Business processes all over the world run on Microsoft Excel. Even in microbiology labs. Unfortunately, using this program has resulted in serious problems for the scientific and medical community.
A journal article describes the problem in its title: Gene name errors can be introduced inadvertently when using Excel in bioinformatics. The authors explain:
Use of one of the research community’s most valuable and extensively applied tools for manipulation of genomic data can introduce erroneous names. A default date conversion feature in Excel was altering gene names that it considered to look like dates. For example, the tumor suppressor DEC1 [Deleted in Esophageal Cancer 1] was being converted to ‘1-DEC.’
Usually, users appreciate the Microsoft Excel feature which automatically recognizes DEC1 as the first day of December. But in the case of genetic research where countless millions of cells are automatically processed without user intervention, this conversion introduces errors. Worse, as the paper reports, some of these problems are irreversible. In fact, the authors of the article found thousands of incorrect gene names in “carefully curated public databases.” The cost of these mistakes to other researchers is incalculable.
This is not a time to beat up on Microsoft or the team that produces Excel. Rather, it is a reminder that Excel is intended for financial calculations and projections. The program was never meant to serve as a massive database or automated computation workhorse. Much of the development cost for Excel is in making data input more natural for users, not machines. The paper describes problems which are not from bugs in Excel, but unintended uses of the software program.
Like everyone, researchers tend to use systems, procedures and tools that are the most accessible, even if they are not right for the job. Your workplace may also utilize Microsoft Excel for something other than budgeting and financial analysis. If you’re using tools that weren’t built for this purpose, you’re running the risk of creating errors that you never expected. And perhaps more practically, you may not realize what is possible with the right tools because you’re stuck using the wrong ones.