Documentation Style Guide

In documenting ADMIT’s Python codebase, there are three specific items to consider:

  1. the logical information to include when documenting classes and methods
  2. the physical formatting of the documentation source text
  3. the manner of presentation of the documentation to the user

As Python has a built-in docstring facility, most Python documentation packages center around how to structure and process them in a well-defined way. Since docstrings are object attributes and hence readily accessible in any interactive Python session, this is a very natural and advantageous approach.

Although Doxygen was very familiar to the ADMIT team and does support Python, it does not parse docstrings for its own markup, instead relying on special comment blocks (starting with ##) in a manner similar to C/C++. Docstrings can still be used but are basically an independent documentation channel in this case, appearing as pre-formatted text blocks in the associated output. For this reason Doxygen was not chosen to serve as our primary documentation tool. For Python code development, however, doxygen can still be useful because of its source browser facility, which will automatically generate an indexed HTML tree of syntax-highlighted source code for a project. The ADMIT tree contains a Doxyfile configuration at the top level which will create this tree (in doc/html), including docstrings verbatim, when doxygen is run.

To produce the official user documentation, ADMIT has adopted the NumPy/SciPy documentation conventions. These appear not only to be the most widely known (and used) of the docstring-based systems, but ADMIT users are also close to their own user community. They address all three of the items mentioned above.

This document is not a Python coding style guide; the Google Python Style Guide presents one set of guidelines for the latter.

NumPy Documentation

  • Docstrings are logically divided into sections such as brief and extended summaries, parameters and return values (for functions), attributes (for classes), etc. The most important sections (listed in order of appearance) are:

    Short Summary

    A brief description of the module, class, class method or function.

    Extended Summary

    An expanded description of the functionality of the entity.


    A special section for ADMIT tasks describing supported task keywords, including type information and default value. A distinct format is required compared to the following sections since numpydoc deletes unrecognized sections. An example is

      **stale** : bool
        Whether task output BDPs are out of date; defaults to True.
      **enabled** : bool
        Whether task execution is enabled; defaults to True.
    Note:This section must immediately follow the extended summary.

    Description of the function arguments/keywords, including type information. For classes, constructor arguments are described here with the class, not as part of the __init__ method. The self argument to class methods is not documented.


    For functions and class methods, a description of its return value(s), including type information. The format follows Parameters except that return values are unnamed. If no explicit value is returned, the return value is None (i.e., do not omit the section).


    For classes, a description of class (or instance) variables, in the same style as Parameters.

    See Also

    Optional section providing references to related documentation.


    Optional section discussing background considerations or lower-level implementation details. As such (and in contrast to the preceding sections), this material may be more oriented toward developers or power users than ordinary users.


    Optional section for examples, presented using the doctest format.

    Aside from the summary and keyword sections, all other sections are delimited by reStructuredText section titles.

  • The reStructuredText markup language is used for text formatting. This markup is basically the de facto standard for formatting docstrings in Python. It’s a plain-text markup designed to be easily readable on a character terminal (preserving the docstring’s usability in interactive sessions), while allowing post-processors to produce reasonably attractive output in other formats (HTML, PDF, etc.). It includes directives for things such as:

    • sectioning

    • lists (bulleted and enumerated)

    • links (e.g., to Python)

    • font styles (bold, italic, monospace)

    • preformatted text (e.g., code samples)

      >>> 123 + 222  # Integer addition
      >>> 1.5 * 4    # Floating-point multiplication
      >>> 2 ** 100   # 2 to the power 100

    Another reST/Sphinx Cheatsheet summarizes these and other items.

  • The Sphinx package is used for post-processing. This is also the package used by the Python project itself to produce the official Python documentation. It has many features and can produce attractive output, as demonstrated by the Sphinx website itself, created from reStructuredText files using the Sphinx tool.

    Sphinx is a Python application which works by importing project packages and modules in order to process the formatted docstrings contained therein. Therefore any import dependencies (e.g., CASA for ADMIT) must be satisfied for Sphinx as for any other user of the project.

Note:Processing standard NumPy docstrings with Sphinx requires the numpydoc extension module for the latter. (This doesn’t affect end-users who consume our documentation, only developers using Sphinx to generate it). The numpydoc extension requires Sphinx v1.0.1 or later. RHEL/CentOS 6 uses v0.6.6 and hence the standard packages should be removed and replaced with the current version before building ADMIT documentation. RHEL/CentOS 7 satisfies the minimum requirements. The numpydoc module must be manually installed in either case.

ADMIT Documentation Addenda

The NumPy documentation guidelines cover most Python components, including modules, classes, class methods, special class instances, constants and functions. Although reStructuredText includes many features, NumPy documentation employs a rather limited sub-set for its use. ADMIT developers are encouraged to do likewise, but in practice are free to use any of the more advanced features they find useful so long as it does not interfere with Sphinx output or unduly degrade readability of the plain ASCII docstring.

ADMIT follows the convention that classes are defined within a module of the same name; e.g., FlowManager is defined in module within the admit package and hence its canonical Python class name is admit.FlowManager.FlowManager. For better integration with Sphinx, docstrings for ADMIT modules (not classes) should use a section header for the brief description; these will become page titles in the generated output. This includes package descriptions (whose docstrings reside in the corresponding file). For example, here is the docstring for the FlowManager module:

"""Flow Manager

   Defines the FlowManager class.

Since the class documentation for FlowManager already describes its function in complete detail, such information should not be repeated in the module description.

In class docstrings, for text referencing internal class methods from outside said method, it is good style to use bold type to highlight the method name; e.g., “The use of foo() over bar() is preferred whenever possible...” With sufficient care, it is also possible to construct live hyperlink references to methods and other items using knowledge of the documentation directory tree structure described below, but this is delicate and will significantly impact ASCII docstring readability unless embedded URIs are used; for examples see the FlowManager Notes section and the package documentation.

It is vital that all ADMIT docstrings represent valid reStructuredText input as the Sphinx documentation will fail to build otherwise.

Maintaining ADMIT Documentation

The ADMIT documentation source tree resides in the $ADMIT/doc/sphinx directory and contains a Makefile to build the documentation; a make html will generate the HTML version and place it in the _build/html sub-directory. This output is relocatable and can be copied to a public web address or included with download packages.

The reStructuredText (.rst) documentation source files for ADMIT classes and modules—one for each component—must be placed in the appropriate sub-directory of the doc/sphinx/module directory, which itself contains one directory for each ADMIT package, named according to its canonical Python name. For example, for the module, which resides within the admit.bdp package (physically, the $ADMIT/admit/bdp directory), the corresponding source file is module/admit.bdp/BDP.rst. Although these source files can contain arbitrary markup and information, for the most part they are simple Sphinx autodoc wrappers, such as this one for module/admit/FlowManager.rst:

.. automodule:: admit.FlowManager

The automodule directive instructs Sphinx to import the specified module, process all docstrings it finds within and automatically generate formatted documentation for the associated components. Additional text may be appended to these template files, but in general all relevant information should be placed in the docstrings themselves so that it is available in interactive sessions as well.