Writing a reproducible paper

This use case demonstrates how to use nested DataLad datasets to create a fully reproducible paper by linking

  1. (different) DataLad dataset sources with

  2. the code needed to compute results and

  3. LaTeX files to compile the resulting paper.

The different components each exist in individual DataLad datasets and are aggregated into a single DataLad superdataset complying to the YODA principles for data analysis projects1. The resulting superdataset can be publicly shared, data can be obtained effortlessly on demand by anyone that has the superdataset, and results and paper can be generated and recomputed everywhere on demand.

The Challenge

Over the past year, Steve worked on the implementation of an algorithm as a software package. For testing purposes, he used one of his own data collections, and later also included a publicly shared data collection. After completion, he continued to work on validation analyses to prove the functionality and usefulness of his software. Next to a directory in which he developed his code, and directories with data he tested his code on, he now also has other directories with different data sources used for validation analyses. “This can not take too long!” Steve thinks optimistically when he finally sits down to write up a paper.

His scripts run his algorithm on the different data collections, create derivatives of his raw data, pretty figures, and impressive tables. Just after he hand-copies and checks the last decimal of the final result in the very last table of his manuscript, he realizes that the script specified the wrong parameter values, and all of the results need to be recomputed - and obviously updated in his manuscript. When writing the discussion, he finds a paper that reports an error in the publicly shared data collection he uses. After many more days of updating tables and fixing data columns by hand, he finally submits the paper. Trying to stand with his values of open and reproducible science, he struggles to bundle all scripts, algorithm code, and data he used in a shareable form, and frankly, with all the extra time this manuscript took him so far, he lacks motivation and time. In the end, he writes a three page long README file in his GitHub code repository, includes his email for data requests, and secretly hopes that no-one will want to recompute his results, because by now even he himself forgot which script ran on which dataset and what data was fixed in which way, or whether he was careful enough to copy all of the results correctly. In the review process, reviewer 2 demands that the figures his software produces need to get a new color scheme, which requires updates in his software package, and more recomputations.

The DataLad Approach

Steve sets up a DataLad dataset and calls it algorithm-paper. In this dataset, he creates several subdirectories to collate everything that is relevant for the manuscript: Data, code, a manuscript backbone without results. code/ contains a Python script that he uses for validation analyses, and prior to computing results, the script attempts to download the data should the files need to be obtained using DataLads Python API. data/ contains a separate DataLad subdataset for every dataset he uses. An algorithm/ directory is a DataLad dataset containing a clone of his software repository, and within it, in the directory test/data/, are additional DataLad subdatasets that contain the data he used for testing. Lastly, the DataLad superdataset contains a LaTeX .tex file with the text of the manuscript. When everything is set up, a single command line call triggers (optional) data retrieval from GitHub repositories of the datasets, computation of results and figures, automatic embedding of results and figures into his manuscript upon computation, and PDF compiling. When he notices the error in his script, his manuscript is recompiled and updated with a single command line call, and when he learns about the data error, he updates the respective DataLad dataset to the fixed state while preserving the history of the data repository.

He makes his superdataset a public repository on GitHub, and anyone who clones it can obtain the data automatically and recompute and recompile the full manuscript with all results. Steve never had more confidence in his research results and proudly submits his manuscript. During review, the color scheme update in his algorithm sourcecode is integrated with a simple update of the algorithm/ subdataset, and upon command-line invocation his manuscript updates itself with the new figures.


