How scientists use Slack
Eight ways labs benefit from the popular workplace messaging tool.
By Jeffrey M. Perkel
Dec 29 2016
When geneticist Daniel MacArthur checks into his lab, the first thing he does is fire up Slack, a workplace messaging app. In the system, he zips through the hundreds of messages and files left in different channels by the lab’s 23 scientists — some reporting on their projects, others requesting help. The lab’s members have posted more than 400,000 messages on Slack since April 2014 — a rate of nearly 500 per day. For MacArthur, who works at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the tool has rendered irrelevant many of the ways that his lab previously used to communicate about papers and projects — especially e-mail.
E-mail, says MacArthur, is “genuinely awful” and “actually disastrous for group communication”. His inbox, a jumble of vendor announcements, administration notices and other random requests, contains some 17,500 unread items. Slack, by contrast, is focused: because every post comes from a team member, the signal-to-noise ratio is high. Most days, MacArthur is able to clear all unread messages. “I have a lot more discipline making sure I am up to date,” he says.
“It’s a remarkably quick way of building consensus.”
MacArthur’s lab isn’t the only scientific group that swears by Slack, which was launched just 3 years ago, but now boasts more than 3 million active daily users worldwide, and which has rapidly become popular with media organizations and technology firms. Billed as ‘team communication for the twenty-first century’, Slack is a platform on which groups can share files, data, news and jokes, and generally track their work. It provides base-level free accounts but charges users to store more than the latest 10,000 messages. As MacArthur’s lab has done, users can set up their own invitation-only pages — say, at ‘mylab.slack.com’ — and organize conversations into searchable public or private channels. The platform lends itself to much more informal, and thus easier, communication than e-mail, notes Konrad Karczewski, a geneticist and postdoc in MacArthur’s lab. “I’m just typing whatever comes into my head, as if we were having a face-to-face conversation, but online.”
That can be especially valuable for teams that are scattered across work sites or that work different shifts. Guillaume Delbergue, a computer engineer at IMS Bordeaux in France, says he sometimes works in the lab, sometimes from home, and occasionally from another city. Another member of his lab is based in Canada. Using MatterMost— an open-source Slack alternative, which Delbergue chose in order to assuage privacy concerns — those teammates can stay in constant contact. “You can easily bridge people on the shared chat tool,” he says.
Slack doesn’t really do anything that other messenging apps cannot in part provide, MacArthur says. It has competitors such as MatterMost and Atlassian’s HipChat, as well as older messenging apps such as Google Chat. But a number of labs have fallen in love with Slack; researchers cite its simple and fluid user interface, and its ability to incorporate ‘bots’: automated scripts (also called plug-ins) that can import outside information into the platform or can launch other software if particular commands are typed.