[git, github, interactive tutorial, versioning, pull, push, fork, share, commit, add]


What is Git?

Git is an open-source version control system, which allows you to keep track of your source files, and the changes you make to them. Using Git, you can roll back to any previous version of a file, and easily collaborate with team members.

Git runs on your computer, and allows you to configure so-called repositories that track files and directories.

What is GitHub?

You can optionally use Git in combination with an online hosting service such as GitHub, which allows you to backup your code, synchronize your work across multiple computers, or collaborate with others on joint projects. There are several alternatives to GitHub available, and maybe your institution even offers its own “Git” services.

On top of the basic features of Git (like versioning), GitHub offers a range of tools that allow you to collaborate with each other more efficiently. A few examples:

  • Issues are sort of to-do lists, flavored with a discussion board
  • Projects are a sort of Scrum board.

Let’s Use Git!


For starters…

If you’ve never worked with Git or GitHub before, we recommend you following this interactive onboarding tutorial.

For more advanced learners..

There is no better summary of using Git and GitHub than this official cheatsheet. Download it, print it out or put it on your desktop. Consider it as your best friend for a while.

Configuring Git on a new computer

To use Git locally, tell Git your name and email address, so that any work you do (and potentially sync later) can be linked to your name.

Open Git bash, and type the following commands:

# set the author name for your commits
git config --global user.name "[name]"

# set the author email for your commits
git config --global user.email "[email address]"

Create a new repository or join an existing one

Git organizes your code in so-called repositories. You can either create a repository for new or existing projects, or join existing repositories. Keep on reading to find out how.


Avoid complicated directory names, or Dropbox/Drive

  • Ideally, you use a main project folder on your computer, pretty high-up in your folder hierarchy (e.g., ‘D:/projects/`).
  • Use simple directory names, so you can navigate quickly to it.
  • While technically feasible, you should avoid storing your Git repositories on Dropbox as this may lead to synchronization conflicts.

Create a new repository for a new project

If you would like to start a new project, it’s easiest to start your repository from one of our example projects. Just navigate to a project’s GitHub page, and select Use this template (a green button). Choose a name for your new repository, and proceed with the standard options.

Note down the URL for your repository (e.g., https://github.com/tilburgsciencehub/test-repository).

Create a new repository for an existing project

Chance is you are already working on a project, and you’d like to adopt Git to start versioning your files from now onwards.

Just navigate to your main project directory, open Git bash, and type

# initialize a new repository
git init

Clone an existing repository to your local computer

If you already have your own GitHub repository, or have become a member of the GitHub repository of a team member, you can just “clone” these repositories to your local computer.

# clone an existing repository from Github to local PC
git clone "[url]"

# clone an existing repository, and specify name of target directory on local PC
git clone "url" my-project # will clone the repository to the folder `my-project`.


Start with example code

Cloning is a fantastic way to use the work of others to start your own. For example, you can type git clone "https://github.com/rgreminger/example-make-workflow" to clone a copy of the example workflow using R and make (see also the example projects).

You can also take a sneak preview of one of the thousands of projects hosted on GitHub? Just note down the URL of the repository (e.g., https://github.com/[username]/[project-name]), and clone the repository to your local computer.

Work on your project in “workcycles”

When working on your project, you do the following two things:

  • track changes to your project (e.g., such as adding, removing, or changing source files),
  • synchronize your repository with GitHub, so that (a) you make a backup of your changes, and (b) you allow other team members to see your changes, and (c) you see changes that team members (may) have done.

Git workflow.

Track your changes

  • Now it’s time to start working on your project. “Working” means making changes to files or directories (such as adding, changing, or deleting files or directories).

  • Typically, you execute this workflow multiple times a day when working on a project. Every time you execute this workflow, you “save” a snapshot of your project that you can roll back to later.

  • Git separates a “save” operation in two stages: first, files (or directories) can be gathered on a so-called “staging area” using the command git add. You can use multiple of these commands after each other. Then, in a second step, the changes are saved - or, in Git terminology - “committed”. The command for this is git commit. See below for an example, which also adds a few other useful commands.

# show files or directories that were changed (or that still need to be added)
# files that are already in the staging area are green; files that are not
# in the staging area are red.
git status

# add a directory or file to the staging area
git add directory-name-or-file-name
# for example, git add sourcecode.R, or dir-name/sourcecode.R.

# run git status again, to see that the files have "turned green"
git status

# added a wrong file to the staging area, and want it to turn "red" again?
git reset directory-name-or-file-name

# are you happy with what is green in your staging area? Then it's
# time to finalize your save operation by initiating a so-called "commit".
git commit -m "message"
# (give it a clear message, so that you can easily roll back to this version
# of your repository.

# optionally, use git log to see the versioning history
git log

Exclude or remove files from tracking

Want to avoid tracking specific files and folders from versioning? For example, there is no point in tracking generated files in /gen, as these files are purely created based on source code in /src (which, in turn, you do would like to track). Also, large data sets shouldn’t be versioning, given the upload limit at GitHub. Learn how to exclude files and directories from tracking here.

Similarly, you should not store any sensitive information (such as passwords or API keys) in your code. Similarly, you may have accidently committed a large data set and would like to take it out from the repository entirely? Here’s how!.

Synchronize your changes with a server

Everyone can sync their local changes with the remote repository on GitHub. You can also “download” changes to your local repository from the remote repository.


# download and merge any changes from the remote/GitHub
git pull

# alternatively, you can do the same in two steps:
git fetch # fetches changes
git merge # merges changes with your local files


# upload all local branch commits to GitHub
git push


Branches separate the main version of your project (the “main” branch), from any experimental code in which you develop new features. This allows members of the team to make changes to the project without immediately affecting the main version of the project.

We provide an introduction to branching and branch naming strategies in additional building blocks:

See also

Want to know even more about how to use Git? Check out the links below for more information: