Excel responsible for conversion errors on 20% of genetic scientific papers

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I, admittedly, do not write scientific papers, but when I read that 20% of all genetic scientific papers include erroneous data due to Excel conversion errors I was taken aback. Not because there were so many errors, but because in my history with Excel, I would have expected quite a lot more. Excel is a powerful program that does have quite a lot of beneficial features and options. However, I generally start conversations about the program by saying that it loves to ruin data.

The scientists — as they are likely most comfortable doing — wrote a scientific paper on the phenomenon. You can read that document here, though it reads a lot like a scientific paper. The overall gist can be summed up with the paper’s Abstract, which reads:

The spreadsheet software Microsoft Excel, when used with default settings, is known to convert gene names to dates and floating-point numbers. A programmatic scan of leading genomics journals reveals that approximately one-fifth of papers with supplementary Excel gene lists contain erroneous gene name conversions.

In my experience, leading zeroes are the natural enemy of Microsoft’s spreadsheet software. In the case of genetic scientists, some of their own shorthand may be causing problems with Excel’s default settings. The scientific paper continues to explain:

For example, gene symbols such as SEPT2 (Septin 2) and MARCH1 [Membrane-Associated Ring Finger (C3HC4) 1, E3 Ubiquitin Protein Ligase] are converted by default to ‘2-Sep’ and ‘1-Mar’, respectively. Furthermore, RIKEN identifiers were described to be automatically converted to floating point numbers (i.e. from accession ‘2310009E13’ to ‘2.31E+13’).

These examples fall in line with issues I’ve seen when attempting to wrestle Excel for control over my data. I’m sure there are people out there who appreciate their spreadsheets taking control over nearly every aspect of their data, though in a scientific setting, even a small number rounding issue could have disastrous consequences. Sure, the scientists could just define the cell formats as text for the range of data they are working with, on every cell, on every spreadsheet… Though wouldn’t it just be nicer if Excel didn’t work so hard to ruin your data?

What issues have you seen when creating spreadsheets in Excel, or any other software? Tell us about your best stories in the comment section below, or on Google+, Facebook, or Twitter.

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Last Updated on August 25, 2016.


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