Not Slacking with Slack

For the last month or so I have been using Slack as a way to collaborate with another PhD student in my department on a systematic review.

Its a bit hard to explain what Slack is, though as soon as you see it you intuitively understand how it works. Their slogan really helped sell them to me: Be Less Busy.

Basically, Slack is a messaging tool that lets you communicate with all your collaborators in one place. It replaces the need for reply-all e-mails, and if you ask your collaborator a question, others in the team will be able to see the answer too. To me, it feels a bit like s group chat in MSN Messenger from the good old days — except all of the conversations and shared documents are archived for future reference. In an interview with The Verge, the founder of Slack described it as “It’s all your communication in one place, instantly searchable, and available wherever you go.”
Photo from the Slack Getting Started Guide — I haven’t convinced this many people to join me in Slack yet…
Here is how we’re using Slack for our systematic review:
The two of us that are involved in article screening are the biggest users. Instead of e-mailing documents to each other (draft protocols, draft data extraction charts, important literature resources etc…) we send them through Slack. They are stored there and we can reference them again in the future. We also use Slack to chat back and forth about questions that don’t necessarily need a face-to-face or skype call. “Hey, when you say X, do you really mean Y?” Our real abstract screening is happening in Covidence, but our organizing is happening through Slack, not through e-mail.
Though we are only two people doing the screening for the systematic review, Slack has been working really well. We are definitely not putting it to its full use, but for a project with more collaborators, it would be phenomenal.  For example, since all the documents are in one place, and I can easily find the newest version. I spend a lot less time now thinking about where I filed the exclusion criteria or whether I have the most up to date version of the data extraction chart. We don’t need multiple back and forth e-mails to schedule Skype calls anymore either.
Sure, we could get this job done with a combination of e-mail, Google hangouts, Dropbox and Google Drive, but it is definitely more convenient to have everything in one place. It also helps that we can send messages when the other person is busy, and that they will see them when they are back at their computer again. Another neat feature is that if we added a third reviewer to the systematic review, they could scroll back through Slack and see what work we have done and decisions we have previously made.
Slack has been used to replace a lot of internal e-mail in companies that have adopted it, and I think I see some real potential for academic use too. Within a Slack group you can have discussions organized into a variety of different topics -consider: one for each of your research papers in progress. Everyone involved in that paper would then be able to communicate. But Slack also has private messaging, if you need to have a conversation one-on-one without everyone else reading the content. The bonus for academics is that Slack is also free for small teams – I’m guessing the average research group could get by quite well on the free platform.
The big problem of course, is getting people to make the switch. No matter how out of control their inboxes get, no matter how many committees bury them in e-mail attachments and reply-alls, people can be very afraid of technological change. Unfortunately lack of commitment can also be the downfall of Slack for your research group – as the founder told The Verge “It’s all or nothing. If half of your team was not on it, then the whole team would stop using it pretty soon.”
There are some great articles on Slack here and here if you think your life could also be made easier by eliminating the need for reply-all e-mails!



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