Advice for revitalising your journal club

Advice for revitalising your journal club

The first formalised journal club started around 145 years ago, with the aim of reading papers in a group to keep costs down. Today, the journal club is a fundamental part of academic research, and despite the emergence of social media, where opinions reach wide audiences around the world, these clubs still exist and thrive.

A run of some irrelevant or uninspiring papers can stunt the momentum and purpose of the club. If this sounds all too familiar, then here are some ideas to bring back the magic.

What is a journal club?

The journal club follows a simple format. A group of two or more people from a single lab, or a cluster of many, form a schedule and take it in turns to present a recent, cutting-edge research paper. The extremes range from discussing a paper formally with a PhD Adviser to a lecture theatre of fifty colleagues or more. There is often a theme that matches the group's objectives in research aims, experimental techniques, a future grant proposal topic, or it can prelude the visit of a prominent scientist to the institute.

These are usually held weekly, but a weekly schedule doesn't work for all clubs, so they can also be held fortnightly or monthly.

Conventionally, a paper is presented from start to finish with each figure meticulously described as surprising or unsurprising, and believable or unbelievable.

What are the benefits of journal clubs?

Journal clubs help labs build up their knowledge and keep on top of trends, as well as tracking the blockbuster papers that propose new ways of thinking and contradict the textbooks. They also enable labs to watch for the techniques that improve the speed, efficiency and cost of an experiment or even unlock strategies to probe biology that isn't yet possible. Another function of journal clubs is as useful teaching platforms, with the presenter sharpening their critical thinking and presenting skills.

Ideas for reinventing the journal club

The first idea is to keep everything the same but switch in a classic research paper. The old ones are the best after all, and it can be a useful exercise. It serves to normalise the knowledge across the group, particularly when some members of the group may be from different backgrounds.

Questions to ask:

  • With all the techniques available in the present day, could the result be arrived at a different way?
  • Could you walk into the lab tomorrow and recreate the results?
  • Would it cost more or less to do that same experiment?
  • Did you miss something the first time around and has recent work changed your perspective on a topic?

If a classic does not work then try a preprint. For good science citizen points, write up the club’s discussion and send on the positive, constructive comments to the authors.

Another idea is to keep the format but change the delivery by dividing the figures between the group. Each person becomes the expert on their individual aspect of the paper.

Everyone could pick their favourite figure or section; this option will have biochemists explaining the reactions and computer scientists explaining the modelling. The best people in the room expertly present the parts of the paper to which they are suited. Alternatively, assign the figures at random to move members out of their comfort zones. With this approach, be wary that the crucial details are not missed.

Adding food could definitely bolster attendances while also provide energy for the duller papers. Commission the cake rota and have this running in parallel with the presenter rota. Provided you can reschedule your personal downtime, overlapping a journal club with breakfast or lunch might change the ambience.

Are the length of the presentations making the process a bit dry? Actively seek out papers with a figure limit. Limit the discussion per figure/section to a couple of minutes. Then try a shorter format. The paper-blitz where everyone in the club brandishes their paper of the week and highlights the key points in 3 minutes or just one slide. Many journal and reading clubs exists in the X-Factor™ extension of this, where the most popular article goes through for full discussion next week.

Finally, are some club members not pulling their weight? You could try a format where the paper is selected but the presenter is not. It will soon become apparent if someone hasn't read the weeks' offering. Is punctuality becoming an issue? Then the last resort is to instate the latest arrival presents the paper rule.

We hope these tips help and your journal club becomes something to look forward to each week or month!

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