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Microsoft Excel causes errors in academic papers by renaming genes

excel errors renaming genes
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Microsoft Excel is perhaps the most commonly used software by organisations all over the world for data analysis. However, it may not be perfect for data of scientific and medical research. Three academic researchers recently revealed that the software was causing errors in the names of genes in academic papers.

According to a report in BBC, three researchers of Melbourne-based academic institute Baker IDI went through 3,597 published scientific papers on genomics. They scanned more than 7,500 Excel files with gene lists in 18 journals over a decade.

Surprisingly they found that nearly 20% of the papers (around 704) contained errors based on gene names generated by Excel. For instance, Excel turned the name of a gene called SEPT2 (Septin 2) to September 2. The researchers found such errors largely in supplemental data sheets of academic studies.

They said these sheets contained valuable data rich in information and it was time-consuming to resolve these errors. They also added that researchers discovered this issue way back in 2004. Moreover, the problem has been increasing by 15% annually over the past five years.

The trio of researchers has published a paper for describing their findings and bringing the issue in light for other researchers.

Interestingly, the problem was not present in Google Sheets- an online cloud spreadsheet application by Google which has lately become quite popular among companies. Other spreadsheet software like Apache OpenOffice Calc. also carried the same problem.

Microsoft has defended its software against these claims and said that researchers can overcome these errors by changing default settings. A Microsoft spokesperson said,

“Excel is able to display data and text in many different ways. Default settings are intended to work in most day-to-day scenarios. Excel offers a wide range of options, which customers with specific needs can use to change the way their data is represented.”

Apparently, other scientific researchers are already aware of these issues. For instance, Ewan Birney, director of the European Bioinformatics Institute, does not recommend using Excel for heavy scientific research.

He said,

“What frustrates me is researchers are relying on Excel spreadsheets for clinical trials.The Excel gene renaming issue has been known among the scientific community for more than a decade.”


He further added that researchers should use Excel for doing only lightweight analysis.

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