[R] The Origins of R

Patrick Burns pburns at pburns.seanet.com
Wed Feb 4 10:35:27 CET 2009

It seems to me that the "other side" from John's
post here have complaints resulting from how
newspapers operate.  While few readers here
are likely to have much direct experience with
newspapers, a lot (I presume) have experience
with submitting papers to journals.

Such experience is likely to include demands to
cut out large portions of the original in order to
cut down on page count.  The same process
operates in newspapers, but to the third power
(and generally under considerable time pressure).

My reaction to the section of the original NYT
article under discussion was that it was a
disjointed mess due to editing rather than a slight
to anyone anywhere.

Patrick Burns
patrick at burns-stat.com
+44 (0)20 8525 0696
(home of "The R Inferno" and "A Guide for the Unwilling S User")

John Maindonald wrote:
> In another thread on this list, various wild allegations have been 
> made, relating to the New York Times article on R.  I object both to 
> the subject line and to the content of several of the messages, and 
> will not repeat or quote any of that content.  It smacks to me of 
> mischief making.
> Discussion has centered around the following quote from the NY Times 
> article:
> “According to them, the notion of devising something like R sprang up 
> during a hallway conversation. They both wanted technology better 
> suited for their statistics students, who needed to analyze data and 
> produce graphical models of the information. Most comparable software 
> had been designed by computer scientists and proved hard to use.”
> The comment that "the notion of devising something like R sprang up 
> during a hallway conversation" is strictly true.  Certainly, this 
> seems like a very plausible account.  I'd have more difficulty 
> believing that the notion was communicated to them in separate 
> dreams.  Part of the wanted technology was freedom for students to 
> take the software home, or copy it down from the web.
> There was a further story to be told, about the origins of the 
> language that Ross and Robert implemented and adapted.  The NY writer 
> pretty much left out that part of the story (S did get a mention, but 
> its connection with R did not), but did remedy this omission in a 
> follow-up.
> Nor did the article do much to acknowledge the workers and work that 
> has gone into R's continuing development. Getting the attributions 
> "right" is difficult.  Even if "right" according to common conventions 
> (and one can argue as to just what the conventions are, especially in 
> the matter of computer language development), they are unlikely to be 
> totally fair.  Stigler's Law of Eponomy has wide sway!
> In the preface to the first and second edition of "Data Analysis and 
> Graphics Using R", we have:
> "The R system implements a dialect of the S language that was 
> developed at AT&T Bell Laboratories by Rick Becker, John Chambers and 
> Allan Wilks".
> The only 1st edition attribution to Ihaka and Gentleman was in Chapter 
> 12: "For citing R in a publication, use Ihaka and Gentleman (1996)".  
> [NB: Type citation() to see the form of citation that should now be 
> used.]
> That was as it now strikes me unfair to Ross and Robert, but no-one 
> complained.  Perhaps no-one ever read that far through the preface!
> There's an excellent brief summary of the history of R, and its 
> connections with S, in Section 1.4 of John Chambers' "Software for 
> Data Analysis".    Appendix A has further details on the development 
> of S, a kind of pre-history of R.
> John Maindonald             email: john.maindonald at anu.edu.au
> phone : +61 2 (6125)3473    fax  : +61 2(6125)5549
> Centre for Mathematics & Its Applications, Room 1194,
> John Dedman Mathematical Sciences Building (Building 27)
> Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200.
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