by Flo Schneider, 17 March 2014

I started using git not long ago. But since then, I also started to encourage all my colleagues working in theoretical ecology to use a solid version control for their code development. This provokes much interest but also many questions. Therefore, I want to share this manual, that originally was written for internal use in our team.

I laid out my arguments for using version control in this other article. Since then, I wanted to write a follow up that explains git for researchers, because I see that this topic is badly neglected amongst theoretical ecologists.

First a few words in general about what git actually is and what it can do.

Git is a very little programm. It can be applied to keep track of changes made to any directory on your computer. It creates a hidden folder called .git within your directory (subsequently called a repository ) that simply is an archive of all changes made to any file. In principle, you can anytime go back and forth between the versions.

I see two main purposes of it:

  • The very first purpose is version control of a project. This can be a piece of software or a written document, for example. As a developer or author you might want to keep track of your progress. Maybe you want to go back to earlier versions, because you somehow messed it up, or just because you liked it better. This ensures a continuous improvement of your project.
  • The second purpose is collaboration. git allows you to share the whole project with others. It tracks, who was doing changes on the project’s files and is able to merge things together if the collaborators were working on different parts of the projects.

  • If you think about it, this is also exactly the thing you need if you are working from different computers, e.g. from work and from home. So we can add synchronisation to that list.

git also helps with building up an organisational structure for complex software development. It is easy to work on different parts of the project at the same time and merge those so-called branches together afterwards.

There is an excellent documentation for that little piece of software and many blog posts and forum threads that provide help. I will summarize in the following lines how you install git and how you would use it in your everyday workflow.


The actual program is a command line tool. It is run with very simple and universal prompts (see below). But there are graphical user interfaces (GUIs) as well. I mention some for use in Windows below. However, I think it is a good idea to get used to the command line tools before you simplify the workflow by using one of the GUIs.

  • in Ubuntu (or other Linux distributions): in any case you first will have to install git with

        sudo apt-get update
        sudo apt-get install git

    and configure it.

        git config --global "Your name"
        git config --global
        git config --global core.editor gedit

    This just tells git under which name commits should be performed and which texteditor to use for requiring messages.

  • in Windows: If you use GitHub (see below) to host your repositories, GitHub for Windows is a clean and convenient tool to use. It sets up a command line shell that includes all the Linux utility that is required for git, including ssh and nice merging tools for file conflicts. However, the actual ‘GitHub for Windows’ program is not very flexible and uses a completely different vocabulary (syncing, updating) than the actual git.

    You also could use independent GUI clients which have more functionality. TortoiseGIT and MsysGit provide a nice integration in the explorer right-click menu, besides providing a command line shell with all the tools and GUI’s you need.

    In my case, I was using Cygwin before for ssh. Combining git and Cygwin’s ssh is quite a challenge, because you need to tell the Cygwin programs, where your windows home directory is located. It’s tricky but possible. However, I finally uninstalled Cygwin to run a much lighter and optimised shell.

    If you use one of the latter options, some steps might be necessary to configure git. Open the installed terminal/bash and type

        git config --global "Your name"
        git config --global
        git config --global core.editor notepad
  • Independend of your operating system, R Studio as well as Eclipse provide integrations for git. These allows you to add, commit and push from the application, without changing to a terminal window or other client.

basic functionality

This is only a collection of the most important commands you will need. For more information on what git actually does to your data and what you can do if you have lost your HEAD, read the excellent Git Pro Book by Scott Chacon on the official git website.

The traditional way to work with Git repositories is to use bash / command line prompts. This allows you to do all the necessary steps like (1) staging changed files to be commited to the repository, (2) commiting files to the repository (

If you are working with a remote repository, e.g. for sharing the project with collaborators or syncing different computers, you will also want to (3) pull the recent copy of a remote repository to your local computer and (4) push the changed repository back to the remote host.

Then, once in a while, you might (5) save a version of your code (e.g. if a certain a milestone is reached), or you need to (6)check out an earlier version of your files (because you messed it up) or (7) use branching and merging for your try-and-error code development.

everyday Workflow


If you want to see, if your repository was changed since the last pull, or if some data are already staged for commit, you can type

	git status

staging, a.k.a. adding

The purpose of staging is to make a clean selection of the changes that are tracked at the next commit to your repository. This allows you to avoid cluttering your version history. it also allows you to separate changes made in a particular part of the project, e.g. the manuscript, from the changes in another part, e.g. simulation code. Staging generally happens with git add.

	git add filename.r


	git add folder

Running a git status afterwards will show you that this file/folder is listed for the next commit. However, usually you do not want to add only one file.

Staging entire folders or all files: Before you try that, you should ensure that there is a .gitignore file specified in your git repository. This file excludes files from automated adding to the next file commit. Otherwise you will add files which are not supposed for version control, e.g. auxiliary files from LaTeX or created pdfs or huge binary data files.

Best first preview which files are going to be staged using the option -n:

	git add -n .

If you are happy with this file list, you can stage all:

	git add .


So once you are happy with the files staged, you can commit.

	git commit -m "<add message here>"

This is adding an object to your git repository, which can be identified by an absolutely unique name, the SHA-1 hash. It might look something like 803ea39a0feed898027bd84dd5bcdfb11f781893. This object contains the name of the previous commit, a time stamp and the message you added, as well as all the changes you made compared to the previous commit, plus of course, your name and e-mail adress.

