Refactoring a Project

What I did this spring

I’m new enough at blogging that I need to give an explanation if I drop of for a few months. In January, I became the academic director of McGill’s MBA Program. That’s been busy enough, but of course seven weeks ago everything went sideways with COVID-19. I serve on the executive of the faculty’s emergency operations committee, with all that entails. The remainder of March and most of April were a lost cause for research. In the last two weeks I’ve been able to scrape together a few minutes here, an hour there, to nudge projects forward again. I’ve learned that I can do things like copy-editing and file management while listening in on meetings that I’m not actively leading.

Like everyone else, I want to see this pandemic in the rearview mirror. But my job is secure, I can do most of my work from home, and I have no small children that I have to keep entertained. I’m lonely and stir-crazy, and I know I’m one of the very fortunate ones. Thus I won’t use this space to whine about lockdown. Surely we’re all bored of talking about it, right?

The trials of organization

Instead, let’s talk about replicable research. I think that it’s important for other people to be able to reproduce your results, but the main reason I care about replicability is so I can reproduce my own results. I’ve found that I need to stop at certain points in a project and clean up, not just the code in files, but also the file structure itself. My rule is that the first time I have trouble remembering which file I’m supposed to be working on, it’s time to clean up the project directory. Trust me: if you wait until the “end” of the project, it will be too late.

I use a standard directory structure for my research projects:


A lot of people use something like this. Canonical holds original data and ideally is read-only except when explicitly adding new files. This is the stuff that, if I lost it, I’d be back to square one. Data holds any data that I create. I think the distinction is important. I never write output to /canonical because it’s just too easy to overwrite or erase things. If I’ve done things correctly, /data could be erased and I could be up and running again in the time it takes to run my code. Documentation has how-tos of various sorts. These might be software manuals, dataset codebooks, methodological pieces, and the like. These are separate from /literature, which has phenomenological pieces related to the project. Typically, if it will wind up in the lit review, it goes in /literature; if it will wind up in a footnote or appendix, it goes in /documentation. The distinction between these two directories is the least important.

I keep all of my code in a directory called /scripts. That name probably says a lot about me. First, I started doing research before it became chic to talk about “code” and “coding” all the damned time. Second, I’ve spent too long in programs like Stata, and I maintain a mental distinction between “scripts,” where I invoke existing commands, and “programming,” where I write my own commands to give me functions beyond those built in. I realize this is a hoary and obsolete distinction. But let me have my old-coot-dom.

Drafts is where the paper drafts go. Figures and /tables hold the obvious things. Note that TiKZ drawings live in /figures both as TeX and as PDF documents. Finally, /presentations has the inevitable PowerPoints. I maintain a separate directory for presentations because I often have ancillary graphical elements and perhaps custom-built figures for presentations, and it’s easier to keep those in one place. LaTeX is fine with crawling across a directory structure for its needed elements, and there are traces in the files themselves of what resources are needed. Because PowerPoint embeds things, it’s hard to reverse-engineer where the elements in a presentation came from.

Other people use other structures, but almost all productive people have some structure. The advantage of using the same skeleton across all projects is that you don’t have to spend mental energy remembering where you put things on this one.

This skeleton also implies a rough workflow. Write scripts that read from /canonical and write to /data. Write other scripts that read from /data and write to /figures and /tables. Reference those outputs in a document that lives in /drafts. Store the scripts in /scripts. Rinse; repeat.

In practice, it can be hard to follow this. Even if you save files in the right places, you can go down blind alleys and have to restart. But what do you do with that old code? Maybe you write a temporary file at some point because the code has grown too complex, or because some programming step takes a long time to run. Do you keep that file in the workflow, or do you refactor things to make it unnecessary? This is where the next step comes in.

Projects as directed graphs

When I can no longer easily remember how the files of one of my projects fit together, I map dependencies. If I already have a draft paper, that’s a good place to start. What files does it call? What files generate those files? What files generate those files? And so on, back to the canonical data. I mark up these connections freehand, in a notebook or in a text editor. Then–and this is probably where I reveal myself to be an obsessive–I write it up formally in the dot language, as a directed graph. I do this because I can then visualize the dependencies, which helps me immensely.

