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Documentation & Communication

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify and explain different types of project documentation (both internal and external)
  • Describe tools and approaches to creating your own documentation
  • Describe best practices for maintaining documentation
  • Identify and explain different communication strategies for working in a team (virtual and in person)
  • Create your own GitHub Pages website (!)

Peer-reviewed manuscripts or conference preceedings / presentations /posters are one of the primary ways of communicating science, but they are far from the only avenues of communcation available to us as researchers and educators.

As our methods become more complicated and customized, open science means giving people a better understanding of our approaches and tools than may be required in most journals.

Communicating amongst a team of researchers that may span institutions, time zones, or continents also requires more modern approaches.

Strong frameworks for internal communication and documentation can make collaboration easier, improve the quality of your science, and reduce the hassle of collaborative work.

Project Documentation

The documentation system, by Divio, categorizes the different types of documentation into 4 quadrants:


Can you explain the documentation type for each quadrant?
  • Tutorials: Lessons! Tutorials are lessons that take the reader by the hand through a series of steps to complete a project of some kind. They are what your project needs in order to show a beginner that they can achieve something with it.
  • How-to-guides: Recipes! How-to-guides take the reader through the steps required to solve a real-world problem.
  • References: Guides! References offer technical descriptions of the machinery and how to operate it. References have one job only: to describe. They are code-determined, because ultimately that’s what they describe: key classes, functions, APIs, and so they should list things like functions, fields, attributes and methods, and set out how to use them.
  • Explanation: Discussions! The aims of explanations are to clarify and illuminate a particular topic by broadening the documentation’s coverage of a topic.

You can read more in depth on this chart by visiting

Public Repositories for Documentation

This website is rendered using GitHub Pages using MkDocs and the Material theme for MkDocs.

Other popular website generators for GitHub Pages are Jekyll Theme or Bootstrap.js. has become a popular tool for developing web-based documentation. Think of RTD as "Continuous Documentation".

Bookdown is an open-source R package that facilitates writing books and long-form articles/reports with R Markdown.

Quarto is an open-source scientific and technical publishing system built on Pandoc

Confluence Wikis (CyVerse) are another tool for documenting your workflow.

Things to remember about Documentation

  • Documentation should be written in such a way that people who did not write the documentation can read and then use or read and then teach others in the applications of the material.

  • Documentation is best treated as a living document, but version control is necessary to maintain it

  • Technology changes over time, expect to refresh documentation every 3-5 years as your projects age and progress.

GitHub Pages

  • You can pull templates from other GitHub users for your website, e.g. Jekyll themes
  • GitHub pages are free, fast, and easy to build, but limited in use of subdomain or URLs.


  • publishing websites via costs money.
  • You can work in an offline state, where you develop the materials and publish them to your localhost using Sphinx
  • You can work on a website template in a GitHub repository, and pushes are updated in near real time using

Material MkDocs

  • publish via GitHub Actions
  • Uses open source Material or ReadTheDocs Themes





  • GitBook websites use MarkDown syntax
  • Free for open source projects, paid plans are available

Websites to Host Methods & Protocols

Open Science Framework for free. OSF can be directly linked to your ORCID.

  • Integrated project management tools
  • Uses templates to create a project website
  • Can publish preprints from within project management tools - collaborative platform and preprint server for: science methods, computational workflows, clinical trials, operational procedures, safety checklists, and instructions / manuals.

QUBES - community of math and biology educators who share resources and methods for preparing students to tackle real, complex, biological problems.

What are the benefits of using a website?

Github Pages are hosted directly from your GitHub repository.

Just edit, push, and your changes are live.

You do not need to run your own web server!!

Hands-on: Building a GitHub Pages Website using MkDocs

This section is built in order to educate on and simplify the steps necessary that newcomers need to take in order to build a successful GitHub Pages hosted website. You will be forking/importing the academicpages-mkdocs website (repo) in order to help you create your own. This tutorial is inspired by academicpages, a Jekyll themed template created in order to help scientists and academics build their own websites. Due to the learning curve necessary to master Jekyll, this tutorial has replicated the academicpages website in MkDocs-material theme, a more intuitive and user friendly MarkDown extension for GitHub Pages to render.


  1. Create a GitHub account and generate a token. FOSS has covered how to create a Token in Week 0: The Shell and Git.
    • You will need this token in order to modify your code locally
  2. Fork or import the academicpages-mkdocs repository
    • Forking or importing will allow you to have your own copy of a specific repository; Cloning a repository without forking/importing it first, will lead to changes not being applied to your own copy of the repo, but to the original repository. You should clone your forked or imported repository, not the original!
  3. Navigate to Settings > Actions > General:
    • Under Action Permissions select Allow all actions and reusalbe workflows
    • Under Workflow permissions select Read and write permissions and Allow GitHub Actions to create and approve pull requests
  4. Edit the mkdocs.yml and push your changes
    • The first changes you should be making are in the first 10 lines in the mkdocs.yml file in order to reflect your necessities:
      • Line 2: site_name: "Your Name / Site Title" - change to any title you want
      • Line 3: site_description: 'Short Description' - give a short description of the website
      • Line 4: site_author: 'FirstName LastName' - who you are
      • Line 5: site_url: - change it to the URL reflected in Settings, which will most likely be https://<>/
      • Line 8: repo_name: RepoName - give the name of your repository (e.g., academicpages-mkdocs in this case)
      • Line 9: repo_url: - give the git repository URL
    • This will trigger the GitHub action workflow, which is setup to apply changes to the website every time a commit is pushed. One of the first thing that mkdocs-material will do, is to create the gh-pages branch (in case you do not have it already).
  5. Navigate to Settings > Pages and make sure that Source is Deploy from a branch and Branch is gh-pages, /(root)
    • You should be able to access your website at https://<github-username> If you cannot find your website, go to the repository's settings page and navigate to Pages: your website address will be there.
  6. Edit documents as necessary.
    • Don't forget to add, commit and push changes!
    • Changes will only be visible on the website after a successful push.
    • After each push, next to the commit identifier GitHub will show either a yellow circle (🟡, meaning building), green check (, meaning success), or red cross (❌, meaning failure).
    Failure? Try again!

