[R] Nine questions about methods and generics

From: Michael Dewey <info_at_aghmed.fsnet.co.uk>
Date: Thu, 06 Dec 2007 12:17:58 +0000

I have a series of question about methods and generics. The questions are interspersed in some text which explains what I want to do, how it works now and why I do not understand well why it works. Questions are written Q1 and so on up to Q9 and always start a new line.

The concrete problem is this: it has become customary after a meta-analysis to quote various statistics to give a picture of the degree of heterogeneity. Initially I wrote a function which calculated these given the heterogeneity chi-squared Q and the number of studies k. It then occurred to me that it would be convenient to have functions which take the objects returned by the various functions in the package rmeta (available from CRAN) and perform the calculation on them. So after plagiarising some ideas from rmeta I wrote

hetero <- function(x, ...) {


Q1 - have I created a generic called hetero? If so what is the correct idiom: created, declared, ...? Q2 - if I go class(hetero) it returns "function" rather than "generic". Is that what I should expect?

I then called my original function hetero.default

hetero.default <- function(Q = NULL, k = NULL, conflevel = 0.95) { # some code left out here which computes values in the list res

    class(res) <- "meta.hetero"

Q3 was it a good idea to have it return an object of class "meta.hetero" or would it have been better to call it "hetero"

now if I go
hetero(14.4, 24)
I get what I expected

I then provide a new function

hetero.meta.summaries <- function(obj, ...) { # some code to calculate Q and k

    res <- hetero.default(Q, k, ...)

which also seems to do what I wanted. There are also similar functions hetero.meta.MH and hetero.meta.DSL to operate on the other classes of object returned in rmeta.

The problem is that I do not really understand why it all works and suspect it could easily stop working.

At this point I decided that if all else fails I should read the documentation. The manual pages (the things you get with ?UseMethod) describe what the functions do but do not give me a series of steps to salvation. I found S Programming (V&R) much clearer now I knew where to look but I think V&R underestimate the depths of my ignorance.

Q4 V&R seems to suggest that I should have called the first argument to hetero, hetero.default and hetero.meta.summaries the same (possibly x or object) yet it seems to work. Q5 Does it matter?
If it does matter which should I choose?

I also decide to look at R-extensions which seems to suggest that I should be using NextMethod and also has dire warnings about having different argument lists to the various methods.
I found R-extensions much the least helpful of the three sources I tried.

Q6 should I be using NextMethod?
Q7 if what I have created are methods which are displayed by methods("hetero") why is it UseMethod not usemethod? (I note that ?Methods tells me about something different from ?methods.)
Q8 I have used a ... argument for hetero.meta.summaries but not for hetero.default. Was that wise? R-extensions has some stern things to say here which I do not really understand.
Q9 is there somewhere else I could have looked bearing in mind my comments above about the manual pages, V&R and R-extensions? Or shall I just keep reading V&R until the penny drops?

For the record:

S Programming (V&R) means

   author = {Venables, W N and Ripley, B D},    year = 2000,
   title = {S programming},
   publisher = {Springer-Verlag},
   address = {New York},
   keywords = {statistics general; software}

The heterogeneity statistics are explained in @ARTICLE{higgins02,

   author = {Higgins, J P T and Thompson, S G},    year = 2002,
   title = {Quantifying heterogeneity in a meta--analysis},    journal = {Statistics in Medicine},
   volume = 21,
   pages = {1539--1558},
   keywords = {meta-analysis, heterogeneity}

I am using 2.6.1 under XP Professional.
My knowledge of computer science is frozen at about 1975.

Michael Dewey

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