The actual manuscript this use case is based on can be found here: https://github.com/psychoinformatics-de/paper-remodnav/. datalad clone the repository and follow the few instructions in the README to experience the DataLad approach described above.


datalad create a DataLad dataset. In this example, it is named “algorithm-paper”, and datalad create uses the yoda procedure1 to apply useful configurations for a data analysis project:

$ datalad create -c yoda algorithm-paper

[INFO   ] Creating a new annex repo at /home/adina/repos/testing/algorithm-paper
create(ok): /home/adina/repos/testing/algorithm-paper (dataset)

This newly created directory already has a code/ directory that will be tracked with Git and some README.md and CHANGELOG.md files thanks to the yoda procedure applied above. Additionally, create a subdirectory data/ within the dataset. This project thus already has a comprehensible structure:

$ cd algorithm-paper
$ mkdir data

# You can checkout the directory structure with the tree command

$ tree
├── code
│   └── README.md
├── data
└── README.md

All of your analyses scripts should live in the code/ directory, and all input data should live in the data/ directory.

To populate the DataLad dataset, add all the data collections you want to perform analyses on as individual DataLad subdatasets within data/. In this example, all data collections are already DataLad datasets or git repositories and hosted on GitHub. datalad clone therefore installs them as subdatasets, with -d ../ registering them as subdatasets to the superdataset2.

$ cd data
# clone existing git repositories with data (-s specifies the source, in this case, GitHub repositories)
# -d points to the root of the superdataset
datalad clone -d ../ https://github.com/psychoinformatics-de/studyforrest-data-phase2.git

[INFO   ] Cloning https://github.com/psychoinformatics-de/studyforrest-data-phase2.git [1 other candidates] into '/home/adina/repos/testing/algorithm-paper/data/raw_eyegaze'
install(ok): /home/adina/repos/testing/algorithm-paper/data/raw_eyegaze (dataset)

$ datalad clone -d ../ git@github.com:psychoinformatics-de/studyforrest-data-eyemovementlabels.git

[INFO   ] Cloning git@github.com:psychoinformatics-de/studyforrest-data-eyemovementlabels.git into '/home/adina/repos/testing/algorithm-paper/data/studyforrest-data-eyemovementlabels'
Cloning (compressing objects):  45% 1.80k/4.00k [00:01<00:01, 1.29k objects/s

Any script we need for the analysis should live inside code/. During script writing, save any changes to you want to record in your history with datalad save.

The eventual outcome of this work is a GitHub repository that anyone can use to get the data and recompute all results when running the script after cloning and setting up the necessary software. This requires minor preparation:

  • The final analysis should be able to run on anyone’s filesystem. It is therefore important to reference datafiles with the scripts in code/ as relative paths instead of hard-coding absolute paths.

  • After cloning the algorithm-paper repository, data files are not yet present locally. To spare users the work of a manual datalad get, you can have your script take care of data retrieval via DataLad’s Python API.

These two preparations can be seen in this excerpt from the Python script:

# import Datalads API
from datalad.api import get

# note that the datapath is relative
datapath = op.join('data',
data = sorted(glob(datapath))

# this will get the data if it is not yet retrieved
get(dataset='.', path=data)

Lastly, datalad clone the software repository as a subdataset in the root of the superdataset3.

# in the root of ``algorithm-paper`` run
$ datalad clone -d . git@github.com:psychoinformatics-de/remodnav.git

This repository has also subdatasets in which the datasets used for testing live (tests/data/):

$ tree

|   ├── remodnav
│   ├── clf.py
│   ├── __init__.py
│   ├── __main__.py
│   └── tests
│       ├── data
│       │   ├── anderson_etal
│       │   └── studyforrest

At this stage, a public algorithm-paper repository shares code and data, and changes to any dataset can easily be handled by updating the respective subdataset. This already is a big leap towards open and reproducible science. Thanks to DataLad, code, data, and the history of all code and data are easily shared - with exact versions of all components and bound together in a single, fully tracked research object. By making use of the Python API of DataLad and relative paths in scripts, data retrieval is automated, and scripts can run on any other computer.

