I sometimes give a talk called Is Your Research Software correct (github repo, slide deck) where I attempt to give a (hopefully) entertaining overview of some of the basic issues in modern research software practice and what can be done to make the world a little better.
One section of this talk is a look at some case studies where software errors caused problems in research. Ideally, I try to concentrate on simple errors that led to profound scientific screw-ups. I want the audience to think ‘Damn! *I* could have made that mistake in my code‘.
Curating this talk has turned me into an interested collector of such stories. This is not an exercise in naming and shaming (after all, the odds are that its only a matter of time before I, or one of my collaborators, makes it into the list — why set myself up for a beating?). Instead, it is an exercise in observing the problems that other people have had and using them to enhance our own working practices.
Thus begins a new recurring WalkingRandomly feature.
Excel corrupts genetics data
Today’s entry comes courtesy of a recent paper by Mark Ziemann, Yotam Eren and Assam El-OstaEmail – ‘Gene name errors are widespread in the scientific literature‘ where they demonstrate that the supplementary data files for hundreds of papers in genetics have been corrupted by Microsoft Excel which has helpfully turned gene symbols into dates and floating point numbers.
The paper gives advice to reviewers on how to spot this particular error and the authors have also published the code used for the analysis. I’ve not run it myself so can only attest to its existence, not it’s accuracy.
I’ve not dealt with genetic data directly myself so ask you — what would you have used instead of Excel? (my gut tells me R or Python but I have no details to offer).
Do you have a story to contribute?
If you are interested in contributing a story where a software glitch caused problems in research, please contact me to discuss details.
Update (31st August 2016)
One of the authors of the paper, Mark Ziemann, has written a follow up of the Excel work on his blog: http://genomespot.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/my-personal-thoughts-on-gene-name-errors.html