One of my running projects is on spatial metrics of employment segregation. I hit the wall last night, so today the directed graph came out. That produced the following code:

digraph S {
        "S/" [shape=box];
        "S/" [shape=box];
        "S/" [shape=box];
        "D/geocoded_YEAR_short.csv" [shape=box,color=blue];
        "D/spatial_figs.csv" [shape=box,color=blue];
        "F/spatial_win_btw2.pdf" [shape=box,color=green];
        "F/overstate.pdf" [shape=box,color=green];
        "S/" [shape=box];
        "E/eeoc_addresses_census_school.csv" [shape=box,color=red];
        "S/" [shape=box];
        "E/EEO1_1971_2014.dta" [shape=box,color=red];
        "D/eeo_YEAR_short.csv" [shape=box,color=blue];
        "D/geocoded_YEAR.dta" [shape=box,color=blue];
        "E/MATCHING_XWALK_EEO1_1971_2014.dta" [shape=box,color=red];
        "F/overstatement.pdf" [shape=box,color=green];
        "D/matchrates.dta" [shape=box,color=red];
        "S/" [shape=box];
        "F/matchrates.pdf" [shape=box,color=green];
        "F/kdensities.pdf" [shape=box,color=green];
        "D/spatial_figs.csv" [shape=box,color=blue];
        "S/" -> "S/";
        "S/" -> "S/";
        "D/geocoded_YEAR_short.csv" -> "S/";
        "S/" -> {"D/spatial_figs.csv";
                "F/spatial_win_btw2.pdf"; "F/overstate.pdf";
        "E/eeoc_addresses_census_school.csv" -> "S/";
        "E/EEO1_1971_2014.dta" -> "S/";
        "S/" -> {"D/eeo_YEAR_short.csv";
                "D/geocoded_YEAR.dta"; "D/geocoded_YEAR_short.csv"}
        "E/MATCHING_XWALK_EEO1_1971_2014.dta" -> "S/";
        "S/" -> "F/overstatement.pdf";
        "D/matchrates.dta" -> "S/";
        "S/" -> {"F/matchrates.pdf";
        "E/eeoc_addresses_census_school.csv" -> "S/";

Don’t get hung up in the code. Consider the output:


Red boxes are canonical data, things that are not generated by any of my code. Black boxes are scripts. Blue boxes are generated data, while green boxes are figures. The capital letters stand for Scripts, Data, Figures, and Elsewhere. (The latter would normally be Canonical, but in this case the original data lives in a protected directory separate from the project itself.)

This mostly follows that workflow I mentioned, but there are weird exceptions. The script writes a couple of data files that aren’t used by anything downstream; so does There are two figures, overstate.pdf and overstatement.pdf, that look suspiciously similar. At first I thought I’d just typed something wrong, but no, they’re both in /figures. The biggest problem though is in the upper right. The file matchrates.dta lives in /data, yet there is nothing that generates it! It’s an orphan, and yet a script then calls it to create two figures that are in the paper. This is a problem. Without that file, or at least a record of where it came from, you cannot replicate these results from the original data sources.

Orphan and widow files like these jump out when you code up a directory this way. So to do those bugbears of reproducible research, the circular dependencies. Now I can clean them up:


The new dependency structure appears above. The only deviation from that idealized workflow is where one python script calls others. But that’s OK, since the scripts called just define functions used in the calling one.

These aren’t gigantic changes, but that’s kind of the point. If you stop and do this every now and then, before things get too convoluted, it isn’t a big deal to tidy things up. If instead you wait until a deep clean is necessary–if you wait until you have to Marie Kondo your project directory–this can become a true nightmare. Lest I seem pretentious, let me end with a similar file map that I created while trying to clean up an earlier project, before stopping in despair:


Delay refactoring at your own risk!