Using Git to Code, Collaborate and Share

Why use a Version Control System?


Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 0 min
  • What is version control software?

  • Why should I use it?

  • Explain what version control software does

  • Describe the advantages of using version control

  • State that Git is an example of version control softwares

The Essence of Version Control

What Can Go Wrong Without Version Control

Consider the following directory listing. This is a common situation that can occur when working without version control (in fact it’s probably the best case scenario).

mylib-1.2.4_18.3.07.tgz         somecode_CP_10.8.07.tgz
mylib-1.2.4_27.7.07.tgz         somecode_CP_17.5.07.tgz
mylib-1.2.4_29.4.08.tgz         somecode_CP_23.8.07_final.tgz
mylib-1.2.4_6.10.07.tgz         somecode_CP_24.5.07.tgz
mylib-1.2.5_23.4.08.tgz         somecode_CP_25.5.07.tgz
mylib-1.2.5_25.5.07.tgz         somecode_CP_29.5.07.tgz
mylib-1.2.5_6.6.07.tgz          somecode_CP_30.5.07.tgz
mylib-1.2.5_bexc.tgz            somecode_CP_6.10.07.tgz
mylib-1.2.5_d0.tgz              somecode_CP_6.6.07.tgz
mylib-1.3.0_4.4.08.tgz          somecode_CP_8.6.07.tgz
mylib-1.3.1_4.4.08.tgz          somecode_KT.tgz
mylib-1.3.2_22.4.08.tgz         somecode_PI1_2007.tgz
mylib-1.3.2_4.4.08.tgz          somecode_PI_2007.tgz
mylib-1.3.2_5.4.08.tgz          somecode_PI2_2007.tgz
mylib-1.3.3_1.5.08.tgz          somecode_PI_CP_18.3.07.tgz
mylib-1.3.3_20.5.08.tgz         somecode_11.5.08.tgz
mylib-1.3.3_tstrm_27.6.08.tgz   somecode_15.4.08.tgz
mylib-1.3.3_wk_10.8.08.tgz      somecode_17.6.09_unfinished.tgz
mylib-1.3.3_wk_11.8.08.tgz      somecode_19.7.09.tgz
mylib-1.3.3_wk_13.8.08.tgz      somecode-20.7.09.tgz

The trouble with this way of working:

Mistakes Happen

Without recorded snapshots you cannot:

Working on different things



What about Dropbox or Google Drive?

Using a system like this solves some but not all of the issues above:

Git - A Version Control System

The materials of this course focus on teaching the version control software (VCS) Git. Whilst there are many different implementations of VCS, Git has become established as by far the most widely used. We focus on use of Git via its command line interface as we believe this is the best way to communicate the important fundamental concepts.

Git is a very powerful tool. Unfortunately it is also quite difficult start using. Git often uses confusing and unintuitive terminology and benefits of its use are often only apparent in the longer term. Today we will make every effort to demystify Git and make clear why it’s usage is an essential part of any programming activity.

These materials are written in the style of The Carpentries. If attending an instance of this workshop you are fully encouraged to “type along” with the instructor in order to be able to complete the exercises.

Key Points

  • Version control software refers to a type of program that records sets of changes made to files

  • VCS is a ubiquitous tool for software development

  • Tracking changes makes it easier to maintain neat and functional code

  • Tracking changes aids scientific reproducibility by providing a mechanism to recreate a particular state of your code base

  • VCS provides a viable mechanism for 100’s of people to work on the same set of files

  • VCS lets you undo mistakes and restore a code base to a previous working state

  • Git is the most widely used version control software

  • Using Git allows access to online tools for publication and collaboration

Committing and History


Teaching: 30 min
Exercises: 20 min
  • How do I start a project using Git?

  • How do I record changes made in a project?

  • How do I view the history of a project?

  • How can I correct mistakes I make with Git?

  • Explain how and why Git must be configured

  • Explain what a repository is

  • List the commands used to create a Git commit

  • Describe the difference between the working directory, staging area and index

  • Use a commit history to find information about a repository

  • List the commands that can be used to undo previous commits

  • Explain potential issues with rewriting the commit history

First Things First

You should have already completed the setup instructions for this workshop and have Git installed. Launch a command line environment (in Windows launch “Git Bash” from the Start Menu, on Linux or Mac start a new Terminal). We will use this command line interface throughout these materials. We focus on teaching Git with the command line as we believe this is the most thorough and portable way to communicate the underlying concepts.

You can use the command line to interact with Git but there is still some extra information you must provide before it is ready to use. Enter the below commands using your relevant personal information as required (don’t type the $).

