A Guide to Starting Your Own Journal Club

Posted by Will Arnold on Feb 6, 2020 10:00:00 AM


One thing many scientists enjoy is discussion of current new and exciting literature. As I transitioned out of academia and away from the bench I certainly had concerns that I may not have time to stay current or enjoy that discussion. Luckily, one needn't worry if they choose to move away from academic science; there is most likely abundant opportunity to continue such discussions. Beyond the excitement of learning about new cutting edge science, researchers of all varieties must stay current with literature and emerging technologies to remain competitive and relevant.

Enter: the journal club. 

A journal club is a recurring meeting amongst scientists that aims to help stay current on new and emerging work by collaboratively discussing recent publications in a specific field(s). Most anyone who has spent any time in academia has likely had the opportunity to attend and participate in journal clubs. They also have likely had the pleasure of attending both productive and not so productive meetings. More recently, online journal clubs have become popular, including those based on Twitter. At my former academic department, we had two recurring journal clubs on Immunology and Microbial Pathogenesis that occurred once a week for several months at a time during the spring and fall semesters. Our scheduling was in part defined by both the number of participants and the standard academic calendar.

So you want to start a journal club? Here are some things to think about.

Choosing a topic and gauging interest

The first thing to do if you’ve thought about starting a journal club is to find a topic and seeing if others are interested. You don’t want to pick a topic and have no one show up. At Addgene, we wanted to think more closely about the wealth of high-throughput sequencing (HTS) data we generate and maintain. It became clear that while several people across teams had various levels of experience with bioinformatics and HTS, we all had much to learn. And, many wanted to learn more, even those not directly involved in the project. 

Once we gauged interest from relevant parties, and the company at large, by polling and informal communications we made a decision to try out a Bioinformatics/HTS a journal club.

Sorting out the logistics

Once you decide on the topic, there are a number of administrative and practical decisions to make. How often will you hold it? How many people do you expect to attend? What is the expectation on level of critique and detail? Who is/are the facilitator(s) of the journal club? Where will the journal club take place?

Preparing for the first meeting

There are many important pieces before that first meeting takes place to ensure success. One of the most important is letting people know it’s happening. Aim for 3-4 weeks advance notice for the first meeting so that people can set aside time in their schedules and read the paper (PS: All participants should read the paper ahead of time!). This notice can be shortened as the meeting settles in and people get the time recurrently carved out. This notice typically should include the paper, any supplemental data, software repositories, or other information needed by someone to critically discuss the paper. 

Before the first journal club, think about the meeting itself A journal club should aim to have many of the same characteristics as a successful meeting: a clear purpose and effective time management, for starters. 

Now, you are ready for your first journal club to begin!

bioinformatics journal club
Figure 1: Discussing next-generation sequencing at the Addgene bioinformatics journal club!

What happens during journal club?

There are many common ways to run the journal club. Some are led by a single individual who walks through the paper figure by figure. Some follow the same figure by figure organization with a different person responsible for each figure. Others still are more casual with a single presenter summarizing the paper’s major findings and then focusing more on broader implications rather than diving deep into the individual data points. All formats should be an open forum where people feel welcome to ask any questions they have. 

These variations are suited for different applications and should be carefully chosen for each group and topic. For example, it may be useful to adapt the second version (multiple presenter, figure by figure) if the primary purpose is training graduate students in critical reading. If the aim of the journal club is to begin building a high level understanding across multiple teams or to stay abreast of current trends in the literature, sampling a breadth of work from a field (perhaps even two articles per meeting) would be useful. On the other hand if the journal club occurs with a small technical team (single lab or team), a deep technical dive on single papers could be more important. 

Any slides, presentations, recordings, and other materials should be made available to those who were unable to attend. We capture the desktop and audio recordings of the meeting using teleconferencing software. Any file sharing service should also serve to share the materials quickly and easily ahead of and after the journal club. Sharing the materials serve two purposes: to allow those who could not attend a meeting to simply stay caught up and to allow those who may be interested in attending to see what they are missing! 

So you’ve had your first meeting, now what?

After the first meeting solicit feedback. To ensure that the journal club is useful for the widest audience, you should get feedback from those who attended. You may even seek, or get feedback from those who didn’t attend. For example, we got a good bit of early feedback from those who wanted, but were unable to attend for scheduling conflicts. This helped us find a time that accommodates more people.

The feedback could be solicited via multiple avenues including casual request via email, in person, or instant messaging but we as scientists often prefer data. At Addgene we rely on polls and surveys. A mix of closed (multiple choice/binary) and open questions is helpful to ensure acquisition of the essential data and allow everyone to offer thoughts you may not have even considered. These questions should be tailored to the group and format but should almost universally include the questions “Would you attend this journal club again?” and “How would you improve the structure of the journal club?”

You also likely want to evaluate the “success” of the journal club. This can be a challengingly vague metric but there are a few things you can point to. Does the feedback you receive include the sense that people learned something new? Did the meeting begin and end on time? Did the conversation remain spirited and focused as opposed to a wandering monologue? 

Assuming the feedback is generally positive and the meeting seemed to be of use, it’s worth scheduling the second and other subsequent meetings. The number of participants, breadth of the discussed topic, and level of general busy-ness will most likely the primary drivers of frequency. At Addgene, we opted to start with one per month.

When to call it a day

The most ineffective type of meeting is the one that no one sees a purpose in attending and has lost both its focus and critical mass of participants. This is especially true of journal clubs where the very point is discussion. Perhaps the project is winding down. Perhaps other projects have taken on a larger priority for the participants. Perhaps people feel confident in their own knowledge of the field. Perhaps interest has simply waned.

When attendance slumps below a certain level or interest wanes off such that attendees are not actively participating, it may be time to consider ending the meeting. This is a common failing in many academic journal clubs where institutional inertia drives the meeting rather than interest. These are the journal clubs where participants are passive rather than active and the meeting is often driven by one or two participants. If you find yourself in this situation, considering stopping (temporarily or permanently) the recurring meeting or perhaps reshuffling it in to a new topic. As with any recurring meeting, a journal club’s usefulness should be continually evaluated and assessed for relevance. 

Concluding thoughts

Journal clubs are a great way for scientists of all types to stay up to date and engaged with new advances in published science. They also serve as a way to learn about work outside of one's own field in a structured and interactive way. Like any meeting, to be successful in serving their purpose, journal clubs should be well planned and carefully organized. Most importantly, they should be regularly assessed for continued relevance and if needed, rebooted or disbanded all together once their purpose has been served.

I hope that with some of the information described above you feel empowered to start your own journal club!

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