    If you've been given the red cross ❌, GitHub will notify you with what went wrong. By clicking on the ❌, GitHub will open up a new page showing you the broken process.

Repository Explanation

The academicpages-mkdocs is a GitHub repository ready to deploy a GitHub Pages website using the MkDocs-materialtheme. The repository has everything necessary to run:

  • A docs folder:
    • A folder that contains all the documents necessary to populate the website's pages.
    • All of the documents that the user needs to change are in here.
  • A mkdocs.yml file:
    • A yml file which contains critical information on the website structure, including themes, fonts, and extensions.
  • A requirements.txt file:
    • A file with a list of software necessary to build the website, primilily used by GitHub Actions.
  • A gh-pages branch:
    • This branch is built by mkdocs-material automatically after the GitHub Action is executed; it is where the website is rendered from.
  • A site folder:
    • Similar to the gh-pages branch, this is a folder created by mkdocs-material required in the steps to create a website.

Further Documentation

Here are some guides that you may find useful:

Other GitHub Pages Website Quickstarts

GitHub Pages

  1. Create a GitHub account
  2. Clone the repo
  3. Create an index.html
  4. Push it back to GitHub

  1. Install
  2. Use Github
  3. Create a ReadTheDocs account

Material MkDocs

  1. Install Material a. use a reqirements.txt b. or pip install mkdocs-material
  2. Clone a repository with an existing template or create a new repo with mkdocs new .
  3. Run python -m mkdocs serve to build and serve locally
  4. Open your browser to preview the build at https://localhost:8000`


  1. Install R and RStudio
  2. Install Bookdown package with install.packages("bookdown", dependencies=TRUE)
  3. Open the Bookdown demo and get started


  1. Build locally
  2. Push to GitHub
  3. (alt) Use GitHub Actions


  1. Create your first book


  1. Follow Template builder


Internal Project

Choosing which software to use for your internal lab communication can be complicated by the cost of setting up, the cost of maintaining, and simply by the sheer number of platforms that are out there.

For this workshop, we use SLACK (Searchable Log of All Conversation & Knowledge). Microsoft's competitor to SLACK is Microsoft Teams.

Remember, the intention of these platforms are to improve productivity & not become a distraction.


  • Slack has plenty of apps for coordinating multiple services, i.e. Calendars, Github, GoogleDrive, Box, etc.
  • Slack is limiting unless you're willing to pay for the professional support.

Microsoft Teams

  • Teams is used by many R1 research universities as part of their campus wide license agreement for Office 365 Business and Education.

Other popular alternatives

Useful links for creating a SLACK workspace

  1. Create a new Workspace
  2. Create channels, add apps & tools

External (Public)

Although we didn't cover it explicitly in the announcement for the workshop, communicating with the public and other members of your science community is one of the most important parts of your science!

There are many ways scientists use social media and the web to share their data science ideas:

  1. "Science Twitter" - is really just regular Twitter, but with a focus on following other scientists and organizations, and tweeting about research you're interested in. By building up a significant following, more people will know you, know about your work, and you'll have a higher likelihood of meeting other new collaborators.
  2. Blogs - there are numerous platforms for blogging about research, the older platforms tend to dominate this space. Other platforms like, Medium offer a place for reseachers to create personalized reading spaces and self publish.
  3. Community groups - There are lists (and lists of lists) of nationals research organizations, in which a researcher can become involved. These older organziations still rely on official websites, science journal blogs, and email lists to communicate with their members. In the earth sciences there are open groups which focus on communication like the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP) with progressive ideas about how data and science can be done. Other groups, like The Carpentries and Research Bazaar are focused on data science training and digital literacy.


Remember Personal and Professional Accounts are Not Isolated

You decide what you post on the internet. Your scientist identity may be a part of your personal identity on social media, it might be separate. A future employer or current employer can see your old posts. What you post in your personal accounts can be considered a reflection of the organization you work for and may be used in decisions about hiring or dismissal.

Self-Paced Material

Self Assessment

True or False: Tutorials and How-to-Guides are the same


Tutorials are in general introductory and longer than How-to-Guides and are intended for teaching learners a new concept by describing applications and providing justifications.

How-to-Guides are more like cooking recipes which include step-by-step instructions for a specific task.

True or False: Teams should communicate over a single messaging platform.


While it may be advisable to push informal communication toward a platform like SLACK or Microsoft Teams, there is no one-platform-fits-all solution for managing a diverse science team.

What is the best communication platform for team science?

There is no best platform, but there are some best practices

In general, communications amongst team members may be best suited for messaging services like SLACK, Teams, or Chat.

For software development, GitHub Issues are one of the primary means of documenting changes and interactions on the web.

Formal communication over email is preferred, and is necessary for legal, budgetary, and institutional interactions.

Last update: 2023-03-06