$ git config --global "FIRST_NAME LAST_NAME"
$ git config --global ""

The information provided here will be included with every snapshot you record with Git. In collaborative projects this is used to distinguish who has made what changes. The --global part of the command sets this information for any projects on which you might work on this computer. Therefore you only need to perform the above commands once for each new computer Git is installed on.

The Command Line Interface

For users not generally familiar with using command line interfaces its worth taking a moment to consider the commands that were just run. To understand what we just did lets break down the first command:

  1. git
    • This simply indicates to the command line that we want to something with Git.
    • All commands that we use today will start with this.
  2. config
    • Git is a very powerful tool with lots of functionality so next we need to indicate what we want to do with it.
    • Putting config indicates we want to change something about how Git is configured.
  3. --global
    • Parts that start with dashes are called flags and are used to fine tune the behaviour of the command given.
    • The role of the --global flag is explained above.
    • Finally we tell Git what we want to configure and the details to use.

Creating a Repository

Now that Git is ready to use lets see how to start using it with a new project. In Git terminology a project is called a repository (frequently shortened to repo).

For this workshop you were provided with a zip file. If you have not already, please download it and place it in your home directory. The zip file contains a directory called recipe which in turn contains 2 files - and This is the project we’ll be working with, whilst not based on code this recipe for guacamole is an intuitive example to illustrate the functionality of Git. To extract the archive run the below command:

$ unzip

Then change the working directory of the terminal the newly created recipe directory:

$ cd recipe

You’ll need to repeat cd recipe if you open a new command line interface. Feel free to open and and take a look at them (use a normal file browser if you’re not comfortable doing this on the command line). Files with a .md extension are using a format called Markdown, don’t worry about this now, for our immediate purposes these are just text files. Use of Markdown and Github will come up in the next session however.

To start using Git with our recipe we need to create a repository for it. Make sure the current working directory for your terminal is recipe and run:

$ git init
Initialized empty Git repository in /home/username/recipe/.git/

The path you see in the output will vary depending on your operating system.

Creating The First Snapshot

Before we do anything else run the below:

$ git status
On branch master

No commits yet

Untracked files:
  (use "git add <file>..." to include in what will be committed)

nothing added to commit but untracked files present (use "git add" to track)

This is a very useful command that we will use a lot. It should be your first point of call to figure out the current state of a repository and often suggests commands that can be used for different tasks.

Don’t worry about all the output for now, the important bit is that the 2 files we already have are untracked in the repository (directory). We want to add the files to the list of files tracked by Git. Git does not track any files automatically and you need make a conscious decision to add a file. Let’s do what Git hints at:

$ git add
$ git add
$ git status
On branch master

Initial commit

Changes to be committed:
  (use "git rm --cached <file>..." to unstage)

	new file:
	new file:

Now this change is staged and ready to be committed (note that we could have saved some typing here with the command git add

Let us now commit the change to the repository:

$ git commit -m "adding ingredients and instructions"

[master (root-commit) aa243ea] adding ingredients and instructions
 2 files changed, 8 insertions(+)
 create mode 100644
 create mode 100644

We have now finished creating the first snapshot in the repository. Named after the command we just used, a snapshot is usually referred to in Git as a commit, or sometimes a changeset. We will use the term commit from now on. Straight away query the status to get this useful command into our muscle memory:

$ git status
On branch master
nothing to commit, working tree clean

The output we get now is very minimal. This highlights an important point about the status command - it’s purpose is to report on changes in the repository relative to the last commit. In order to see the commits made in a project we can use:

$ git log
commit b7cd5f6ff57968a7782ff8e74cc9921cc7463c30 (HEAD -> master)
Author: Christopher Cave-Ayland <>
Date:   Mon Dec 30 12:51:04 2019 +0000

    adding ingredients and instructions

We’ll talk in more detail about the output here but for now the main point is to recognise that a commit has been created with your personal information and the message you specified.

Staging and Committing

For our first commit we saw that this is a two step process - first we use git add then git commit. This is an important pattern used by Git. To understand this in more detail it’s useful to know that git has three ‘areas’.

The relationship between the commands we’ve seen so far and the different areas of Git are show below: Linear

Exercise: Create some more commits

Add “1/2 onion” to and also the instruction “enjoy!” to Do not stage the changes yet.

When you are done editing the files, try:

$ git diff

There’s lots of information here so take some time to understand the output. If your output doesn’t contain colours you may want to run git diff --color.

First, practice what we have just seen by staging and committing the changes to Remember to include an informative commit message.

Now, run git status and git diff. Then, stage and commit the changes to but, after each step run git status, git diff and git diff --cached. What is the difference between the two diff commands? How does running staging and committing change the status of a file?

Why stage?

The last exercises highlights the reason Git use a staging area before making commits. You can make file changes as you want all at once and then group them together logically to make individual commits. We’ll see why having only sets of related changes for a specific purpose in a single commit is so useful later on.

