Ten Tips for Scientific Journal Clubs: How to Organize, Lead, and Participate Well

What is a journal club? A scientific journal club is a dedicated meeting where researchers gather to discuss publications from peer-reviewed journals. These meetings help researchers keep up with current findings, exercise their critical thinking skills, and improve their presentation and debate abilities.

Journal club formats vary depending on the preferences of organizers and participants. Online journal clubs organized using virtual meeting platforms (e.g. Zoom, Google Meets, Webex) are increasing in popularity with research labs and institutions.

In a well-run journal club, participants engage in lively discussions, while critically and honestly evaluating a study's strengths and weaknesses. They take away insights on what to do—and what not to do—in their own work. They feel inspired by new findings and walk away with ideas for their own research.

On the contrary, ineffective journal clubs lack active participation. There may be a fear of openly voicing thoughts and opinions, or attendees may just be there for the free refreshments. In the end, the attendees take away nothing useful and think it's a waste of time.

Whether you’re an organizer or a participant, follow these tips to run and lead a successful journal club, and to create engaging journal club presentations.

1. Make It a Routine

Schedule the journal club at a recurring time and location, so that it becomes a regular part of everyone's schedule. Choose a time that will be the least disruptive to everyone's experiments. Perhaps host it during lunchtime and invite people to eat while the presenter is speaking. Or perhaps host it in late afternoon with coffee and snacks provided.

We try and make the meeting times agreeable to most people and at times that are conducive to the work day of a grad student. We hold our journal clubs after seminars or presentations so it doesn’t interrupt experiments.

Shan Kasal, Graduate Student, The University of Chicago

2. Designate a Leader

A designated leader(s) who can take ownership of running the journal club will contribute tremendously to its success. The responsibilities of a leader may include organizing the journal club (see below) and facilitating the meeting (e.g., starting and ending meetings on time, making speaker introductions and announcements, and moderating discussions).

Skilled journal club leaders make it safe for members to openly voice their thoughts and opinions. They work to generate excitement and encourage active participation. They also provide opportunities for members to join them in organizing and leading the journal club. Great leaders inspire personal and professional growth in others within their journal club community.

Download this journal club preparation checklist to help you stay organized as a leader and ensure all necessary tasks are completed before each journal club meeting.

3. Get Organized

Staying organized is key to running a successful journal club. Here are some ways that can help you organize a journal club:

  • Set a consistent format and make sure members are aware of it.
  • Create and share schedules so participants know it's their turn to present, facilitate, pre-read, or provide refreshments.
  • Develop a communication rhythm to make sure announcements and reminders are sent out in a timely manner.
  • Provide guidelines and/or a template for presenters.
  • Bring attendance sheets to track member turnouts. Depending on the institute, keeping track of attendance can help with budget requests and approvals.
  • Provide feedback forms to the audience to help identify areas for improvement.

Journal Club Toolkit

Journal Club ToolKit

Get organized with these downloadable tools, including a journal club preparation checklist, attendance sheet template, presentation checklist, feedback form template, and presenter evaluation forms.

4. Pre-Read Papers

Pre-reading is a great way to ensure that you have sufficient background information to participate in journal club discussions. In an ideal world, everyone in the journal club will read the paper prior to the meeting. But due to the high demands of research, members may not have the time to pre-read before every single meeting.

Journal club leaders can encourage pre-reading or even make it mandatory. Some journal clubs ask for different members to present different figures. Using this format, several individuals have to pre-read the paper and actively participate during each meeting. Other journal clubs designate one or two individuals, in addition to the presenter, to thoroughly pre-read the paper each week. The pre-readers are asked to help promote discussion by asking questions during the meetings. Organizers can set a schedule so that members know when it's their turn to pre-read.

5. Build a Community

You need to have students that are interested in the club in the first place, and I would also say, interested in hanging out with each other. Our journal club format is informal, which allows us to at least enjoy the company of each other.

