary.

rdflib is a high-level wrapper to redland, a powerful C library that provides support for RDF. redland provides an in-memory storage model for RDF beyond what is available in RDF4R and also persistent storage working with a number of databases. It enables the user to query RDF objects with SPARQL. Thus, redland can be considered a complete graph database implementation in C. There is also a redland R package, which is a low-level wrapper to the C redland, essentially mapping function calls one-to-one.

In our opinion redland is more complex than needed for OpenBiodiv. At the onset of the OpenBiodiv project, we decided not to use it as we were going to rely on GraphDB for our storage and querying. RDF4R's main purpose was (and is) to provide a convenient R interface for users of GraphDB and similar RDF4J compatible graph databases.

A feature that differentiates redland/rdflib from RDF4R is the design philosophy. RDF4R was designed primariy with the Turtle and TriG serializations in mind. This means that RDF4R can work with named graphs, where their usage is discouraged or perhaps impossible with rdflib, even though rdflib's default format is N-Quads. Another differentiating feature are the function factories for converting SPARQL and related statements to R functions.

It is hard to ignore the superior in-memory model of redland/rdflib. Therefore, the maintainer of RDF4R, has contributed several compatibility patches to rdflib. Thus makes it possible to extend RDF4R to use either one of the in-memory models - RDF4R's own amortized vector, or rdflib/redland. Thus, it will be possible for the user of RDF4R to retain its syntax and high-level features - constructor factories, functors, etc, and the ability to use named graphs - but benefit from performance increases, stability, and scalability with the redland/rdflib backend.

This will enable the users of the R programming environment to use whichever syntax they prefer and benefit from an efficient storage engine.

Elements of functional style

When choosing a programming environment for the project, a choice was made to use R as it is one of two most widely used programming languages for data science (the other being Python). Having settled on R, we decided to incorporate elements of the functional programming style that R supports in order to allow the users of the package to write simple code to solve complex tasks.

RDF4R is not written as in a pure functional programming style: some of its functions have side-effects. However, we make use of functions as first-class citizens and closures. By "functions as first-class citizens" we mean that RDF4R has both functions that return functions and functions that take functions as arguments.

The simplest example of such a function is the query_factory function which converts a SPARQL query to an R function. We believe that this is a very useful feature because the working ontologist often has quite a few SPARQL queries that they want to execute and then parse the results of. Had we just provided the generic submit_sparql function, every time the user would have needed to modify the SPARQL query somehow (e.g. by for example changing a label that is matched), execute the submit_sparql while not forgetting to specify the correct access point, and then parse the results. query_factory packages all of this functionality in one place and hides the complexity by allowing the user to simply write


This example is taken from the vignette. Here, genus_lookup is a function that has been dynamically generated by query_factory and encloses the functionality for parameterizing the query, executing it, and then parsing the results. This is possible thanks to the implementation of functions in R as closures.

Closures (in R) are some code plus a reference to its defining environment. An environment is a data structure that maps names to the values. This implies that whatever variables were defined in the environment that defined the function, are implicitly accessible to the defined function. This allows us to encapsulate some of the arguments to the function factory in the constructed function.

This is used by genus_factory but is even more evident in the simpler case of add_data_factory. add_data_factory's arguments are essentially only the details needed to access a particular endpoint. It returns a function that takes some RDF statements and submits them to this endpoint. For example:

add_data_to_graphdb = add_data_factory(access_options = graphdb, prefixes = prefixes)
add_data_to_graphdb(rdf_data = ttl)

The constructed function, add_data_to_graphdb does not have the parameter access_options any more. Instead, add_data_to_graphdb looks for access_options in its closure. This pattern allows us to hide some of the complexity and reduce errors.

