Journal Club presentations in our group

We occasionally organize journal club (JC) sessions where some of us meet to discuss one or several papers we find interesting for some reason. One of us usually takes the role of the “presenter” for a paper. This document is a rough outline of what we want these meetings to be and especially what the role of the presenter is to ensure productive meetings.

What are those JC meetings?

Here is how these meetings usually start: Any paper that strikes the fancy of one of us is being posted to our #journal-club Slack-channel (please, post papers you find interesting there!). Here we discuss and collect interest and feedback for these papers and, in case we determine that a paper is of particular interest, one of us (you?) might decide to set up a “real” physical JC meeting. Setting up the meeting includes finding a “presenter” and desirable attendees who have an immediate interest in the paper and guarantee to show up (and read the paper). Everyone else is, of course, free to attend as well. So, more often than not, JC meetings are small and may consist of only 3 or 4 people but if a paper is interesting to many, there may be 10 or even more people coming.


What is the role of the presenter?

You as the presenter are the person responsible for the meeting and for providing a structure that favours high-quality discussion. In that way, the term presenter is a misnomer. Rather, you should think about yourself as a discussion leader rather than a scientific presenter. Your primary responsibility is:

  • to provide the motivation and background for why this particular paper is relevant for us
  • to provide an overview over the paper highlighting
    • what was investigated (and why)
    • how it was investigated (methods)
    • provide the papers’ (not necessarily your own) conclusions (the so what of the paper)
  • to lead a structured discussion

In this list, by far the most important entry is the last one. We do these meetings because we want to get each others’ input and thoughts about research questions, methods or conclusions, so discussion is what these meetings are about. Therefore, you should keep the first part, the actual presentation, to a minimum while still ensuring that everyone is sufficiently prepared for a discussion. Your presentation should not be a replacement for reading the paper (though it sometimes happens that not everyone will have had the time to properly read the paper in detail). Rather, it should set the stage for the discussion, remind everyone about the relevance of the paper and provide a natural structure for discussion the paper in detail.

To start with, mention how this paper ended on our plate. Who found it, why was it deemed interesting, which project may be related to that work. Some of us may have many ongoing projects and may need a reminder to get them going (with seniority comes senility, I guess). Next, give a superficial and brief summary of the key points of the paper (like an elevator presentation). Follow that up with a more detailed run-through of the paper. How this is best done depends a lot on the paper. If there are multiple experiments, perhaps experiment-by-experiment is best. If there are several hypothesis, that might work as a structure. If there are different methods (e.g., fMRI and EEG), that might work – you get the picture. The point is to give a structured and a little more detailed summary without reading the paper out loud. If everyone is nodding along, you may cut to the chase and drop a lengthy explanation – if not – well, you don’t. Usually this part of the JC should not take more than 10 minutes but that may depend on the paper. There may be papers that require significantly more (or less) presentation time.

You choose for yourself whether you want to use visual aids (slides, PDF on-screen, board, …) or whether the group is small enough that everyone can cram together over a piece of paper. There is certainly no need for a polished power-point.

If, while preparing for the JC, you had questions about the paper, you might end with one of them to get the discussion going. That includes “stupid” questions such as “I did not really get that part about the random slope-coefficients in the hiearchical model…”. The JC sessions are learning-opportunities for all of us! In fact, if the paper is very technical, we might spend all of the JC trying to make sense of the methods and drawing on each others’ expertise to get a fuller picture of what was done – and that is completely fine!

After discussion has started – make sure you get your own questions out and see whether someone else has the answer!


What is the role of the attendees of the JC?

If you are only attending (i.e., you are not the presenter for this JC), pretty much your only job in preparation of the JC is to read the paper. If you are intrigued and have a pen ready while reading, why not jot down a few notes and/or questions you have about the paper? Or maybe you get an idea for a research project? (Note that down as well, please!). During the JC, enjoy the presentation (and maybe the slightly different viewpoint it offers on the paper) and recall the paper. Then ask questions (or answer them).


Are there dumb questions?

NO! If you have trouble understanding the paper, chances are others have trouble as well. Others will be grateful and noone will think you a fool! On the contrary, finding (and admitting!) gaps in our knowledge is pretty much our job as researchers! Think about every question as an opportunity to learn something. Sometimes, seemingly simple (or “dumb”) questions may expose major misunderstandings that were not apparent before.


Enjoy the journal-club!

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