Git History and Log

We used git log previously to see the first commit we created. Let’s run it again now.

$ git log
commit b6ff1ca61f08241ec741f6fc58ab2a443a253d89 (HEAD -> master)
Author: Christopher Cave-Ayland <>
Date:   Tue Dec 31 12:32:04 2019 +0000

    Added 1/2 onion to ingredients

commit 2bf7ece2f57594873678f9c17832010730970b28
Author: Christopher Cave-Ayland <>
Date:   Tue Dec 31 12:28:19 2019 +0000

    Added instruction to enjoy

commit ae3255af37e82a98c57f16a057acd1ad5a15ff28
Author: Christopher Cave-Ayland <>
Date:   Tue Dec 31 12:27:14 2019 +0000

    Adding ingredients and instructions

Your output will differ from the above not only in the date and author fields but in the alphanumeric sequence (hash) at the start of each commit.

Exercise: Recalling the changes for a commit

The command git log shows us the metadata for a commit but to see the file changes recorded in a commit you can use git show:

$ git show [commit hash]

Use one of the commit hashes from your Git history. To see the contents from when the commit was made try:

$ git show [commit hash]

To Err is Human, To Revert Divine

Rewriting History

A very common and frustrating occurrence when using Git is making a commit and then realising you forgot to stage something, or staged something you shouldn’t have. Fortunately the Git commit history is not set in stone and can be changed.

To undo the most recent commit you can use:

$ git reset --soft HEAD^

Follow this up with:

$ git log
commit 2bf7ece2f57594873678f9c17832010730970b28 (HEAD -> master)
Author: Christopher Cave-Ayland <>
Date:   Tue Dec 31 12:28:19 2019 +0000

    Added instruction to enjoy

commit ae3255af37e82a98c57f16a057acd1ad5a15ff28
Author: Christopher Cave-Ayland <>
Date:   Tue Dec 31 12:27:14 2019 +0000

    Adding ingredients and instructions

Notice we’ve gone from three commits to two. Let’s also run:

$ git status
On branch master
Changes to be committed:
  (use "git restore --staged <file>..." to unstage)

This shows that the content which was part of the commit has been moved back into the staging area.

From here we can choose what to do. We could stage some additional changes and create a new commit, or we could unstage and do something else entirely. For now lets just restore the commit we removed by committing again:

$ git commit -m "Added 1/2 onion to ingredients"

Changing History Can Have Unexpected Consequences

Using git reset to remove a commit is only a good idea if you have not shared it yet with other people. If you make a commit and share it on GitHub or with a colleague by other means then removing that commit from your Git history will cause inconsistencies that may be difficult to resolve later. We only recommend this approach for commits that are only in your local working copy of a repository.

Reversing a Commit

Sometimes after making a commit we later (sometimes multiple commits later) realise that it was misguided and should not have been included. For instance, it’s a bit of cliche to tell people to “enjoy” at the end of a recipe, so lets get rid of it with:

$ git revert --no-edit COMMIT_HASH
[master a70e1c5] Revert "Added instruction to enjoy"
 Date: Tue Dec 31 12:37:47 2019 +0000
 1 file changed, 1 deletion(-)

Check the contents of and you should see that the enjoy instruction is gone. To fully understand what revert is doing check out the repository history:

$ git log
commit ddef60e05eae3cc73ea5be3f98df6ae372e43750 (HEAD -> master)
Author: Christopher Cave-Ayland <>
Date:   Tue Dec 31 14:55:52 2019 +0000

    Revert "Added instruction to enjoy"
    This reverts commit 2bf7ece2f57594873678f9c17832010730970b28.


Using git revert has added a new commit which reverses the changes made in the specified commit.

This is a good example of why making seperate commits for each change is a good idea. If we had committed the changes to both and at once we would not have been able to revert just the enjoy instruction.

The Ultimate Guide to Undoing in Git

It can be quite easy to get into a messy state in Git and it can be difficult to get help via a search engine that covers your exact situation. If you need help we recommend consulting “On undoing, fixing, or removing commits in git”. This page contains a very comprehensive and readable guide to getting out of a sticky situation with Git.

Key Points

  • Setup Git with your details using git config –global “FIRST_NAME LAST_NAME” and git config –global “”

  • A git repository is the record of the history of a project and can be created with git init

  • Git records changes to files as commits

  • Git must be explicitly told which changes to include as part of commit (known as staging changes) with git add [file]…

  • Staged changes can be stored in a commit with git commit -m “commit message”

  • You can check which files have been changed and/or staged with git status

  • You can see the full changes made to files with git diff for unstaged files and git diff –cached

  • The commit history of a repository can be checked with git log

  • The command git revert commit_ref creates a new commit which undoes the changes of the specified commit

  • The command git reset –soft HEAD^ removes the previous commit from the history

Branching and Merging


Teaching: 40 min
Exercises: 20 min
  • How can I or my team work on multiple features in parallel?

