Leading a remarkable journal club

By Paula Rincon

Chances are you are leading a journal club in school on a periodic basis. But often the question arises as to where one should start. The following format worked well for my three years leading monthly journal clubs. Feel free to adapt it to your own needs and please leave your comments below the post with questions or feedback.

Select the right article
Pick an article that is either recently published and pertains to your research lab or class, or one that is relevant to your current research study. In the latter case, you could be looking at an alternative methodology or a possible outcome that you could expect on your own experimentation process.

Also, always pick original research (has a methods section) as opposed to reviews.

Prepare yourself and your audience
Read the article critically. Distribute your article to the journal club participants well in advance and bring extra copies of the article to the session.

Walk your audience through the facts

  1. Start with the big picture. Introduce the topic by outlining what’s known beforehand. Explain why you chose the article and perhaps introduce what makes it relevant to you or your group.
  2. Outline the content by identifying the authors and the funding source. Is the author’s previous work reliable? Was the research sponsored by industry? For example, if a study sponsored by a drug company finds their drug to have minimal harmful secondary effects, you could probably assume some bias and research into some competing outcomes in the literature.
  3. Mention the question that the study was designed to answer. This is often the last line of the abstract.
  4. Walk your audience through the study design.
  5. Expose the independent or often-called predictor variables. These are the factors that the researchers believe might cause or predict changes in the outcome. For example, in a study of cytotoxicity of certain chemical, it would be some dosage measure of this chemical, time of exposure, etc.
  6. Expose the dependent or outcome variables. These are the phenomena that the authors are trying to predict, prevent, or cause. Examples are enzyme saturation curves, marker expression patterns, or measures of survival time.

After exposing every variable in the study, explain how the investigators chose to measure them. Often, studies are invalidated due to the failure to measure variables in an appropriate way.

When you arrive at the results section, begin by clearly stating what the authors found and walk your audience through the most important tables to make sure everyone can see what measurements were obtained. You might feel tempted to include all the tables, graphs and figures in the paper. Try to only bring up the most relevant three.

Also, try to look past statistical significance and focus on the magnitude of difference between measurements. Lastly, talk about the conclusions to which the authors arrived but refrain from telling your group whether you agree with them.

Discuss the validity of the study
So far, you’ve given factual information about the article. Now you will introduce your audience to your interpretation of the study.

List the possible biases, limitations or flaws of the study. Was the sampling strategy reasonable? Were there biases in measuring the outcomes, or were subjects not representative? If you found problems, how would these problems impact the results and conclusions? Were the conclusions reasonable? More importantly, were the experiments appropriate to answer the research question or should the authors have designed the study differently? For example, take a study where authors want to test respiratory viral inhibition upon exposure to a certain chemical using a cell culture protocol. If they are experimenting on a myocyte culture, you could discuss whether you think it was appropriate for them to choose this cell line as opposed to a pulmonary or bronchial epithelial one.

For each bias or flaw, discuss how (or in what direction) it affected the result found. This is the most important step; it is where you use judgement to assess the validity of the study.

However, keep in mind that no study will be absolutely flawless. You have to assess whether the flaws or biases affect what was found. Ask yourself if the outcomes have taken the opposite direction in absence of this flaw? If the flaw is not that relevant, then it probably would not be noteworthy enough to include it in your presentation.

Wrap-up (never leave your audience hanging)
What is the bottom line? Ask your audience if the article has changed their perception on the topic. Maybe the article sheds light on the inhibition of your study enzyme under certain conditions (temperature ranges, for example) that you were not controlling for. Or maybe the study proves the toxicity of a drug that you are trying to find positive outcomes for. Make sure you involve the audience by asking them how this article influences their own research or result validation process and have them justify their answers.

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