The issue was inherently a result of Excel's autoformat feature systematically altering gene names into dates upon saving. Subsequently, many geneticists historically had to comb through a plethora of papers to fix the corrupted data by hand, understandably frustrating and time-consuming.
"It's really, really annoying," said Dezső Módos, biologist at Quadrams Institute. "It's a widespread tool and if you are a bit computationally illiterate you will use it. During my PhD studies I did as well!"
According to a 2016 study, roughly 20% of over 3,500 genetics papers contained errors that resulted from this issue.
The HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee, or HGNC, recently issued new guidelines accounting for "symbols that affect data handling and retrieval."
"We consulted the respective research communities to discuss the proposed updates, and we also notified researchers who had published on these genes specifically when the changes were being put into effect," said Elspeth Bruford, HGNC coordinator.
Some examples of the renamed human genes include MARCH1 and SEPT1, which have now been renamed MARCHF1 and SEPTIN1, respectively.
Interestingly, this isn't the first time that geneticists have renamed genes.
According to Bruford, previously some genes were renamed to take into consideration possible negative connotations of certain word usages.
"We always have to imagine a clinician having to explain to a parent that their child has a mutation in a particular gene," Bruford noted. "For example, HECA used to have the gene name 'headcase homolog (Drosophila),' named after the equivalent gene in fruit fly, but we changed it to 'hdc homolog, cell cycle regulator' to avoid potential offense."
The recent changes to the 27 human genes are the first time that such changes have been made to accommodate a software issue.
Of course, another option would've been for Excel to accommodate geneticists by adding an option to format according to DNA names in an update. Considering the number of Excel's users who are geneticists is relatively small compared to the software's overall user base, though, Microsoft's decision not to include any such update may be understandable.
"This is quite a limited use case of the Excel software," Bruford said. "There is very little incentive for Microsoft to make a significant change to features that are used extremely widely by the rest of the massive community of Excel users."
It may also be noteworthy to point out that there has always technically been a potential workaround to the autoformat feature causing these errors in genetics papers. Excel users are able to opt to retain their formatting while saving, rather than having the software autoformat for them.
That said, it's not an uncommon opinion that Excel offers many features that are relatively difficult for some users to remember and master. Apparently, these negative experiences with Excel remain even true for scientists, which could say something about Excel's level of overall user accessibility.