How to successfully start and run a journal club

As a graduate student, you face many tasks – doing your research, preparing articles, and perhaps some teaching duties. One of the hardest tasks is regularly reading papers and keeping on top of the current research trends. However, every day dozens of new articles are submitted to the astro-ph (the astronomy part of the preprint server arXiv). Evaluating which papers are interesting and reading them all would take up more time than you can spend on it, even if you follow these tips on reading papers. Luckily, there is a solution to this problem – start a journal club!

Journal clubs can take different forms, but all of them share one characteristic: people interested in astronomy (students, researchers, maybe even professors) gather to discuss scientific articles in a regular meeting. In most journal clubs, several people present the contents of one scientific article each, while everyone else can chime in on the discussion. This arrangement has many benefits and can help you stay on top of the current research. First, not everyone has to read every paper in detail. There are five people in your journal club and five exciting articles on the arXiv for this week?  Perfect – you each only read one paper and present it to the others. Second, if you do not understand parts of a paper, you can discuss your question(s) with the group. Third, a regular meeting forces you to regularly check for new articles. Let’s be honest – it is too easy to slack in this regard for a couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, even though journal clubs can be beneficial, they can often evoke a sense of dread or boredom for many grad students. Sometimes the journal club seems more like a time drain than a time saver. This is primarily because of two reasons: the club is just one presentation after another, with minimal active discussion, or the papers are not that interesting for the participants. However, both of these problems can be avoided, and today, I would like to give some tips on how you can start and run a successful journal club with your friends and colleagues!

General tip: Keep it casual!

The best advice to avoid the common problems associated with journal clubs is to keep it casual. This can be put down into three “rules:”

Rule 1: Make it clear that presenters do not have to understand every detail of their paper.
Papers are often technical and might be from areas only marginally linked to the presenters’ own research experiences. It is entirely natural that parts of an article remain mysterious. Any presenter should be free to express which figures/derivations/results they did not understand. In fact, some of the most beneficial discussions arise when a presenter admits that they did not understand parts of a paper, and the group collectively tries to find the correct interpretation. By encouraging people to admit their knowledge gaps, you can get more presenters and perhaps more exciting discussions during the journal club.

Rule 2: Encourage everyone to ask any question.
To avoid people passively absorbing the presentations, clearly state that everyone is welcome (and encouraged!) to ask any question, no matter how trivial it sounds. There really are no stupid questions!  A good rule established in my journal club is that the meeting is an “apology-free space:” No one is allowed to apologize, either for not understanding parts of a paper or asking a question. In this way, asking questions and admitting not understanding something is normalized.

Rule 3: Keep everything voluntary.
You might be tempted to force every participant to present a certain number of papers simply to ensure enough articles to fill the time slot. However, this is usually not a good idea. At first, people might feel obliged to fulfill their ‘quota’. However, as time goes by, the preparation of papers can seem too much like an additional, time-consuming task, so participants might stop coming to the Journal club altogether. If people only present when they want to talk about a specific article, they experience less stress and give better presentations. This also allows people who are nervous about presenting to still join the club and participate in the discussion.

Steps to successfully launch your journal club

Having laid down these basic principles, let’s talk about the steps you need to follow to establish and run a journal club.

Step 1: Important decisions

The first step is arguably the most important. In this step, you need to decide on the potential participants, the focus, and the format of the journal club.

Choosing who participates determines the atmosphere of the journal club. You need to decide if you want your journal club to be primarily for students or if you include staff and faculty. In my journal club, we opted to only include master and Ph.D. students and early postdocs but expressly excluded any supervisors or professors. This approach has the benefit that students are more eager to participate. No one can feel embarrassed in front of their supervisor, which removes pressure from presenters (in line with rule #1) and from people asking questions (in line with rule #2). However, this choice has a drawback – the expertise from senior scientists is missing, so sometimes, questions remain unanswered. Nevertheless, we found that the more active discussions compensated for this effect.

The focus of the journal club is also an important issue. On the one hand, if the scope of the presented papers is too large, many presentations might not be that interesting to the participants. On the other hand, a too narrow range limits the number of relevant articles and the potential participants of the journal club. So, you need to find a middle ground. For example, the scope of “all astronomy papers” is probably too large. Simultaneously, “only papers concerning the black hole in the galaxy M87” might be too small.

For the format, there are different options. In some journal clubs, presenters prepare slides, which they go through to explain their paper. In other clubs, presenters simply scroll through their articles, highlighting the central figures and conclusions. In my experience, the second variant encourages more discussion in the group, as participants who have not read the paper can follow better. Furthermore, preparing slides and polishing a presentation increases the workload for the presenter – something we want to avoid (remember rule #1)!

Step 2: Organisation

After deciding on how your journal club looks, it’s time to sort out the organizational stuff. Ask around who would be interested in your journal club and decide on a time and place. It is best to schedule the journal club regularly (I recommend it weekly).

Currently, journal clubs are bound to happen online, so organize a video conference meeting, for example, on Zoom or Skype. If you are meeting at your institute, reserve a room with a screen/projector. Additionally, if you are meeting in person, try to organize some food and drinks! Cookies and coffee/tea will always increase the participation list and the enjoyment of your meeting 😊.

You also need to find a communication tool for your group, with which you remind of the meeting and keep track of presented papers. This could be, for example, a Slack workspace, a simple e-mail list, or, as in my case, a WhatsApp group. Another tool that can help the organization of your journal club is benty-fields (see Figure 1). After registering for free, this web service collects all papers daily submitted to the astro-ph and sorts them, depending on your research interests. You can create a journal club on this page, which your participants can join. Then, they can vote on papers they find interesting. The articles with the highest votes are the best candidates to talk about in your journal club.  

Example of benty-fields interface. The page lists all papers submitted to astro-ph on any day, sorted by your personal interests. Each paper can receive a “vote” for your journal club. By accessing the journal club in the top bar, you can see which papers received the most votes.

Step 3: During the meeting

While running the meeting, remember to keep everything casual and make sure everyone feels included and comfortable to ask questions. Also, try to keep the whole journal club on time! Conversations about papers can quickly evolve to long and technical discussions, but after a while, the concentration of the participants drops. So do not be afraid to interrupt when debates go too long or become too technical.

Step 4: After the meeting

You finished your first Journal club meeting successfully? Great! Just a few things to manage afterward.

First, make sure that a list of all presented papers is available for the participants. In this way, everyone can thoroughly read the articles after the presentation. You can also avoid having multiple presentations on the same papers. A simple tool could be a  Google Doc that lists the presented papers, the presenter’s name, and a link to the article on the arXiv.

Second, ask the participants how they liked the journal club. Every group is different, and things that work for some might not work for others. With this feedback, you can improve your journal club to keep it running for a long time!

Third, remind everyone of the next edition of the journal club so that no one forgets the meeting!

I hope that by following these steps, you can start a journal club with your colleagues and finally keep up to date with and understand new papers!

Astrobite edited by: Huei Sears

Featured Image Credit: Own creation, with screenshots from https://arxiv.org/abs/2104.04538, https://arxiv.org/abs/2103.16359, https://arxiv.org/abs/2104.01185, https://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0307393, and https://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0308328.

About Laila Linke

I am a third year PhD Student at the University of Bonn, where I am exploring the relationship between galaxies and dark matter using gravitational lensing. Previously, I also worked at Heidelberg University on detecting galaxy clusters and theoretically predicting their abundance. In my spare time I enjoy hiking, reading fantasy novels and spreading my love of physics and astronomy through scientific outreach!

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