Automation with existing tools

To go beyond that and include freshly computed results in a manuscript on the fly does not require DataLad anymore, only some understanding of Python, LaTeX, and Makefiles. As with most things, its a surprisingly simple challenge if one has just seen how to do it once. This last section will therefore outline how to compile the results into a PDF manuscript and automate this process. In principle, the challenge boils down to:

  1. have the script output results (only requires print() statements)

  2. capture these results automatically (done with a single line of Unix commands)

  3. embed the captured results in the PDF (done with one line in the .tex file and some clever referencing)

  4. automate as much as possible to keep it as simple as possible (done with a Makefile)

That does not sound too bad, does it? Let’s start by revealing how this magic trick works. Everything relies on printing the results in the form of user-defined LaTeX definitions (using the \newcommand command), referencing those definitions in your manuscript where the results should end up, and bind the \newcommands as \input{} to your .tex file. But lets get there in small steps.

First, if you want to read up on the \newcommand, please see its documentation. The command syntax looks like this:


What we want to do, expressed in the most human-readable form, is this:


where 0.67 would be a single result computed by your script. This requires print() statements that look like this in the most simple form (excerpt from script):

print('\\newcommand{\\maxmclf}{{%.2f}}' % max_mclf)

where max_mclf is a variable that stores the value of one computation.

Tables and references to results within the .tex files then do not contain the specific value 0.67 (this value would change if the data changes, or other parameters), but \maxmclf (and similar, unique names for other results). For full tables, one can come up with naming schemes that make it easy to fill tables with unique names with minimal work, for example like this (excerpt):

  \caption{Cohen's Kappa reliability between human coders (MN, RA),
  and \remodnav\ (AL) with each of the human coders.
  \begin{tabular*}{0.5\textwidth}{c @{\extracolsep{\fill}}llll}
    \textbf {Fixations} &                  &                   \\
    Comparison          & Images           & Dots              \\
    MN versus RA        & \kappaRAMNimgFix & \kappaRAMNdotsFix \\
    AL versus RA        & \kappaALRAimgFix & \kappaALRAdotsFix \\
    AL versus MN        & \kappaALMNimgFix & \kappaALMNdotsFix \\
    \textbf{Saccades}   &                  &                   \\
    Comparison          & Images           & Dots              \\
    MN versus RA        & \kappaRAMNimgSac & \kappaRAMNdotsSac \\
    AL versus RA        & \kappaALRAimgSac & \kappaALRAdotsSac \\
    AL versus MN        & \kappaALMNimgSac & \kappaALMNdotsSac \\
    % [..] more content ommitted

Without diving into the context of the paper, this table contains results for three three comparisons (“MN versus RA”, “AL versus RA”, “AL versus MN”), for three event types (Fixations, Saccades, and post-saccadic oscillations (PSO)), and three different stimulus types (Images, Dots, and Videos). The latter event and stimulus are omitted for better readability of the .tex excerpt. Here is how this table looks like in the manuscript (cropped to match the .tex snippet):


It might appear tedious to write scripts that output results for such tables with individual names. However, print() statements to fill those tables can utilize Pythons string concatenation methods and loops to keep the code within a few lines for a full table, such as

# iterate over stimulus categories
for stim in ['img', 'dots', 'video']:
   # iterate over event categories
   for ev in ['Fix', 'Sac', 'PSO']:


      # create the combinations
      for rating, comb in [('RAMN', [RA_res_flat, MN_res_flat]),
                        ('ALRA', [RA_res_flat, AL_res_flat]),
                        ('ALMN', [MN_res_flat, AL_res_flat])]:
         kappa = cohen_kappa_score(comb[0], comb[1])
         label = 'kappa{}{}{}'.format(rating, stim, ev)
         # print the result
         print('\\newcommand{\\%s}{%s}' % (label, '%.2f' % kappa))

Running the python script will hence print plenty of LaTeX commands to your screen (try it out in the actual manuscript, if you want!). This was step number 1 of 4.

Find out more: How about figures?

