If you must send me an Excel spreadsheet…

…please, try to follow these simple guidelines.

1. Don’t bother to format the cells
Where possible, I will not open your spreadsheet in a spreadsheet application. If I do, it will be only to marvel at the horror, then export it as rapidly as possible to a delimited text file. I do not care about the font, the font size or the font weight. I do not care whether there are grid lines around the cells. I especially do not care about cells which you have highlighted using some arbitrary (and unexplained) colour scheme.

2. No multiple tables
If you include multiple “tables” on one sheet, separated by blank rows, there is a good chance that I will not notice them. If you include multiple tables on multiple “sheets”, there is an excellent chance that I will not notice them.

3. Be consistent
If you must use confusing, abbreviated terms for your row and column names, at least keep them consistent. When you suddenly switch from “Patient ID” to “MCO_ID”, or from “Tissue Bank ID” to “TB ID” but leave everything else the same, I (and my software) assume that you’re talking about something different.

4. Yes/No = 1/0
Would it kill you to think as hard about the type and structure of your data as the data itself? If your variable takes one of two values in a “yes/no” fashion, the best representation is 1 or 0. That goes for “wt/mut” too. If you must use “Y/N”, don’t suddenly switch to “Yes/No” (or case-sensitive variations thereof) just because you feel like it.

5. If it doesn’t exist, it shouldn’t be there
Just leave the cell blank. I don’t want to see “n/a”, “NA”, “?”, “-” or anything else.

6. What belongs with what?
Have you noticed that certain bits of your data belong with other bits? For example, you can take several samples from a patient and do several experiments using those samples? Perhaps you’ve heard the term “relational data”? Well, that’s what it means.

If you could find a way to highlight those relations in your spreadsheet (no, not using coloured cells please), it would really help. On second thoughts: why don’t you come and see me before collecting your data? We’ll design a database together. You might even realise why I hate your stupid spreadsheets so much.