In 2020, scientists chose to modify the alphanumeric symbols they used to represent genes instead of grappling with an Excel feature that was misinterpreting their names as dates and unhelpfully reformatting them automatically. Recently, a member of the Excel team announced that the company is implementing an update for both Windows and macOS to rectify this issue.
Excel’s automatic conversions are designed to streamline the input of common data types like numbers and dates, making the process faster and more convenient. However, for scientists who rely on shorthand to maintain data legibility, this feature could potentially compromise published and peer-reviewed research, as indicated by a 2016 study.
Microsoft outlined the update in a recent blog post, introducing a checkbox labeled “Convert continuous letters and numbers to a date.” It’s pretty self-explanatory what this checkbox does. This update builds upon the Automatic Data Conversions settings that the company introduced last year, which included the option for Excel to notify users when it’s about to apply automatic conversion, giving them the choice to load their file without the conversion to prevent unintended alterations.
Microsoft’s blog post includes some caveats, such as the fact that Excel avoids conversion by saving the data as text, which may limit its utility for future calculations. Additionally, there is a known issue where you can’t disable the conversions when running macros.