Shan Kasal, Graduate Student, The University of Chicago

Journal club organizers and leaders should aim to create a community where the members feel safe enough to share their thoughts and ask questions. Fostering community encourages active participation and the exchange of ideas, and can increase participant satisfaction and collaborations.

Successful journal clubs always come with food!!

Serena Chang, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Stanford University

A great way to foster community is, simply, to serve food and drinks. Eating and drinking together can create a friendly, informal atmosphere conducive to open discussions, which will help encourage the flow of ideas and thoughts on the journal club paper. In addition, refreshments help to incentivize members to continue attending the journal club.

6. Choose Relevant Papers

Consider the composition of your journal club community when choosing a paper. A journal club may have a broad group of researchers (e.g., a general immunology journal club), or it may only involve one or two labs specifically working on immune tolerance or a particular immune cell type. Papers discussed should be be on topics relevant to the participants’ research areas so that they remain interested.

We encourage people to select papers they are not already reading to try and expand our understanding of immunology and theirs. Too many times I feel like people select papers they already have read or will read and gain nothing from it, so there is no incentive to invest more.

Shan Kasal, Graduate Student, The University of Chicago

As a busy researcher, the additional task of preparing for a journal club can feel like an extra burden. It’s easy to choose a paper that you are already reading for your research project. But choosing a paper that is outside of your research specialty can help you and others gain new perspectives and broaden your knowledge.

7. Make Engaging Presentations

You’ve likely suffered through boring lectures with text-heavy slides, or a monotonous presentation. How can this be avoided in your journal club?

I have a one page suggestion list of things to include in the presentation, including criticisms for the methods, hypothesis, whether the results are valid/strong enough to support the hypothesis, etc. This helps keep everyone on track.

Serena Chang, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Stanford University

As a journal club organizer or leader, you can provide presenters with a suggested list of presentation content and best practices:

  • Start with why. Capture everyone’s interest by sharing why you chose that paper or why the paper is important to discuss.
  • Prepare a concise presentation. Summarize only the key points of the paper. Include enough background information but avoid the urge to include every single detail. You can provide technical details when needed during the discussion period.
  • Simplify complex information. Create simple visual representations of complex ideas, pathways, or techniques to help your audience understand the information. Avoid writing out complex information in text-heavy slides that nobody will read.
  • Give it more space. Make your slides easier to read by avoiding having too much text in small fonts or too many figures on one slide. If a figure is too large, you can break it up into a few slides.
  • Include discussion starters. Instead of simply summarizing, include your thoughts and opinions on all aspects of the paper to initiate a discussion. What were the strengths and weaknesses? What questions did you have when reading the paper?

Download this journal club presentation checklist to help your presentation preparation.

8. Keep It Exciting

Break out of the routine once in a while to keep the journal club fresh and exciting. For example, you could invite external speakers to your journal club:

  • Invite a visiting scientist to present their work.
  • Ask a biotech company to present their technologies.
  • Find a speaker who can discuss scientific careers.
  • Ask a science communication expert to give tips.

9. Look for Ways to Improve

You’ve taken the first step towards improving your journal club by reading this article, but improvement is a continual process.

What does your journal club community think? Perform regular audits of the journal club by asking for feedback every few months. Distribute feedback forms that attendees can fill out at the end of a journal club meeting.

Download a journal club feedback form template >

In addition to asking for feedback, pay attention to what happens during journal club meetings. Do members generally appear awake and engaged during presentations? Are you constantly running out of discussion time? You can gain a lot of insights by simply being observant in the meeting.

10. Make Time for It

Understandably, the demands of research can prevent you from making the choice to take on this additional task of leading or participating in a journal club. Adopt smart practices so you can use your time more efficiently. Working smart will help free up your time for other beneficial activities, including journal clubs.

One of the ways to work smarter is to make the switch to more efficient technologies that can help you get your results in less time. For example, you can switch to a smarter way to isolate cells.

Scientist working in the lab

Efficient Tools and Technologies for Life Science Research

Accomplish more in less time and with less effort by making smarter choices for the tools you use in the lab, including cell isolation and cell culture technologies.

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