Best practices

Structure and document your projects

Using the same project structure for all of your projects provide a lot of benefits. We recommend that you follow the structure shown below. It is flexible enough to work for a wide variety of data analysis projects, but feel free to adapt it to your needs.


This may seem like a large structure for a simple project, but remember that you can always scale down this structure. E.g. for small projects you may drop the docs folder and simply document how to run your analyses in myproject/README.txt. Each folder contains a README.txt file which documents the purpose and contents of the folder. You don’t have to write a lot, just what’s necessary to understand your project and its different parts.

If you consider modifying the basic project structure, make sure that you thought about what it means for the reproducibility of your project! Consider whether it is necessary to change the structure or if you’re just being lazy.

Let’s have a look at the goal of each folder:


This folder should contain your raw/original data files. You should consider this directory read-only (even better: make it read-only). However, it is okay to add new files to the folder, as long as you don’t modify or delete other files in the folder.


This folder contains data files produced by various steps in your analysis. If you’re using a workflow tool like GWF, this directory is where you would put the output of your targets. For large workflows it may be a good idea to make subfolders for each step.


This folder contains the final data files (not plots) produced by your analysis. Again, you may want to put these in subfolders for large workflows with many result files.


This directory contains scripts for generating plots from the result files and the resulting plots in one or more formats. For example, you could have a script called which produces a plot called distribution_of_tumor_purities.pdf.


This directory contains the scripts you wrote for your analysis, e.g. those used by your workflow. Use file names that describe the purpose of the scripts. At the top of each script, insert a comment that briefly describes the input, output and purpose of the script. Again, a few sentences is better than nothing and may often be enough.


This folder is mainly for large projects where it may be nice to document each analysis in its own file. If you use plain text files as shown above, remember to give them numbers to make it easier for the reader to figure out where to begin.

In addition to the folders described above, the project root should also contain at least two files: a file documenting your project structure (this could just contain a short introduction to the project and a link to this page) and a file describing your environment.

Multi-user project

In the case of multi-user projects where many people collaborate on the same data, the following structure may be used.


In this scenario the root folder contains a people folder which a subfolder for each person working on the project. Each of these folders uses the same directory structure as described for single-user projects. This means that each user his/her own scripts, sandbox, docs, results, steps and data folders. The user-specific data folder can contain data files that are not used by everyone associated with the project, but it can also contain symbolic links to the root data folder.

The root results folder is used to aggregate results from different users by creating symbolic links to specific result files. For example, say that user A produced a result foo.txt and user B wants to use this file. User B can then create a symlink from myproject/people/A/results/foo.txt to /myproject/results/foo.txt.

Use project-specific environments

An environment is a isolated collection of programs and libraries. You can have multiple environments (e.g. one for each project) and these environments can have different software and even different versions of the same software installed simultaneously. To use an environment you must activate it. This will load all of the software available in the environment into your shell so that it is available as any other program installed on the machine.

First, download and install the Anaconda distribution according to the instructions for your platform. Instructions can be found here along with detailed documentation on how to use the conda command. Then run:

[fe-open-01]$ conda activate
(base) [fe-open-01]$ conda create -n myproject python=3.5

If the first command doesn’t work, you’re running an old version of Anaconda. Please download and install a newer version.

This will create an environment called myproject with Python 3.5 installed. To enter the environment, use this command:

[fe-open-01]$ source activate myproject
(myproject) [fe-open-01]$

Now check that the environment has been activated correctly by starting Python:

[fe-open-01]$ python
Python 3.5.1 |Continuum Analytics, Inc.| (default, Dec 7 2015, 11:24:55)
[GCC 4.2.1 (Apple Inc. build 5577)] on darwin
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.
>>> import numpy
Traceback (most recent call last):
File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ImportError: No module named 'numpy'

As you can see running the python command now opens Python 3.5.1 and we can also see that the Python installation was provided by Continuum, the company providing Anaconda. However, if we try to import e.g. numpy we get an error because this package has not been installed in the environment. Let’s try to install it. Press Control-d to close the Python interpreter and then run this command:

[fe-open-01]$ conda install numpy

This will install the latest version of the numpy package into the current environment (you may have to say yes to installing the packages). Now try to open Python again and import numpy. It should work this time.

The conda install command lets you choose exactly which version of the package to install. When we created the myproject environment which chose to specifically install Python version 3.5 using the = character. This syntax also works for conda install, e.g. conda install numpy=1.9.1.

When you are done working with your project, or you want to switch to another environment for working with another project, run the command:

[fe-open-01]$ source deactivate

That’s fine, but we still need a way to export an environment and its packages to other people. We can do this with:

(myproject) [fe-open-01]$ conda env export > environment.yml

Which allows other members of the project to recreate your exact environment:

[fe-open-01]$ conda env create -f environment.yml
[fe-open-01]$ conda activate myproject

You may think that Anaconda only works for Python and Python packages, however, Anaconda actually works for any program that is available as an Anaconda package (which may Python, R or any other language, including binaries). Packages are provided through channels. While the official Anaconda channel contains thousands of popular packages, other channels provide even more packages. One such channel is the R channel which provides access to the R programming language and many popular libraries used with R. To get access to the R channel run:

[fe-open-01]$ conda config --add channels r

Another great channel is the Bioconda channel which provides access to hundreds of packages related to bioinformatics such as BWA, samtools, BLAST etc.:

[fe-open-01]$ conda config --add channels bioconda

However, all of this hardly improves reproducibility. However, Anaconda allows you to specify an environment (a list of channels and packages with specific versions) in an environment file. Create a file called environment.yml in the project folder and put this in the file:

name: myproject
  - r
  - bioconda
  - python=3.4
  - numpy=1.9.2
  - r-essentials=1.4
  - bwa=0.7.15

Now, for the sake of clarity, let’s remove our existing myproject environment.

[fe-open-01]$ conda env remove -n myproject

We can now create the exact environment specified in environment.yml by simply running:

[fe-open-01]$ conda env create

As you work you may need to change your environment, e.g. update a package to a more recent version, add or remove a package. To do this, just modify the environment.yml file and then run:

[fe-open-01]$ conda env update --prune

Sanity check for repeatability

To check whether your project can easily be run by another person, package it into a zip-file and send it to one of your colleagues. They should be able to run your analysis with no help from you and by only reading the documentation in your project (and maybe this document).