  • How can changes from parallel tracks of work be combined?

  • Explain what git branches are and when they should be used

  • Use a branch to develop a new feature and incorporate it into your code

  • Identify the branches in a project and which branch is currently in use

  • Describe a scalable workflow for development with git

Motivation for branches

In the previous section we tracked a guacamole recipe with Git.

Up until now our repository had only one branch with one commit coming after the other:


Now we want to do this:


Software development is often not linear:

The strength of version control is that it permits the researcher to isolate different tracks of work, which can later be merged to create a composite version that contains all changes:

Git collaborative

A group of commits that create a single narrative are called a branch. There are different branching strategies, but it is useful to think that a branch tells the story of a feature, e.g. “fast sequence extraction” or “Python interface” or “fixing bug in matrix inversion algorithm”.

Which Branch Are We Using?

To see where we are (where HEAD points to) use git branch:

$ git branch
* master

In the following we will learn how to create branches, how to switch between them and how to merge changes from different branches.

A useful alias

We will now define an alias in Git, to be able to nicely visualize branch structure in the terminal without having to remember a long Git command (more details about aliases are given in a later section):

$ git config --global alias.graph "log --all --graph --decorate --oneline"

Creating and Working with Branches

Firstly lets take stock of the current state of our repository:

$ git graph
* ddef60e (HEAD -> master) Revert "Added instruction to enjoy"
* 8bfd0ff Added 1/2 onion to ingredients
* 2bf7ece Added instruction to enjoy
* ae3255a Adding ingredients and instructions

We have four commits and you can see that we are working on the master branch from HEAD -> master next to the most recent commit. This can be represented diagrammatically:

Git collaborative

Let’s create a branch called experiment where we try out adding some coriander to

$ git branch experiment
$ git graph
* ddef60e (HEAD -> master, experiment) Revert "Added instruction to enjoy"
* 8bfd0ff Added 1/2 onion to ingredients
* 2bf7ece Added instruction to enjoy
* ae3255a Adding ingredients and instructions

Notice that the name of our new branch has appeared next to latest commit. HEAD is still pointing master however denoting that we have created a new branch but we’re not using it yet. This looks like:

Git collaborative

To start using the new branch we need to check it out:

$ git checkout experiment
$ git graph
* ddef60e (HEAD -> experiment, master) Revert "Added instruction to enjoy"
* 8bfd0ff Added 1/2 onion to ingredients
* 2bf7ece Added instruction to enjoy
* ae3255a Adding ingredients and instructions

Now we see HEAD -> experiment next to the top commit indicating that we are now working with, and any commits we make will be part of the experiment branch. As shown before which branch is currently checkout out can be confirmed with git branch.

Git collaborative

Now when we make new commits they will be part of the experiment branch. To test this let’s add 2 tbsp coriander to Stage this and commit it with the message “try with some coriander”.

$ git add ingredients.txt
$ git commit -m "try with some coriander"
$ git graph
* 96fe069 (HEAD -> experiment) try with some coriander
* ddef60e (master) Revert "Added instruction to enjoy"
* 8bfd0ff Added 1/2 onion to ingredients
* 2bf7ece Added instruction to enjoy
* ae3255a Adding ingredients and instructions

Git collaborative

Note that the master branch is unchanged whilst a new commit (labelled e1) has been created as part of the experiment branch.

As mentioned previously, one of the advantages of using branches is working on different features in parallel. You may have already spotted the typo in but let’s say that we’ve only just seen it in the midst of our work on the experiment branch. We could correct the typo with a new commit in experiment but it doesn’t fit in very well here - if we decide to discard our experiment then we also lose the correction. Instead it makes much more sense to create a correcting commit in master:

$ git checkout master
$ # make change to
$ git add
$ git commit -m "Corrected typo in"
$ git graph
* d4ca89f (HEAD -> master) Corrected typo in
| * 96fe069 (experiment) try with some coriander
* ddef60e Revert "Added instruction to enjoy"
* 8bfd0ff Added 1/2 onion to ingredients
* 2bf7ece Added instruction to enjoy
* ae3255a Adding ingredients and instructions

Git collaborative


Now that we have our two separate tracks of work they need to be combined back together. We should already have the master branch checked out (double check with git branch). The below command can then be used to perform the merge.

