Code Testing


We recommend tool developers create unit tests and integrated tests to introduce as many automated checks as possible to validate their software. Once these test cases are created, they may be added to a continuous integration tool (such as TravisCI) so that every time a pull request is merged in on Github, this suite of tests is run.

Unit tests

Unit tests test that a singular piece of code (i.e. a function or method) does what it is intended to. The benefit of this type of test is that it is relatively straightforward to create and can catch many problems in software. The downside is unit tests are simplistic and therefore somewhat tedious to create. Most software platforms or IDEs have a way to auto-generate a skeleton of the unit test methods a user might require. In the Eclipse IDE, for example, generating unit tests is done via the pull down menu. Selecting “create unit tests” will generate a skeleton test class for each of the classes/functions in your software. These are usually stored in some kind of created “Tests” folder.

An R example of how to create tests

In R, the testthat (package)[] assists in creation and running of unit tests for an R package. If you have not already created an R package for your software, we recommend checking out Hadley Wickham’s book on the subject here.

After you write your package functions, you can create your test. Tests are assumed to live in the subdirectory “tests” of a package. This directory contains four classes of .R files that are denoted based on the string they belong with. Helper files (“helper..”) are run every time the package is loaded, in other words, when devtools::load_all() is called. Setup files (“setup..”) are executed before tests, but not when the package is loaded. This is a good place to store things like dataset loads for data needed to run multiple tests. .R files starting with “test..” are expected to contain tests and are executed in alphabetical order. Teardown files (“teardown..”) are executed after the tests are run. These files should include things like cleaning up the workspace by removing objects created during setup or testing. In this same directory, you need to include a file named testthat.R that contains the minimum code below if you want your test cases to be run automatically:



Within that .R file, first use the test_that() function to create the test. The goal here is to do simple validation on the function behavior. Usually, within a call to test_that(), you will want to use one of the expect functions provided by the package (i.e. expect_equal, expect_identical, etc.). These allow you to compare the output of your function with metrics calculated elsewhere. These are more robust than the base R if and logic functions because they explicitly take into account things like rounding error and miscasting. The example below tests that three trigonometric functions return the expected result using the expect_equal function.


## Loading required package: testthat

## Warning: package 'testthat' was built under R version 3.5.1

# Create trigonometric function unit tests
test_that("trigonometric functions match identities", {
  expect_equal(sin(pi / 4), 1 / sqrt(2))
  expect_equal(cos(pi / 4), 1 / sqrt(2))
  expect_equal(tan(pi / 4), 1)

You can also test things like the structure of outputs and if erroneous input causes the expected error, rather than silently failing.

test_that("trigonometric functions throw an error with NULL input",{

Integrated tests

There may be isolated cases where your package consists only of a number of independent functions that are not expected to be called in sequence. In this situation, unit tests alone may be sufficient. However, most tools require integrated tests in addition to unit tests. Integrated tests check the functionality of a suite of functions that work together. For example, if you have a tool that fits a population model, you might have unit tests for the functions that process the data, fit the model, and plot the outputs, but an integrated test that runs a whole example from start to finish. These types of test can help identify software problems that occur when outputs of one function are passed as inputs to the next function.

A clear place to source integrated tests is from your user manual, vignette, or examples directory. If you are providing these examples for users to work off of, they should always work, and they should be able to run with only data, functions, and dependencies loaded with the package. Therefore, we recommend at minimum including a full example as one of your integrated tests. These integrated tests can be added to the build path in Travis so they are also run whenever changes are merged in on Github. Note: this can be a slow process; Travis often takes several hours to run even on software packages that load relatively quickly.

If your software relies on a workflow with many different options, each set of options should have its own integrated test. This could be as simple as checking that your software returns an error when two incompatible options are specified, or might mean you need many different integrated test cases. If you do not find the errors across multiple cases in an integrated tests, your users will, leading to much more debugging to find the error than if your code was adequately tested in the first place. <References on testing coverage?>

If you are using R, you can include integrated tests in another “test….R” file within the testing directory so they are run whenever the testthat::test_check() function is called.

Code coverage

Once you think you have a good suite of test cases created, there are many automated tools you can use to see how much of your code is covered by automated tests. If you’d like to track this, you can even create a badge for your repository (and your toolbox landing page) that highlights how well-covered your code is by test cases. We recommend tracking this metric so that you can observe how your test coverage changes over time - it may not be feasible to achieve 100% code coverage, but at least strive for keeping the same level of code coverage over time. This will indicate that you are introducing test cases to cover new functionality at the same rate that you add new features to your software.