Those changes are now saved and tracked in your local repository.

Messages are obligatory in git. If running git from command line, the easiest way to add comments is specify the parameter -m. If you don’t do it, an editor window will pop up and ask you to enter a message. It is very important to choose a concise and descriptive message, because it will allow you to quickly find that one commit where you changed that particular thing.

So, don’t become lazy on messages:

from: [](


working with remotes

For sharing with collaborators or syncing your computers, you need to push your recent commits with a remote repository, e.g. on your local server or on GitHub. This assumes that you have a working SSH connection to the remote git repository. Here is a comprehensible guide by Glenn Murray how to set this up.


If you want to pull (in subversion this was called ‘check out’) from a remote repository, e.g. on the workstation or on GitHub, you need to type

	git pull origin master

Here, you specify from which remote server (here origin ) you want to pull which branch (here master ). Your repository holds a list of known servers for this particular repository. You can see this list if you type

	git remote -v

This returns you a list of names that are valid for the use in place of origin. A repository cloned (see below) from somewhere stores the location of it’s parent under the name origin. So in that case (i.e. in most cases) you probably need to write

	git pull origin master

Sometimes you need to set the remote clone of your repository. This works via

	git remote <name>

which enables you to pull from that repository afterwards:

	git pull <name> master

After a successful pull you will have an exact match of the files in branch master that are stored on the remote repository in your local repository. Read more about branches below.


Remember from pulling that your local repository knows the location of it’s own remote clones. git remote -v will show you all of those.
To push your local changes to the one called origin, simply do

	git push origin master

That’s all you need for the everyday workflow.

Once-in-a-while things

First of all, there are different ways how you can obtain a repository on your local computer: Cloning an existing repository (somewhere online or elsewhere on your computer) or creating a new repository.

create a local repository

After installing git (see below), you are able to spawn git repositories wherever you like. Create a folder and initialise.

	cd path/to/your/projects/
	mkdir newrepository
	cd newrepository
	git init


If you want to get a copy of an existing repository from somewhere else you need to clone it.

	cd path/to/your/projectdirectory/
	git clone git@serverip:~/pathtorepository/namerepository.git

This also initialises the origin of this repository for convenient pull and push (see above). Each repository keeps a list of the known remotes, i.e. copies of this repository on other computer. you can call them

	git remote -v

The default name of the parent copy, from where and to where you pull and push updates, is simply origin. But it can be renamed to a more meaningful name, e.g. github

	git remote rename origin github

create a remote copy

You might want to backup your repository or share it with somebody via a remote server or even via dropbox or a USB-stick. You need to initialise an empty repository on a remote server and specify it as a remote for your own repository. So, first, go to the remote drive (or any other drive that you can share with your collaborators) and create the remote repository as bare directory.

	git init --bare newrepository.git

Then, in your local repository, set a new remote called workstation

	git remote add  git@kefi118:~/repos/repository.git

Forking is basically the same thing, but without the intention of merging the development paths back together.


With certainty you will have milestones in the project. Even if you might not call them ‘milestones’, there are points in time during the project which are important to remember. Such milestones might be quite obvious, like

  • the submission of a manuscript
  • the start of an intensive simulation run

but they also might be less important or obvious, but still important to have a permanent reference.

  • handing out the manuscript to somebody else for pre-review
  • handing out the code for review
  • having finished work on an important element of your simulations (e.g. a function)

In those cases you might want to add a tag to your project. This is a lable that is easy to find again. A reference in project-time.

See a list of the existing tags on the project with

	git tag

For all the cases mentioned above, it is best to use annotated tags, which are able to restore the recent content of the project and contain additional information. You can save a tag by typing

	git tag -a v0.2 -m "second internal review"

However, like branches (see below), tags are not pushed to or pulled from a remote by default. This means, if you want to share the tag, you need to push it to the remote repository, e.g. by typing

	git push origin v0.2

If you want to restore somebody elses tag, you need to pull it first.

	git pull origin v0.2

Be aware, that now your working directory will show the state of the repository that was tagged. Of course, all later work is still there. You can switch the view of your working directory any time back to master by using

	git checkout master

resolving conflicts

git is quite robust against errors. It can easily handle changes that were done by different people on the same file, as long as they do not affect the same line of code or text.

But of course this might happen. In such a case, git will complain when you pull or push your changes to or from the remote and write both alternatives into your file. You will need to decide manually, which line is the more recent or better version. There are tools that help you comparing versions, depending on your operating system.

There are some other conflicts that might occur. If that happens, check out the manual or make a web search.

time travelling

Well. That is what git is all about.

You can restore any previous commit, tag or branch. Simply go back to a tag by typing

	git checkout v0.2

You will see that now the content of your working directory is just reset to the point in project-time where you set the tag. You can look at the files and work with them. But be aware that you just create a branch on your project tree by doing that.

You can go back to your master branch, by typing

	git checkout master

And your working directory is just as it was before.

… all the other stuff

For now, I leave out all the more advanced things like branching and merging. It is not really necessary for individual work. I usually develop my code in a linear history, always staying on the master branch.

This manual might be updated once in a while. Please send me a quick e-mail if you find errors!