The week of our first journal club

With apologies to Tyler Durden…

The research group at C3 is a small but dedicated bunch. There are only 15 of us, working in a range of fields from climate model downscaling to data homogenisation, from temperature extremes to model downscaling. The majority are women (including our director), and we are a mixture of local and international scientists.

The range of topics and native languages sometimes makes it difficult to ask for help with those silly battles that we early career researchers face every day: how do I find these data? What type of bracket do I need to fix this line of code? When is the next public holiday? But we get by OK.

Another thing about C3 is that most of the senior researchers actually lecture and work at a different campus, an hour away from Tortosa. This means that, unfortunately, supervisor guidance for the PhD students comes in the form of emails, with meetings every couple of months. For some people that sounds like heaven — no pressure that your supervisor will pop into your office and find you Facebook stalking for example, or constantly ask you to do things that are not related to your work.

But for many others, it is a terrifying thought to have so little support available during your PhD. It is definitely a far cry from my experience as a student, where I met with my supervisors every fortnight in their offices which were just upstairs. Although I sometimes found these meetings stressful, I now realise that they were a great motivator and helped me to finish my PhD in reasonable time and with reasonable quality.

Enter journal club

This week, we tried to improve our inter-collegial support by starting our very own C3 journal club. If you are unsure, I take journal club to be a group of researchers that meets regularly over snacks to discuss a scientific article and related topics.

Each month a different person takes turns in picking the paper that they would like to read. They can choose a new paper that they like the look of, an old paper that they love (or hate), an article they are having trouble with, or a paper that they have written themselves.

Journal clubs are a great opportunity to read about something that you might not come across in your normal literature searches, improve the way you read (and write) academic papers, and practice talking to groups in a relaxed setting. Regular catch-ups also give people a chance to talk to their colleagues about other issues that may be on their mind.

As the organiser for this month, I wanted to make sure that the first meeting was a success. My online searches about ‘how to run a journal club’, and pleading emails to experienced colleagues taught me that there are certain rules that you need to follow. So here they are, the rules of journal club…

The first rule of journal club is: you do not come without snacks

This is obvious, and one of my rules for life as well as journal club. I went with hummus and carrot (you can only buy hummus here in the really big supermarkets) and made the Australian classic honey joys. Turns out they are just as popular as scientific get-togethers as they are at birthday parties for 8-year-olds! Having both savoury and sweet was a good idea, as well as making sure they were in easy reach for all at the table.

The second rule of journal club is: you DO NOT come without SNACKS.

This rule has even been proven – a fed journal club is a happy journal club. It is particularly important if journal club meetings are at the same time as morning or afternoon tea time. Our meeting was at 10:30 am, which is right on Coffee Break o’clock. See also rule 5.

Third rule of journal club is: if someone cannot understand the selected paper or it is too long, they will tap out.

The selection of the paper, especially the first one, is critical for the success of the club. I chose a recent Nature Geosciences letter on the relationship between El Niño–Southern Oscillation and tornadoes in the US. I picked this paper because it sounded interesting, had both climatology and meteorology aspects to it, was written clearly, and was only four pages long. Not all papers need to be so short, but I did not want to scare anyone off with a 25-page monster on our first day! I also know the author, and thought this could be a good talking point if things got quiet.

The fourth rule: Only open-ended questions in a meeting.

My biggest worry with this club was that everyone else would sit silently for the entire meeting and I would vamp like a crazy person to fill the silence.

To combat that, when I sent around the article I asked the club members to think about one thing they liked and one thing the didn’t like about the paper, as well as the way in which they read it (pictures first, start to finish, etc.). At the start of the meeting I went around the room and wrote everyone’s answers on the whiteboard, and let the conversation flow naturally. I also prepared a series of open-ended questions such as:

  • How often do you read a paper outside of your geographical field of research?
  • What was your opinion about the statistical significance of the results?
  • How would your opinion change if you read this paper in a lower-impact journal?
  • How would you have read this paper if you knew the author personally, or if they were a very famous scientist?

We got to these questions in the end, but no vamping was required and I was elated when —by the end of the meeting—everyone had contributed pretty much evenly to the discussion.

5th rule: One time at a time.

The timing of a journal club meeting is very important. Almost as important as snacks. We chose our meetings to be on the 2nd Tuesday of every month, at 10:30am. This is not so early in the day that is it a hassle, but not so late in the week to have been lost in a never ending to-do-list. Members have enough time to read the selected paper on Monday or even Tuesday morning if they have not gotten around to it yet, and the 10:30am slot is a natural time to take a break, particularly here in Tortosa where the ‘almuerzo‘ is taken very seriously. So far so good, as we had a 100% attendance this week.

It’s important to stick to the same time every month too, so it becomes a fixture in member’s diaries. Chopping and changing every month will just make everyone confused.

6th rule: No Powerpoints, no grown-ups.

Presenting at journal club should not be a stressful activity, nor a formal one. No Powerpoint slides, no laser pointers, no standing up to present an argument. I stood up to start the meeting this week, but that’s because I wanted to see everyone at the table.

The no grown-up rule probably applies more to early career researchers journal clubs, but it’s important that club members feel comfortable to ask questions, no matter how stupid they seem. It is also vital that everyone gets an equal chance to contribute to the discussion. It is much easier to do all this without grown-ups (supervisors and senior researchers) around.

7th rule: Meetings will go on as long as they have to (but really only an hour or so).

It’s important to have a time limit so members know what to expect, but not be Draconian about it. If the conversation only goes for half an hour, then fine. If it blows out to 90 minutes and people are enjoying it, so what. For us, we talked about the paper for 55 minutes or so, and then chatted for a while about paper management tools and who would select the paper for the next meeting.

8th, and final rule of journal club: If this is your first time at journal club, you have to email afterwards.

To be honest, I was a bit nervous about how our first meeting would go. I wondered whether my colleagues would get anything out of the experience, whether I had chosen the wrong paper, whether Catalonians even likes hummus, or whether it would just waste everyone’s time.

Thankfully my worried were completely unfounded, and our first meeting was a great success. Everyone gave their opinions, we had a detailed discussion about the article (including many aspects I hadn’t considered) and shared our methods for reading and managing papers. The meeting even provided colleagues with an opportunity to help each other with other research issues they were having, which made me beam with joy.

To make sure no-one forgot about what we had discussed, I sent an email around later that day with links to a few relevant web pages, as well as the recipe for honey joys. The email also confirmed the date and time of our next meeting, as well as who would be selecting the paper/bringing the snacks. Let’s hope we can stick to the rules.

Many thanks to Sophie Lewis, Helen Green and Robyn Pickering for their valuable advice, and The Impression That I Get for unearthing peer-reviewed evidence for the value of snacks!

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