Turns Out Microsoft Excel Is Such a Goat Rodeo It’s Screwing With Genetic Research

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Imagine for a moment you are a conducting important genetic research instead of just staring at your computer screen counting the minutes till the weekend. You are working with data for the gene “Septin 2,” which you shorten to “Sept2.” Except when you input “Sept2” into Microsoft Excel, the program automatically renders it as a date, “9/2/2016.” And now your data is, well, just a date book.

It’s a problem that many researchers face. According to the Washington Post, 20 percent of genetics papers analyzed in a recent study were found to have errors caused by Microsoft Excel “converting gene names to things like calendar dates or random numbers.” And there is no way to go back and undo the auto-filled changes once they are made.

From the Washington Post:

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.

But even worse, you can’t turn off the feature in Excel with one click and call it a day. Instead, if you want the program to render what you type as text, you’ll have to remember to manually adjust the column every time you type. (Which doesn’t sound tedious at all.) Google Sheets, however, doesn’t have theses issues. Which would be good to remember for your hypothetical career as a geneticist.