14 Unit tests

Unit tests are simple to write, easily invoked, and confer large benefits throughout the software development process, from early stage exploratory code, to late stage maintenance of a long-established project. Unit testing often becomes indispensable to those who give it a try. Here we explain how to write unit tests, how to run them, and how they are woven into the standard Bioconductor build process. We hope that unit tests will become a standard part of your software development, and an integral part of your Bioconductor package.

We recommend either the RUnit or testthat packages from CRAN to write unit tests. RUnit is an R implementation of the agile software development ‘XUnit’ tools (see also JUnit, PyUnit) each of which tries to encourage, in their respective language, the rapid development of robust useful software. Testthat also draws inspiration from the xUnit family of testing packages, as well as from many of the innovative ruby testing libraries, like rspec, testy, bacon and cucumber.

14.1 Motivation

Why bother with unit testing?

Imagine that you need a function divideBy taking two arguments, which you might define like this:

divideBy <- function(dividend, divisor) {
    if (divisor == 0)
    dividend / divisor

As you develop this function you would very likely test it out in a variety of ways, using different arguments, checking the results, until eventually you are satisfied that it performs properly. Unless you adopt some sort of software testing protocol, however, your tests are unlikely to become an integral part of your code. They may be scattered across different files, or they may not exist as re-runnable code in a file at all, just as ad hoc command-line function calls you sometimes remember to make.

A far better approach, we propose, is to use lightweight, formalized unit testing. This requires only a very few conventions and practices:

  • Store the test functions in a standard directory.
  • Use simple functions from the RUnit or testthat packages to check your results.
  • Run the tests as a routine part of your development process.

Here is a RUnit test for divideBy:

test_divideBy <- function() {
    checkEquals(divideBy(4, 2), 2)
    checkTrue(is.na(divideBy(4, 0)))
    checkEqualsNumeric(divideBy(4, 1.2345), 3.24, tolerance=1.0e-4)

And the equivalent test suing testthat:

test_that("divideBy works properly", {
  expect_equal(divideBy(4, 2), 2)
  expect_true(is.na(divideBy(4, 0)))
  expect_equal(divideBy(4, 1.2345), 3.24, tolerance = 1.0e-4)

Adopting these practices will cost you very little. Most developers find that these practices simplify and shorten development time. In addition, they create an executable contract — a concise and verifiable description of what your code is supposed to do. The experienced unit-testing programmer will create such a test function to accompany every function, method and class they write. (But don’t let this scare you off. Even adding a single test to your package is worthwhile, for reasons explained below.)

Developers often rebel when unit tests are recommended to them, calculating that creating unit tests for existing code would be a lengthy and tedious job, and that their productivity will suffer.

Unit tests, however, are best written as you develop code, rather than after your package is written. Replace your informal testing with a few lightweight formal practices, and you will see both your immediate and long-term productivity increase.

Consider that every unit of software (every function, method, or class) is designed to do a job, to return specific outputs for specific inputs, or to cause some specific side effects. A unit test specifies these behaviors, and provides a single mechanism — one or more test functions residing in one or more files, within a standard directory structure — to ensure that the target function, method or class does its job. With that assurance, the programmer (and their collaborators) can then, with confidence, proceed to use it in a larger program. When a bug appears, or new features are needed and added, one adds new tests to the existing collection. Your code becomes progressively more powerful, more robust, and yet remains easily and automatically validated.

Some proponents suggest that the benefits of unit testing extend further: that code design itself improves. They argue that the operational definition of a function through its tests encourages clean design, the ‘separation of concerns’, and sensible handling of edge cases.

Finally, unit testing can be adopted piecemeal. Add a single test to your package, even if only a test for a minor feature, and both you and your users will benefit. Add more tests as you go, as bugs arise, as new features are added, when you find yourself puzzling over code your wrote some months before. Soon, unit testing will be part of your standard practice, and your package will have an increasingly complete set of tests.

14.2 Deciding Which Test Framework To Use

RUnit and testthat are both robust testing solutions that are great tools for package development, which you choose to use for your package largely comes down to personal preference. However here is a brief list of strengths and weaknesses of each.

14.2.1 RUnit Strengths

  • Longer history (first release 2005)
  • Direct analog to other xUnit projects in other languages.
  • Only need to learn a small set of check functions.
  • Used extensively in Bioconductor (210 Bioconductor packages, overall 339 circa May 2015), particularly in the core packages.

14.2.2 RUnit Weaknesses

  • No RUnit development activity since 2010, and has no active maintainer.
  • Need to manually source package and test code to run interactively.
  • More difficult to setup and run natively (although see BiocGenerics:::testPackage() below which handles some of this).

14.2.3 Testthat Strengths

  • Active development with over 39 contributors.
  • Greater variety of test functions available, including partial matching and catching errors, warnings and messages.
  • Easy to setup with devtools::use_testthat().
  • Integrates with devtools::test() to automatically reload package source and run tests during development.
  • Test failures and errors are more informative than RUnit.
  • A number of different reporting functions available, including visual real-time test results.
  • Used extensively in CRAN (546 CRAN packages, overall 598 circa May 2015).

