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Is Python squeezing the R programming language out of data science?

A report throws up another sign the popularity of R may be declining among data scientists.

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The R programming language has suffered yet another knock, dropping out of the TIOBE Index’s top 20 popular programming languages.

It’s the first time the language has fallen out of the top 20 in three years, with TIOBE attributing the decline to the dominance of Python in the field of data science and machine learning, where R has typically been used.

“It seems that there is a consolidation going on in the statistical programming market,” according to a TIOBE analysis.

“Python has become the big winner. A possible reason for this is that statistical programming is finding its way from university to industry nowadays and Python is more accepted by the industry.”

Python has a reputation of striking a good balance between usability and user friendliness, with streaming giant Netflix last week revealing it uses the programming language extensively, including for statistical analysis and to help it carry out machine learning.

The TIOBE Index attempts to estimate the popularity of languages worldwide based on results from major search engines. The index is sometimes criticized for being a rather blunt measure, likely to be influenced by a range of factors beyond a language’s popularity. However in this instance, the TIOBE Index is the latest of a series of surveys that have identified R as being on a downward trend.

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R also dropped one place in this year’s RedMonk Programming Rankings, and an analysis of job vacancies by Cloud Academy found that only 18% of posting requested skills in R, while 66% sought applicants with experience using Python. Similarly, Slashdata’s State of the Developer Nation report found that 69 percent of machine learning developers and data scientists use Python, compared to the 24 percent who use R. Lackluster growth and falling community engagement relative to other languages also saw R climb to 12th on Codementor’s list of the ‘worst programming languages to learn’.

Backing up Python’s dominance, a Kaggle survey found Python was the most commonly used language by data scientists in their jobs and by far the most popular choice for a language to learn if you’re interested in machine learning. Python was also the fastest-growing language in this year’s Stack Overflow developer survey.

That said, it’s important not to overstate the decline of R. There are still plenty of indications that R is widely used in data science and for statistical analysis, with one recent survey, albeit with a relatively low number of respondents, finding almost half of data scientists still use R on a regular basis.

RedMonk analysts also cautioned against reading too much into R’s failing fortunes in their survey, saying the language continued to serve a “vibrant base of analytical and data science use cases”.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Python, check out TechRepublic’s guide to free resources for learning Python and this round-up of the best Python guides and code examples on GitHub.

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