The last example of the functional style that we will look at is to be found in the identifier_factory and fidentifier function. This is perhaps an example of where a reduction in complexity was not achieved sufficiently. identifier_factory takes a list of lookup functions as an input and returns constructor functions. This makes identifier_factory into a functor as it both takes functions as inputs and returns functions. The reasoning behing this functor is to enable the working ontologist to generate code that first looks up a resource identifier in several different places before coining a new one. Unfortunately, the syntax achieved is somewhat unsatisfactory, as the user needs to write

lookup_or_mint_id = identifier_factory(fun = list(simple_lookup),
   prefixes = prefixes,
   def_prefix = eg)

idking_lear = lookup_or_mint_id(list(lking_lear))

Here, one has to enclose the arguments to lookup_or_mind_id in a list, as it is possible that the SPARQL queries that lookup_or_mind_id encapsulates - in this case the single simple_lookup - may have more that one parameters. One may forget to enclose lking_lear in a list, and the error message that one gets is not particularly helpful:

> lookup_or_mint_id(lking_lear)
 Show Traceback
 Rerun with Debug
 Error in UseMethod("represent", x) : 
  no applicable method for 'represent' applied to an object of class "character" In addition: Warning message:
In l$fun = fun : Coercing LHS to a list

There are several solutions to this problem. One is to define a class for a list of representables (literals or identifiers) and then have lookup_or_mind_id check its inputs.

Another, perhaps more in-line with the traditional functional programming style, is to have lookup_or_mint_id have a dynamic function signature taking one more arguments of the representable type. We will address this problem in a future release (2.0) of RDF4R.

Elements of Object-Oriented Style

We already briefly touched on the need to define specialized classes in the previous section. Classes may be needed for type-checking and for bundling related functionality together. A slightly different problem that may be solved with the R6-style objects is to have mutable state. There are several ways to implement object-oriented programming in R.

The simplest way is to use S3 classes. S3 is a mechanism for writing generic functions that dispatch on the class of their arguments. It is a very straightforward system and we have used it for the literal and identifier classes. A more complicated S4 systems exists that introduces some type-checking and gives objects slots to store data. We have not used S4 in the package as it has a reputation of being slow and complex. Recently, the R6 system has gained traction which is similar to S4 as R6 objects have a standardized way of storing data but also differs from S4 in that it allows its objects to have mutable state. Honorable mentions deserve Reference Classes and home-brew classes where one creates constructor functions that do something and then return their own environment back (a variant of R6 is doing under hood).

S3 Usage

Several functions of RDF4R return lists with their class attribute set. The most notable of those are literal and identifier. There are also several generics functions used to invoke class-specific implemented via UseMethods. The most notable of those is represent:

represent = function(x)
     UseMethod("represent", x)

The reasoning behind represent is to enable the serialization both literals and resource identifiers. Whereas literals need to be potentially quoted together with an XSD type (e.g. "CNN"^^xsd:string, resource identifiers just need to be pasted in Turtle as they are (e.g. "http://cnn.com". By having this generic the serialization function doesn't need to be aware of these details and just calls the represent method.

R6 Usage

R6 is used for the in-memory representation of RDF (ResourceDescriptionFormat). The design decision to use R6 was taken in order to allow users of the package to create their RDF object incrementally, by adding more triples. E.g.

classics_rdf = ResourceDescriptionFramework$new()

classics_rdf$add_triple(subject = idshakespeare,    predicate = wrote,      object = idking_lear)
classics_rdf$add_triple(subject = idking_lear,      predicate = rdfs_label, object = lking_lear)

As resizing of R lists is a costly operation if they had not been preallocated, we have implemented an amortized vector as part of the package. DynVector initializes a list and everytime its length is exceeded by adding new elements, it reallocates double the space, which results in a lot faster computation on average. As we pointed our earlier, however, a future realease of RDF4R will support both DynVector and rdflib as in-memory storage models.

Furthermore, we support the $add_triples(rdf) method that lets the user grow one ResourceDescriptionFramework object with another. This enables a more functional-style of programming. For example one may have a list of objects information and a function that generates triples from information, extract_triples that returns an RDF object. We may merge the output of these functions by $add_triples(rdf) in the following way:

merged_rdf = ResourceDescriptionFramework$new()
lapply(lapply(information, extract_triples), merged_rdf$add_triples)

Note that this still can only be executed sequentially in order not to corrupt the in-memory representation of merged_rdf as each call to merged_rdf$add_triples changes the state of merged_rdf. A future release of the package will contain an additional Triple class allowing users to store RDF as lists of triples (and thus benefitting from parralelism constructs such as parLapply). The user will have the option of waiting until the last possible moment to create a ResourceDescriptionFramework class from a list of triples before serialization.

Pros and Cons

Future Directions