$ git merge --no-edit experiment
Merge made by the 'recursive' strategy. | 1 +
 1 file changed, 1 insertion(+)

now use:

$ git graph
*   40070a5 (HEAD -> master) Merge branch 'experiment'
| * 96fe069 (experiment) try with some coriander
* | d4ca89f Corrected typo in
* ddef60e Revert "Added instruction to enjoy"
* 8bfd0ff Added 1/2 onion to ingredients
* 2bf7ece Added instruction to enjoy
* ae3255a Adding ingredients and instructions

Git collaborative

Merging creates a new commit in whichever branch is being merged into that contains the combined changes from both branches. The commit has been highlighted in a separate colour above but it is the same as every commit we’ve seen so far except that it has two parent commits. Git is pretty clever at combining the changes automatically, combining the two edits made to the same file for instance. Note that the experiment branch is still present in the repository.

Now you try

As the experiment branch is still present there is no reason further commits can’t be added to it. Create a new commit in the experiment branch adjusting the amount of coriander in the recipe. Then merge experiment into master. You should end up with a repository history matching: Git


$ git checkout experiment
$ # make changes to
$ git add
$ git commit -m "Reduced the amount of coriander"
$ git checkout master
$ git merge --no-edit experiment
$ git graph
*   567307e (HEAD -> master) Merge branch 'experiment'
| * 9a4b298 (experiment) Reduced the amount of coriander
* |   40070a5 Merge branch 'experiment'
|\ \
| |/
| * 96fe069 try with some coriander
* | d4ca89f Corrected typo in
* ddef60e Revert "Added instruction to enjoy"
* 8bfd0ff Added 1/2 onion to ingredients
* 2bf7ece Added instruction to enjoy
* ae3255a Adding ingredients and instructions


Whilst Git is good at automatic merges it is inevitable that situations arise where incompatible sets of changes need to be combined. In this case it is up to you to decide what should be kept and what should be discarded. First lets set up a conflict:

$ git checkout master
$ # change line to 1 tsp salt in
$ git add
$ git commit -m "Reduce salt"
$ git checkout experiment
$ # change line to 3 tsp in
$ git add
$ git commit -m "Added salt to balance coriander"
$ git graph
* d5fb141 (HEAD -> experiment) Added salt to balance coriander
| * 7477632 (master) reduce salt
| *   567307e Merge branch 'experiment'
| |\  
| |/  
* | 9a4b298 Reduced the amount of coriander
| *   40070a5 Merge branch 'experiment'
| |\  
| |/  
* | 96fe069 try with some coriander
| * d4ca89f Corrected typo in
* ddef60e Revert "Added instruction to enjoy"
* 8bfd0ff Added 1/2 onion to ingredients
* 2bf7ece Added instruction to enjoy
* ae3255a Adding ingredients and instructions

Git collaborative

Now we try and merge experiment into master:

$ git checkout master
$ git merge --no-edit experiment 
CONFLICT (content): Merge conflict in
Automatic merge failed; fix conflicts and then commit the result.

As suspected we are warned that the merge failed. This puts Git into a special state in which the merge is in progress but has not been finalised by creating a new commit in master. Fortunately git status is quite useful here:

$ git status
On branch master
You have unmerged paths.
  (fix conflicts and run "git commit")
  (use "git merge --abort" to abort the merge)

Unmerged paths:
  (use "git add <file>..." to mark resolution)
	both modified:

no changes added to commit (use "git add" and/or "git commit -a")

This suggests how we can get out of this state. If we want to give up on this merge and try it again later then we can use git merge --abort.. This will return the repository to its pre-merge state. We will likely have to deal with the conflict at some point though so may as well do it now. Fortunately we don’t need any new commands. We just need to edit the conflicted file into the state we would like to keep, then add and commit as usual.

Let’s look at to understand the conflict:

* 2 avocados
* 1 lime
<<<<<<< HEAD
* 1 tsp salt
* 3 tsp salt
>>>>>>> experiment
* 1/2 onion
* 1 tbsp coriander

Git has changed this file for us and added some lines which highlight the location of the conflict. This may be confusing at first glance (a good editor may add some highlighting which can help), but you are essentially being asked to choose between the two versions presented. The tags <<<<<<< HEAD and >>>>>>> experiment are used to indicate which branch each version came from (HEAD here corresponds to master as that is our checked out branch).

