When software – like Excel – hampers scientific research

Statistical software can be very helpful but it does not automatically guarantee correct analyses:

A team of Australian researchers analyzed nearly 3,600 genetics papers published in a number of leading scientific journals — like Nature, Science and PLoS One. As is common practice in the field, these papers all came with supplementary files containing lists of genes used in the research.

The Australian researchers found that roughly 1 in 5 of these papers included errors in their gene lists that were due to Excel automatically converting gene names to things like calendar dates or random numbers…

Genetics isn’t the only field where a life’s work can potentially be undermined by a spreadsheet error. Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff famously made an Excel goof — omitting a few rows of data from a calculation — that caused them to drastically overstate the negative GDP impact of high debt burdens. Researchers in other fields occasionally have to issue retractions after finding Excel errors as well…

For the time being, the only fix for the issue is for researchers and journal editors to remain vigilant when working with their data files. Even better, they could abandon Excel completely in favor of programs and languages that were built for statistical research, like R and Python.

Excel has particular autoformatting issues but all statistical programs have unique ways of handling data. Spreadsheets of data – often formatted with cases in the rows and variables in the columns – don’t automatically read in correctly.

Additionally, user error can lead to issues with any sort of statistical software. Different programs may have different quirks but various researchers can do all sort of weird things from recoding incorrectly to misreading missing data to misinterpreting results. Data doesn’t analyze itself and statistical software is just a tool that needs to be used correctly.

A number of researchers have in recent years called for open data once a paper is published and this could help those in an academic field spot mistakes. Of course, the best solution is to double-check (at least) data before review and publication. Yet, when you are buried in a quantitative project and there are dozens of steps of data work and analysis, it can be hard to (1) keep track of everything and (2) closely watch for errors. Perhaps we need independent data review even before publication.

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