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I've seen a growing trend in later years: graduate students discussing research questions through Facebook or Whatsapp like it was the standard channel to solve all kind of issues (Could you send me script x? Where are the data y? How did you perform analysis z?)

These questions are at center of research reproducibility and I'm worried using tools as ephemeral as Facebook messenger may cause me headaches in the future. What if the conversations are deleted and later I can't track a important exchange? (or worst case scenario, dig a case of scientific misconduct, like purposefully obscuring the origin of data?). Emails and other utilities like Google forums provide, in my opinion, a better platform to report issues, get them rolling until they are solved, and finally keep a record of the exchange. On the other hand, Facebook Messenger seems linear and messy, unsuited for this kind of purpose.

Maybe I'm getting old too quick, but should I discourage this practice? For instance, by promoting other tools like Google forums. Has anyone had a bad research experience because someone used Facebook or WhatsApp for scientific communication? How did you address the issue?

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    Especially in tech-heavy labs, I've found tools like Slack (for communication) and Trello (for organization of tasks and progress) to be particularly common...but I would warn you of trying to find a strictly technological solution by itself, because the older version of this is simple: just talk to the person directly, by phone or in person, which leaves no useful record or documentation at all. So internet tools can be handy, but I tend to doubt they are inherently more problematic than undocumented in-person discussions. – BrianH Apr 28 '17 at 17:06
  • Our lab uses Slack also. It allows the easy sharing of code, results etc. and is completely track-able. We also use git heavily for both report/journal writing and code control. – shaunakde Apr 28 '17 at 22:03
  • I agree with @BrianHall that the technological approaches are, if anything, an upgrade to documentation over phone/in-person communication. In my group, some of us have made it a point to email certain details, even if they are discussed in person or on some other medium, just for our own records. I wouldn't say it goes toward reproducibility of the work necessarily but does make it easier to order an item from the same manufacturer, recall our decision making process for a particular approach, etc. – Bryan Krause Apr 28 '17 at 22:04
  • I think the broader point as that none of these mechanisms should be the primary way of documenting how research is done. A solid lab notebook (paper or electronic, preferably backed up in some way) can go a long way. – Bryan Krause Apr 28 '17 at 22:05
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No. If you are worried about your colleagues being able to delete the messages from Facebook / Whatsapp, how do you cope with them calling each other? Or worse: actually talking, walking to their office and just copying files?

I'm all in favor of making communication easier, as insufficient communication between researchers is wasting millions of hours every year. But it should be with the goal of facilitating communication, you'll never get an environment that's completely traceable. That a wiki will have some kind of versioning or history will be an additional benefit, not a reason to use a wiki.

And besides, who's going to check all that communication? Scientific literature is full of fraud and misconduct that's in plain sight and not corrected. Errors in literature are there because people do not care and have no time, not because they lack the forensic tools.

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  • I put too much emphasis on the scientific misconduct part in the question. What really worries me is not being able to track important communications and I have edited the questions to reflect that fact. – j91 Apr 28 '17 at 21:59
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    @j91 Same difference. If you're worried about being able to track important communications, how do you deal with communications where your students talk face to face, or over the phone? If you're worried that information that is important for reproducibility is going unrecorded, then you can encourage your students to record those conversations. (How? for example, by providing usable facilities to archive WhatsApp exchanges as part of your lab's research documentation, which obviously includes easy and allowed editing out of personal parts of those conversations.) – E.P. Apr 28 '17 at 22:27
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    However, unless you can find a channel that your students find genuinely more useful, I would say it's pointless to try to ban specific 21st-century channels that you personally don't use/like/understand when there are 19th-century equivalent solutions (and indeed BC-era solutions as well) that are worse as far as your intentions are concerned. – E.P. Apr 28 '17 at 22:30
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    @j91: I still think it's much more important to actually encourage good documentation behavior. If you're in an academic group, you're probably not even attaining any sort of quality standard. Are you absolutely sure that all lab journals are complete and up to date? Does all your code have sufficient documentation? Is your equipment regularly calibrated and do you have records for that? Can you trace all your raw data from the source to the output? Unless all of this is 100% in place, putting in rules for communication is really a step too far. – VonBeche Apr 29 '17 at 12:32

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