I came across this Stack Overflow question about how to find out when a given function was released. It turns out that a binary search lets us find out faster.

First, let’s think through what we need to answer the question.

To see if a function is included in an R package, we can check the contents of the NAMESPACE file included in the package’s sources. The pacs package helps with reading that file for any version of an R package published in CRAN, and with pkgsearch we can easily list all CRAN versions that have been published for a given package.

Let’s define some helper functions to encapsulate those tasks:

is_exported_in <- function(fn, pkg, version = NULL) {
  fn %in% pkg_namespace(pkg, version)$exports

pkg_namespace <- function(package, version = NULL) {
  pacs::pac_namespace(package, version = version)

pkg_versions <- function(package) {

Looks like we have all the crucial pieces. What’s missing is a strategy for picking which versions to check and in what order—a search algorithm.

A linear scan is simple: Go through package versions in order, one-by-one, and stop at the first version where the function is found. Often, this is all you need.

implemented_in <- function(fn, pkg) {
  for (version in pkg_versions(pkg)) {
    if (fn |> is_exported_in(pkg, version)) return(version)

implemented_in("relocate", "dplyr")

However, in this case, there’s a problem. Each check involves a relatively slow file download in order to pull down an archived copy of a NAMESPACE file. At the time of writing, dplyr has 39 published versions. Going through them one-by-one, we’ll quickly be waiting in the order of tens of seconds for our search to finish. In fact, the relocate() function above was added in version 1.0.0 (the 30th version on CRAN), and took about 13 seconds to find. Nobody has the patience for that!

A binary search is a more efficient way to tackle this problem. It takes advantage of the ordered nature of the search space by always checking the middle choice. Based on the check, half of the remaining search space can be ruled out due to the ordering. As a result, we only end up needing to check at most \( \lceil log_2(n) \rceil + 1 \) choices.

It takes a bit more work to set up than a linear scan, but certainly pays off:

implemented_in <- function(fn, pkg) {
  versions <- pkg_versions(pkg)
  lower <- 0
  upper <- length(versions) + 1
  while (upper - lower > 1) {
    mid <- floor((upper + lower) / 2)
    version <- versions[mid]
    if (fn |> is_exported_in(pkg, version)) {
      upper <- mid
    } else {
      lower <- mid

implemented_in("relocate", "dplyr")
## [1] "1.0.0"

The binary search finds the correct version in just under 2 seconds.


Most of the time in R you don’t end up needing to think too much about the choice of a search algorithm. Often results are pre-computed for a vector of values, and going through them is a matter of milliseconds.

However, this problem turned out to benefit a lot from a more carefully chosen algorithm. It was also the first time I had to manually implement a binary search in R. I certainly had a lot of fun with it!