The conflict makes sense, we can either have 1 tsp of salt or 3. There is no way for Git to know which it should be so it has to ask you. Let’s resolve it by choosing the version from the master branch. Edit so it looks like:

* 2 avocados
* 1 lime
* 1 tsp salt
* 1/2 onion
* 1 tbsp coriander

now stage, commit and check the result:

$ git add
$ git commit -m "Merged experiment into master"
$ git graph
*   e361d2b (HEAD -> master) Merged experiment into master
| * d5fb141 (experiment) Added salt to balance coriander
* | 7477632 reduce salt
* |   567307e Merge branch 'experiment'
|\ \  
| |/  
| * 9a4b298 Reduced the amount of coriander
* |   40070a5 Merge branch 'experiment'
|\ \  
| |/  
| * 96fe069 try with some coriander
* | d4ca89f Corrected typo in
* ddef60e Revert "Added instruction to enjoy"
* 8bfd0ff Added 1/2 onion to ingredients
* 2bf7ece Added instruction to enjoy
* ae3255a Adding ingredients and instructions

Git collaborative


Let us pause for a moment and recapitulate what we have just learned:

$ git branch               # see where we are
$ git branch <name>        # create branch <name>
$ git checkout <name>      # switch to branch <name>
$ git merge <name>         # merge branch <name> (to current branch)

Since the following command combo is so frequent:

$ git branch <name>        # create branch <name>
$ git checkout <name>      # switch to branch <name>

There is a shortcut for it:

$ git checkout -b <name>   # create branch <name> and switch to it

Typical workflow

These commands can be used in a typical workflow that looks like the below:

$ git checkout -b new-feature  # create branch, switch to it
$ git commit                   # work, work, work, ...
                               # test
                               # feature is ready
$ git checkout master          # switch to master
$ git merge new-feature        # merge work to master
$ git branch -d new-feature    # remove branch

Key Points

  • Git allows non-linear commit histories called branches

  • A branch can be thought of as a label that applies to set of commits

  • Branches can and should be used to carry out development of new features

  • Branches in a project can be listed with git branch and created with git branch branch_name

  • The HEAD refers to the current position of the project in its commit history

  • The current branch can be changed using git checkout branch_name

  • Once a branch is complete the changes made can be integrated into the project using git merge branch_name

  • Merging creates a new commit in the target branch incorporating all of the changes made in a branch

  • Conflicts arise when two branches contain incompatible sets of changes and must be resolved before a merge can complete

  • Identify the details of merge conflicts using git diff and/or git status

  • A merge conflict can be resolved by manual editing followed by git add [conflicted file]… and git commit -m “commit_message”

Sharing your code


Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 10 min
  • How can I share my code with others?

  • What should I take into account when sharing my code?

  • Differentiate the use case for public and private repositories.

  • Describe the key information that should be present in a software repository.

  • Configure git with your GitHub credentials.

  • Setup a repository in GitHub.

Collaborating: what you need to know?

Often, you will need to share your code with others, either with just another person in the same office or anyone, anywhere in the world. Repository hosting services let you do precisely that, keeping all the advantages of VCS and adding on top tools to ease the collaborative development of the code:

GitHub: Why GitHub?

There are several widely used repository hosting services using Git, such as GitLab or Bitbucket. In this course we will use GitHub because:

Private vs public repositories

Depending of who you want to give access to your repository, there are two broad types of repositories: private and public. This choice, the first one you will need to make, is not written in stone and you can set a repo private initially and making it public later on.

When you are part of an organization account, there are more options to control the visibility of a repository.

Private repositories

Public repositories

Open Source Projects

There is a growing recognition that reproducibility and open source practices in scientific software development are closely interrelated. It is increasingly expected that publications are accompanied by the analysis code and raw data used to create them. As a budding researcher one of the best ways to improve the impact of your work is to make it as easy to reproduce as possible.

Read more:

Things to include in your project

There are a few files that should get used to always include in the root directory of your repository:


See GitHub Help: Adding a license to a repository

Licence for Imperial College London software

Imperial College’s preferred licence is the permissive BSD 2- or 3-clause. You can check the details at Imperial website: Open Source Software Licences. The guidance on this site is primarily intended for members of staff however it is correct for graduate students with the exception that (subject to certain conditions) you are entitled to hold the copyright. This site also tells you who you should contact in case you want a different licence model for your work e.g. commercial.

Open Source software licences

There is a huge range of different licences, ranging from fully permissive to very restrictive. A couple of websites with more information on the topic (including how to licence things that are not software) are:

Installation process/instructions


Digital Object Identifiers (DOI)

If you are serious about what you are doing and want people to really cite your work properly - and get recognition for it - consider providing your repo with a digital object identifier (DOI). You can get one from:

See GitHub Help: Setting guidelines for repository contributors.

Creating a repository

Now you have all the information you need to create a new repository in GitHub. Just follow this steps:

  • Once logged in to GitHub, press the + symbol in the top right, and choose new repository from the dropdown menu.
  • Give your repository the name example.
  • Add a short description for your project.
  • You are going to create a Public repository, so select that option.
  • Click on Initialize this repository with a README. This will create an empty README file in the root directly that you can edit later on.
  • Select a licence for your repository. Which one is up to you, but make sure you have read what they entail before (Tip: there is a little “i” next to the dropdown list with some help on this. In case of doubt, choose BSD 3 -clause.