14.2.4 Testthat Weaknesses

  • Test code is slightly more verbose than the equivalent RUnit tests.
  • Has been available for less time (only since 2009).

14.3 RUnit Usage

14.3.1 Adding Tests For Your Code

Three things are required:

  1. Create a file containing functions in the style of test_dividesBy for each function you want to test, using RUnit-provided check functions.
  2. Add a few small (and idiosyncratic) files in other directories.
  3. Make sure the RUnit and BiocGenerics packages are available.

Steps two and three are explained in conventions for the build process.

These are the RUnit check methods:

checkEquals(expression-A, expression-B)
checkEqualsNumeric(a, b, tolerance)

In a typical test function, as you can see in test_divideBy, you invoke one of your program’s functions or methods, then call an appropriate RUnit check function to make sure that the result is correct. RUnit reports failures, if there are any, with enough context to track down the error.

RUnit can test that an exception (error) occurs with

checkException(expr, msg)

but it is often convenient to test specific exceptions, e.g., that a warning “unusual condition” is generated in the function f <- function() { warning("unusual condition"); 1 } with

obs <- tryCatch(f(), warning=conditionMessage)
checkIdentical("unusual condition", obs)

use error=... to test for specific errors.

14.3.2 Conventions for the Build Process

Writing unit tests is easy, though your Bioconductor package must be set up properly so that R CMD check MyPackage finds and run your tests. We take some pains to describe exactly how things should be set up, and what is going on behind the scenes. (See the next section for the simple technique to use when you want to test only a small part of your code).

The standard command R CMD check MyPackage sources and runs all R files found in your MyPackage/tests/ directory. Historically, and sometimes still, R package developers place test code of their own invention and style into one or more files in this tests directory.

RUnit was added to this already-existing structure and practice about 2005, and the additions can be confusing, beginning with the indirect way in which your test functions are found and executed. (But follow these steps and all should be well. Post to [bioc-devel][] if you run into any difficulty.)

There are two steps:

  1. Create the file MyPackage/tests/runTests.R with these contents:

  2. Create any number of files in MyPackage/inst/unitTests/ for your unit test functions. You can put your tests all in one file in that directory, or distributed among multiple files. All files must follow the naming convention specified in this regular expression:


    For our example, therefore, a good choice would be MyPackage/inst/unitTests/test_divideBy.R or if the dividesBy function was one of several home-brewed arithmetic functions you wrote, and for which you provide tests, a more descriptive filename (a practice we always recommend) might be MyPackage/inst/unitTests/test_homeBrewArithmetic.R

14.3.3 Using Tests During Development

R CMD check MyPackage

will run all of your tests. But when developing a class, or debugging a method or function, you will probably want to run just one test at a time, and to do so when an earlier version of the package is installed, against which you are making local exploratory changes. Assuming you have followed the directory structure and naming conventions recommended above, that your current working directory is inst, here is what you would do:


[1] TRUE

A failed test is reported like this:

Error in checkEquals(divideBy(4, 2), 3) : Mean relative difference: 0.5

14.3.4 Summary: the minimal setup

A minimal Bioconductor unitTest setup requires only this one-line addition to the MyPackage/DESCRIPTION file

Suggests: RUnit, BiocGenerics

and two files, MyPackage/tests/runTests.R:


and MyPackage/inst/unitTests/test_divideBy.R:

test_divideBy <- function() {
    checkEquals(divideBy(4, 2), 2)
    checkTrue(is.na(divideBy(4, 0)))
    checkEqualsNumeric(divideBy(4, 1.2345), 3.24, tolerance=1.0e-4)

Remember that your unitTests/test_XXXX.R file, or files, can have any name(s), as long as they start with test_.

14.4 Testthat Usage

Hadley Wickham, the primary author of testthat has a comprehensive chapter on Testing with testthat in his R packages book. There is also an article testthat: Get Started with Testing in the R-Journal.

The easiest way to setup the testthat infrastructure for a package is using devtools::use_testthat().

You can then automatically reload your code and tests and re-run them using devtools::test().

14.4.1 Conversion from RUnit to testthat

If you have an existing RUnit project you would like to convert to using testthat you will need to change the following things in your package structure.

  1. devtools::use_testthat() can be used to setup the testthat testing structure.
  2. Test files are stored in tests/testthat rather than inst/unitTests and should start with test. Richard Cotton’s runittotesthat package can be used to programmatically convert RUnit tests to testthat format.
  3. You need to add Suggests: testthat to your DESCRIPTION file rather than Suggests: RUnit, BiocGenerics.

14.5 Test Coverage

Test coverage refers to the percentage of your package code that is tested by your unit tests. Packages with higher coverage have a lower chance of containing bugs.

If tests are taking too long to achieve full test coverage, see long tests. Before implementing long tests we highly recommend reaching out to the bioconductor team on the bioc-devel mailing list to ensure proper use and justification.