Microsoft fixes the Excel feature that was wrecking scientific data

In 2020, scientists decided just to rework the alphanumeric symbols they used to represent genes rather than try to deal with an Excel feature that was interpreting their names as dates and (un)helpfully reformatting them automatically. Yesterday, a member of the Excel team posted that the company is rolling out an update on Windows and macOS to fix that.

Excel’s automatic conversions are intended to make it easier and faster to input certain types of commonly entered data — numbers and dates, for instance. But for scientists using quick shorthand to make things legible, it could ruin published, peer-reviewed data, as a 2016 study found.

Microsoft detailed the update in a blog post this week, adding a checkbox labeled “Convert continuous letters and numbers to a date.” You can probably guess what that toggles. The update builds on the Automatic Data Conversions settings the company added last year, which included the option for Excel to warn you when it’s about to get extra helpful and let you load your file without automatic conversion so you can ensure nothing will be screwed up by it.

The updated Excel settings.
Image: Microsoft

Microsoft’s blog adds caveats, such as that Excel avoids the conversion by saving the data as text, which means the data may not work for calculations later. There’s also a known issue where you can’t disable the conversions when running macros.

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