Your repository is now ready and you should see something similar to this: New Repository It tells you there is only 1 commit, 1 branch and 1 contributor, the type of licence you have chosen and also that there are two files: LICENSE and, which is also rendered immediately below.

To make this complete, let’s add some contributing guidelines:

  • Go to Insights in the upper right corner of the repository.
  • And then click on Community on the left hand side.
  • The screen now shows how the project compares with the recommended community standards. Is not bad, but could be better.
  • Click on Add in the Contributing line. In the new screen you can write your contributing guidelines. Tip: No one writes this from scratch.

Have a look at some Examples of contributing guidelines and copy/paste those parts relevant for your project.

  • Once you are done, click on Commit new file and the changes will be confirmed. Now you should see a file in the root directory.

Key Points

  • Public repositories are open to anyone to use and contribute.

  • Private repositories are just for yourself or a reduced set of contributors.

  • README contains a description of the software and, often, some simplified installation instructions.

  • The LICENSE describes how the software must be distributed and used.

  • Using one of the OSI (open source initiative) licenses is recommended if the repository is public.

  • CONTRIBUTING describes how other users can help developing the software.

  • CITATION helps others to cite your software in their own papers.

  • GitHub can be used to setup a software repository, share your code and manage who and how can access it.

Remote repositories


Teaching: 20 min
Exercises: 20 min
  • Is my local repository the same as the remote one?

  • How can I send my local changes to the remote one?

  • How can I get the changes others have made?

  • Explain the differences between a local and a remote repository.

  • Explain what tracking and upstream mean.

  • Use the push command to send changes on the local branch to the remote one.

  • Use the pull command to update your local branch with the remote one.

  • Find out the available remote branches.

  • Setup a local branch to track a new remote one.

Remote and local repositories

Tracking and upstream

Configuring repositories

Depending on whether you are starting from a remote repository and want to get a local one out of it or the other way around, the steps are different.

Configuring a remote repository from a local one

In this case, you have a local repository and you want to synchronise it with a new, remote one. Let’s create a remote for the recipe repository you worked on in Lesson 1. If you have lost your copy of the recipe repository you can download a completed copy here:

  • Create a new repository in GitHub, as in the last episode. Give it a name, description and choose if it should be public or private, but do not add any other file (no README or licence).
  • You will be offered a few options to populate the remote repository. We are interested in the third one.
  • Launch a new command line interface and run cd recipe to navigate to the directory where you have your local repository - Then execute:
$ git remote add origin [address of your remote repo (should end in .git)]
$ git push -u origin master
# you will be asked to provide your GitHub username and password
  • The first line will set the GitHub repository as the remote for your local one, calling it origin.
  • The second line will push your master branch to a remote one called origin/master, setting it as its upstream branch.
  • You can check if things went well by going to GitHub: the repository there should contain all the files of your local repository.

Configuring a local repository from a remote

This involves the git command clone. Let’s create a local copy of the example repository you created remotely in the last episode.

  • On GitHub, the press down arrow in the far top right and choose “Your repositories” from the drop-down menu.
  • Choose the example repository from the list.
  • In the main screen of your repository, click on the green button on the right, Clone or Download, and copy the address that appears there.
  • Open a new command line interface and execute the commands:
$ git clone [address of your remote repo]
$ cd example
  • This will download the remote repository to a new example directory, in full, with all the information on the branches available in origin and all the git history.
  • By default, a local master branch will be created tracking the origin/master branch.
  • You can find some information on the repository using the commands already discussed in Lesson 1, like git log or git branch -vv, which should show that there is indeed just one branch, master tracking origin/master) Git collaborative


Pushing an updated README

You want to update the README file of the example repository with more detailed information of what the repository is about and then push the changes to the remote.

Modify the README file of your local copy of example with your preferred editor (any change is good enough, but better if they are useful - or at least, funny!) and synchronise the changes with the remote. Check on GitHub that you can view the changes you made.


$ git add
$ git commit -m [Commit message]
$ git push


Git collaborative

Pulling an updated README

When reviewing your new README file online, you have discover a typo and decided to correct it directly in GitHub. Modify the README file online and then synchronise the changes with your local repository (tip: you can edit any text file directly in GitHub by clicking in the little pencil button in the upper right corner).


$ git fetch
$ git status

This will indicate that the remote branch is ahead of your local branch by 1 commit. Since there are no diverging commits, it is safe to pull.

$ git pull

Key Points

  • origin is typically the name of the remote repository used by git.

  • Local and remote repositories are not identical, in general.

  • Local and remote repositories are not synchronized automatically.

  • push and pull commands only affect the branch currently checked out.

  • Only changes to a branch that are committed are pushed to the remote.

