Analytics Software

Microsoft Excel errors dog important science research

Commercial white papers – and PR spammers – are constantly shoving round missives about how companies need to move beyond Microsoft Excel, to excel at analytics, if you’ll excuse the dreadful pun. The gist is that that this software is not good enough for anything really significant.

Now a new paper from BioMed Central suggests this tired and much repeated story might actually have become important – though not for the usual reasons touted. Instead it highlights the irritating anomalies so persistent in the program.

“Gene name errors are widespread in the scientific literature,” explains the report. These amount to around 20% of the 3597 papers scanned and stem from Excel's maddeningly irksome default of converting numbers into dates. 

“Gene name errors continue to be a problem in supplementary files accompanying articles. Inadvertent gene symbol conversion is problematic because these supplementary files are an important resource in the genomics community that are frequently reused,” explained the report.

However the BBC quoted Microsoft as saying that “the gene renaming errors can be overcome if users make alterations in the application settings”. It also added that the same problem occurs in other spreadsheet software, such as Apache’s Open Source offering, but not in Google Sheets.

Ewan Birney, director of the European Bioinformatics Institute told the BBC he does not blame Excel: “What frustrates me is researchers are relying on Excel spreadsheets for clinical trials.” Instead the program should only be used for “lightweight scientific analysis”.

Microsoft provides the default Office package for so many walks of work that it’s interesting to see another area where it is failing miserably. Especially in the shape of such an important area as scientific research.


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