To include figures, the figures just need to be saved into a dedicated location (for example a directory img/) and included into the .tex file with standard LaTeX syntax. Larger figures with subfigures can be created by combining several figures:

  \includegraphics[trim=0 8mm 3mm 0,clip,width=.5\textwidth]{img/mainseq_lab}
  \includegraphics[trim=8mm 8mm 0 0,clip,width=.5\textwidth-3.3mm]{img/mainseq_sub_lab} \\
  \includegraphics[trim=0 0 3mm 0,clip,width=.5\textwidth]{img/mainseq_mri}
  \includegraphics[trim=8mm 0 0 0,clip,width=.5\textwidth-3.3mm]{img/mainseq_sub_mri}

  \caption{Main sequence of eye movement events during one 15 minute sequence of
  the movie (segment 2) for lab (top), and MRI participants (bottom). Data
  across all participants per dataset is shown on the left, and data for a single
  exemplary participant on the right.}


This figure looks like this in the manuscript:


For step 2 and 3, the print statements need to be captured and bound to the .tex file. The tee command can write all of the output to a file (called results_def.tex):

code/mk_figuresnstats.py -s | tee results_def.tex

This will redirect every print statement the script wrote to the terminal into a file called results_def.tex. This file will hence be full of \newcommand definitions that contain the results of the computations.

For step 3, one can include this file as an input source into the .tex file with


Upon compilation of the .tex file into a PDF, the results of the computations captured with \newcommand definitions are inserted into the respective part of the manuscript.

The last step is to automate this procedure. So far, the script would need to be executed with a command line call, and the PDF compilation would require another commandline call. One way to automate this process are Makefiles. make is a decades-old tool known to many and bears the important advantage that is will deliver results regardless of what actually needs to be done with a single make call – whether it is executing a Python script, running bash commands, or rendering figures, or all of this. Here is the one used for the manuscript:

all: main.pdf

main.pdf: main.tex tools.bib EyeGaze.bib results_def.tex figures
    latexmk -pdf -g $<

results_def.tex: code/mk_figuresnstats.py
    bash -c 'set -o pipefail; code/mk_figuresnstats.py -s | tee results_def.tex'

figures: figures-stamp

figures-stamp: code/mk_figuresnstats.py
    code/mk_figuresnstats.py -f -r -m
    $(MAKE) -C img
    touch $@

    rm -f main.bbl main.aux main.blg main.log main.out main.pdf main.tdo main.fls main.fdb_latexmk example.eps img/*eps-converted-to.pdf texput.log results_def.tex figures-stamp
    $(MAKE) -C img clean

One can read a Makefile as a recipe:

  • Line 1: “The overall target should be main.pdf (the final PDF of the manuscript).”

  • Line 2-3: “To make the target main.pdf, the following files are required: main.tex (the manuscript’s .tex file), tools.bib & EyeGaze.bib (bibliography files), results_def.tex (the results definitions), and figures (a section not covered here, about rendering figures with inkscape prior to including them in the manuscript). If all of these files are present, the target main.pdf can be made by running the command latexmk -pdf -g

  • Line 5-6: “To make the target results_def.tex, the script code/mk_figuresnstats.py is required. If the file is present, the target results_def.tex can be made by running the command bash -c 'set -o pipefail; code/mk_figuresnstats.py -s | tee results_def.tex'

This triggers the execution of the script, collection of results in results_def.tex, and PDF compilation upon typing make. The last three lines define that a make clean removes all computed files, and also all images.

Finally, by wrapping make in a datalad run command, the computation of results and compiling of the manuscript with all generated output can be written to the history of the superdataset. datalad run make will thus capture all provenance for the results and the final PDF.

Thus, by using DataLad and its Python API, a few clever Unix and LaTeX tricks, and Makefiles, anyone can create a reproducible paper. This saves time, increases your own trust in the results, and helps to make a more convincing case with your research. If you have not yet, but are curious, checkout the manuscript this use case is based on. Any questions can be asked by opening an issue.



You can read up on the YODA principles again in section YODA: Best practices for data analyses in a dataset


You can read up on cloning datasets as subdatasets again in section Install datasets.


Note that the software repository may just as well be cloned into data/.