  • Local branches need to be explicitly pushed to a new remote one in order to share them.



Teaching: 20 min
Exercises: 40 min
  • How can I make a contribution to other people’s repositories?

  • How do I know what changes other people are making in my repo?

  • Explain what forks and pull requests (PR) are.

  • Open a PR to make a contribution to someone else’s repository.

  • Review a PR to check what changes have been made.

  • (Bonus) Update your fork to keep it up to date with the original repository.

Now that you have your repositories in GitHub, you will learn how to start collaborating with other people, contributing with content to their repositories and accepting other’s contributions to your own.

Forking someone else’s repository

The image below shows that this repository has been forked 6 times already. To fork it yourself, click on fork and choose your personal account.

Git collaborative

Playing with a fork

Visit this repository and fork it. Explore the options in the repo. What’s different from a repository you created? And from the original one?


  • The only visual difference with one of your repos is that there is a note just below the name indicating where this repo was forked from.
  • You can also open a pull request (see below) across forks.
  • In the original repo, you don’t have write access, i.e. you cannot modify any file or change any setting.

Pull requests

To open a PR, just click on the corrsponding button next to the branch selector, as shown in the next figure.

Git collaborative

In the next screen, you can select the target branch (where things will be merged, if the PR is accepted) and the branch that you want to merge. You can open PR involving branches within the same repo or between a repo and any other fork of it. Once the branches are selected, a comparison between the files that are different will appear below.

Git collaborative

Requesting reviewers

Reviewing a PR


Mentioning other issues and PR

All issues and PR receive a tag number starting at 1 and preceded by #, like #40 or #110. If you want to refer to an issue or PR in any comment anywhere in GitHub, just use its tag number and these will be automatically linked from the comment.

Claim issues

There are some restrictions on who can be assigned to an issue. If you do not have write access to the repository (which is often the case) and you are not part of the same organisation of the repository, the only way of being assigned to an Issue is by making a comment on the Issue. This also serves to warn others that you are volunteering to work on that. A “Hey, I can tackle this.” is often enough.

Closing issues

If a PR tackles a particular issue, you can automatically close that issue when the PR is merged by indicating Close #ISSUE_NUMBER in any commit message of the PR or in a comment within the PR.

The following figure shows some of the issues open in a certain repository. The labels tell us there are a couple of bug reports, a couple of issues related to the performance of the software and several ones that are simple enough to be tackled by novice people. Most of them have some discussion going on.

To open a new issue, simply click on the New Issue green button on the right.

Git collaborative

An example workflow

We now have all of the components needed to start working collaboratively through GitHub. A typical workflow might look like this:

If there is a group of you that will be working together on a project you can avoid needing to have individual forks by setting up collaborators. This allows you to grant write access to other users to a public or private repository. In this case we still strongly recommend working in separate branches and communicating through issues and pull requests.

Making a book of recipes

Together with some colleagues, you are writing a book of recipes for sauces and you are using git for version control and GitHub to collaborate in the writing of the book.

Form groups of 3-4 people and choose one to act as administrator. This person should:

Enabling issues in forks

By default, when you fork a repository, Issues are disabled. To enable them go to Settings in the upper right corner, then to Options in the left panel and, finally, scroll down to the Features section. There click the Issues tickbox to enable them.

Now, start collaborating!

  • All, including the administrator, open new issues with recipes for sauces you will like to have in the book.
  • Administrator, add some tags, prioritising some of the recipes, and assign yourself or one of your colleagues as responsible for each of them. Remember you will need to “Claim the Issue” first in order to be assigned to it, as discussed above.
  • Fork the administrator’s repository. Administrator, did you notice how the number of forks increases? Which GitHub users forked it from you? And from the original repo?
  • Work on the recipes you have been assigned. Practice the concepts learnt in previous episodes about cloning a repository, making the changes locally and pushing those changes back to the remote repository. You can even try a gitflow aproach if you feel ambitious!
  • When ready, open a PR to the administrator’s repo and request his/her review.
  • Administrator, review the PR, request some changes and accept others. When ready, merge the PR.

These exercises can be repeated with the other members of the group acting now as administrators and choosing a different topic for the recipes (eg . pasta, roasts, cocktails, etc.).

Bonus: Keeping your fork sync with the original repo

In the previous exercise, the individual forks will be outdated as you contribute with content to the administrator’s repo. Follow these instructions to make sure that your own forks are kept up to date.

Key Points

  • Forks and pull requests are GitHub concepts, not git.

  • Pull request can be opened to branches on your own repository or any other fork.

  • Some branches are restricted, meaning that PR cannot be open against them.

  • Merging a PR does not delete the original branch, just modifies the target one.

  • PR are often created to solve specific issues.