The week to check in on journal club

It’s been five months since I started a young career researcher journal club at C3, to promote communication among each other, get some English practise and gain more experience in reading papers outside our normal fields of research. Time for an update!

Here is the gist of what happens: every month a different group member picks a journal article, and brings some snacks. We each think of one positive and negative aspect of the paper to discuss, and go from there for an hour or so.

So far we have read about:

So far we have snacked on:

  • Honeyjoys
  • Cornchips and guacamole
  • A three-course menu del día after the meeting (NOT conducive to a productive afternoon)
  • A BBQ lunch after the meeting (also not the most productive snack, but a good summer send off)
  • Fresh fruit and biscuits.

So far the positives and negatives we’ve discussed have included:

  • Methodological short falls
  • Result significance (or non-significance)
  • Understandable figures, or poor editing that allows the publication of figures without labelled axes
  • Clear maps
  • Appropriate journal selection and article length
  • Overuse of acronyms
  • Article structure
  • Well written overviews
  • Many, many more.

But, if you will allow me to be meta for a minute, what about the positive and negatives of the group? What has worked so far, and what hasn’t?


The exciting differences

Each of the papers we’ve analysed has covered a different geographical region, method, and focus. Most papers were chosen because the research was topical and very useful for decision makers i.e. real people outside the scientific community. Others were selected because they were (and are) seminal in their field, or brand new, or quite short (OK, that last one was me).

It’s been really motivating to read the choices of each journal club member, discussing the positive and negative aspects of the paper and their reasons behind choosing a particular article. Embracing these differences is such an enjoyable part of the journal club, helping us learn more about each other as well as our respective fields. We even organised a field trip to visit a PhD student who is based at another centre for one meeting. He is working at a more ‘traditional’ research centre, with lab coats and test tubes and things. There is nothing like a field trip to make you feel like you’re doing something positive!

Not only have the journal club meetings opened my eyes to the many different fields covered in the centre, but I am learning a lot about the different things that people look for when reading an article. Some people are graphically-minded, for example, while others prefer their information in table format. It’s been cool to learn about reading papers from a modellers perspective, or a paleao point of view. A paper that is well designed for one person could be a pain in the neck for someone else. Our conversations are honing my, and my colleagues, understanding about what makes a paper flow well, and what makes a manuscript difficult to read.

Talking, talking

Forgive me for sounding like a proud mama hen, but I have been so impressed with the communication and conversations in the meetings, and the patience and persistence of my colleagues. I am the only native English speaker, and so have an incredibly lucky advantage, not only for reading the papers, but expressing my thoughts about them. However, my colleagues have been consistently excellent at communicating their thoughts and explaining complicated ideas to each other.

With each session we are becoming more familiar with discussing components of a paper, as well as components of academic work. We have helped each other with manuscript preparation, data access, reference management tools, and silly little coding problems that might take three days to figure out on your own, but only 20 minutes if you ask the right person. If you remember what I wrote back in April, this is EXACTLY what I wanted to get out of the group! BEAM!


Freedom at the sacrifice of inclusion

I can honestly say that the introduction of the monthly meetings is having a positive influence in the centre, even if it is simply getting most of us away from our computers for an hour. My colleagues are talking more, exchanging ideas, and with every meeting the conversations are more comfortable and fruitful. But, there has been a small drawback that I did not consider.

In a centre as small as ours, having a group that is for early career researchers only can leave more senior researchers feeling a little left out. This was not the intention at all. But, as much as I don’t want to offend anyone,  I feel even more strongly about giving PhD students an opportunity to voice their opinions and discuss ideas without their supervisors or other ‘grown ups’ around. In the end I have defended the ‘young researcher’ nature of the journal club, but supported the idea of more regular centre-wide meetings, to include all members of the research group.


How embarrassing it has been to realise that not everyone loves pigging out on snack food as much as I do! This has been an eye opener, coming from Australia where my experience has been that PhD students (and post-docs, come on admit it) relish any opportunity for free cake/coffee/fruit/beer/chips. Here, it turns out, it’s mainly me.

The snacks I listed above have been appreciated, but (apart from the two lunches) not really consumed in the way I was expecting. OK, so three snack-centred meetings is not enough to statistically reject the first two rules of journal club, but it is cause for concern. Uneaten snacks at the end of a meeting always give me a silly sense of failure. It might have something to do with the 11am meeting time, rather than the standard 10:30am morning tea that is adhered to by my Catalan colleagues. Or it could be that the meetings take place in a university meeting room, instead of a café. Research continues.

But what have you found with your journal clubs? Do things start to lag after six months or so? What should we watch out for as we move into a new academic year? Please let me know!


6 thoughts on “The week to check in on journal club

  1. This is an extraordinary piece of both community- and skill-building. It’s something researchers tend to find really difficult (or not even realise the need for), and it’s just fabulous that you have moved into a new workplace in a new country and dived in and started to build the foundations of a really collegiate research group. Well done you! I’m very impressed.


  2. Hi Victor! You’re only as young as you feel. I don’t think that communication is blocked with senior scientists around, just changed. There needs to be a space where ECRs can talk honestly, learn from each others mistakes and not be afraid to ask really dumb questions. If there were senior researchers present (a supervisor for example, or someone who is very experienced in the field) then my concern is that the conversation would turn into a question and answer session, rather than a conversation.

    Ideally, there should also be a space where ECRs and more experienced researchers can share their ideas and thoughts as well, in a regular departmental meeting, or smaller catch-ups. However, this type of exchange would inescapably be different. But maybe that’s just my experience. What happens at your centre?


  3. Our institute has a colloquium where external people speak and everyone can ask questions.

    The most similar to your paper seminar would be our working group seminar, which are intended for students and PhD students, to practice presenting and getting feedback on their work. But at these seminars also the older people present their work if there is time.

    Somehow I do not have this fear of asking dumb questions. I think that helps me a lot. When I was a first year student, we had a small group of friends and we asked about half of all questions in class.

    I assume that I am of average intelligence. If everyone assumed that, they would be statistically right. Thus if I am not getting something, then likely at least half of the others also do not get it. One advantage of asking many questions is that the statistics is better; one extremely stupid one is just part of the distribution. If the same question would be the only one in a year, it may impact you reputation more, even if I would still not think that that is significant. The work you do, that is important for your reputation.

    My impression is that our seminars have a quite relaxed atmosphere and I cannot imagine that anyone would remember someone saying something stupid after the end of the seminar. Still it is hard to get questions and comments from the younger people. That is a pity and I would love to understand why. Might there be a paper on that? Then you could discuss it at your paper seminar. Or should it be atmospheric papers? 🙂


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