Signals Blog
Pizza – the reason most people show up to Journal Club. Image: WikiCommons.

Pizza – the reason most people show up to Journal Club. Image: WikiCommons.

It’s September again! That means new grad students in the lab, seminars and courses start again, committee meetings, grant deadlines, product shows, and… Journal Club.

What is Journal Club – and why am I about to spend an entire post talking about it?

Ideally, it is a dedicated meeting where lab members come together to discuss a paper (or selection of papers with a common theme) that they have read in advance, usually to highlight some recent, new work done in their field of research. Best of all, Journal Club is often associated with food. Sounds like a good thing, right? A group of scientists and trainees discussing research findings and implications in a relaxed, yet intellectually stimulating, environment – sounds great!

Well, I’m about to let you in on a little secret: nothing I described above ever (rarely) happens, apart from the food. To help those who don’t know the joys of Journal Club – and to highlight some points of interest for those who do – I have prepared this helpful little graph in the style of PhD Comics and associated commentary.

The general level of interest in Journal Club. Green indicates events likely to increase interest in Journal Club; red indicates events likely to reduce interest in Journal Club. Illustration: Sara M Nolte

The general level of interest in Journal Club. Green indicates events likely to increase interest in Journal Club; red indicates events likely to reduce interest in Journal Club. Illustration: Sara M Nolte

T -2 weeks:  Your first exposure to the upcoming Journal Club is typically an overly excited email: “ Hi everyone! Just a quick note to let you know that there will be a Journal Club on 14 October, 2014 12-1:30pm. We will be discussing *title of paper* (attached)! Pizza lunch will be provided! So come hungry for pizza and stimulating scientific discussion!! ~Sara P.S. PLEASE READ THE PAPER!”

T -2 weeks – 1 day: After this initial notice, most people tend to forget about it:  I’ve got more important things to do than read a paper that doesn’t really have anything to do with my research anyway.

T -12 hours: At this point you are suddenly reminded of Journal Club, in the sense that you realize you have nothing to pack for lunch the next day:  pizza for lunch tomorrow – nice!

T -2 hours: You notice one of your labmates printing the article: “Hey, do you mind printing me a copy too?” Usually this person ends up printing copies for the entire lab.

T -1 hour:  Start reading the paper. “This is stupid… it doesn’t even have anything to do with my project.

T -30 minutes: Get distracted. “I was done reading anyway….

T 0: Arrive at Journal Club location, and patiently wait for pizza. Everyone gorges on pizza when it finally arrives.

T +30 minutes: The host of Journal Club begins discussing the article. This is usually a “summary” of the paper, where the presenter goes through every figure, and some supplemental data (I didn’t even know this paper had supplemental figures). While meant to be a summary, it rarely is, but many don’t mind since they didn’t really read the paper, and have no idea what’s going on anyway.

T +1 hour: The assembled group then begins a critique of the paper. This usually involves statements regarding the lack of scientific rigor, how they should have done something differently, how everyone in the room could have done it better, quickly followed by dismissal of the paper’s findings, and the presenter for choosing such a poor article.

T +1.5 hours: Everyone is relieved their duty is done for another Journal Club, and goes back to their research, as if nothing ever happened. There is also a mad scramble for any leftover pizza.

And that is what happens during a typical Journal Club – a time that is dedicated to discussing the implications of the latest research. Why then have I spent this post talking about (read: making fun of) Journal Club?

Much like how I described Angelina Jolie’s experience with breast cancer as a missed opportunity for discussion of cancer biology with the public, Journal Club is often a missed opportunity for learning and discussion in the typical laboratory setting. And this seemed like a good way to highlight the uselessness of the current Journal Club set-up.

So why don’t we make a change, and make Journal Club a more useful learning opportunity? September marks the beginning of a new academic year, so let’s make it a New (Academic) Year’s Resolution!

When reading papers on my own, I try to keep some guiding questions in mind to help me decide how to incorporate those research findings with my own work. I’ve always thought they would make great discussion questions for a Journal Club, but have rarely had the chance to try them. I’d like to challenge readers to implement these (or similar) questions as a framework for their own Journal Clubs, in hopes we can orchestrate a change in Journal Club practices everywhere!

  1. Is this robust data: Did they show/use proper controls? Did they perform appropriate experiments for their claims? While this does seem to invoke the critique, it is important to make sure the findings are of sufficient quality before moving on. And remember, a high Impact Factor is not necessarily indicative of high quality research (and vice versa)!
  2. What does this mean for me/our lab group: Does it showcase a new technique? Does it give anyone new ideas regarding their research? Did they answer one of our own research questions?
  3. What does this mean for the field: Are they challenging or enforcing dogma? Are they changing the experiment standards for the field’s research?

While it is always difficult to effect change, hopefully this will inspire a few, improved Journal Clubs; if so, I’d like to hear from you in the comments.  And who knows, maybe some people will come for more than just the pizza….


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Sara M. Nolte

Sara Nolte holds a Bachelor of Health Sciences and Masters of Science in Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences from McMaster University. Her MSc research focused on developing of cancer stem model to study brain metastases from the lung. She then spent a year working on developing cell-based cancer immunotherapies. Throughout a highly productive graduate career, Sara became interested in scientific communication and education. She is now involved in developing undergraduate programs and courses in the health sciences at McMaster, and is looking for ways to improve scientific communication with the public. Outside of science, Sara enjoys participating in a variety of sports, and is a competitive Olympic weightlifter hoping to compete at the National level soon!

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