Avstralski znanstveniki so analizirali 3600 člankov s področja genetike, ki so bili objavljeni v vodilnih znanstvenih revijah kot so Nature, Science in PLoS One. V kar petini vseh primerov so opazili nenavadne napake, ki so bile posledica uporabe Microsoftovega programa Excel. V seznamih genov so se simboli za določen gen avtomatsko pretvorili v datum. Ker gen “Septin 2” s kratico zapišejo kot SEPT2, lahko Excel ob nepazljivosti uporabnika ta podatek avtomatsko pretvori v datum. Podobno se zgodi z genom “Membrane-Associated Ring Finger (C3HC4) 1, E3 Ubiquitin Protein Ligase“, ki ga s kratico zapišejo kot MARCH1.
Even worse, there’s no easy way to undo this automatic formatting once it has happened. Edit -> Undo simply deletes everything in the cell. You can try to convert the formatting from “General,” the default, to “Text,” which you might expect to change it back to the original characters you enter. But instead, changing the formatting to “Text” makes the cell contents appear as 42615 — Excel’s internal numeric code referring to the date 9/2/2016.
Even more troubling, the researchers note that there’s no way to permanently disable automatic date formatting within Excel. Researchers still have to remember to manually format columns to “Text” before you type anything in new Excel sheets — every. single. time.
But even the genetics researchers among us are only human, and they sometimes forget to do this. Hence, you end up with 20 percent of these genetics papers containing preventable errors introduced by Excel.
The Australian researchers note that this problem was first identified in a paper published more than a decade ago. “Nevertheless, we find that these errors continue to pervade supplementary files in the scientific literature,” they write.
Genetics isn’t the only field where a life’s work can potentially be undermined by a spreadsheet error. Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff famously made an Excel goof— omitting a few rows of data from a calculation — that caused them to drastically overstate the negative GDP impact of high debt burdens. Researchers in other fields occasionally have to issue retractions after finding Excel errors as well.