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Why Have Journal Club?

Journal clubRelating to my recent comments on seminars, a beginning grad student or undergrad researcher might wonder why journal club is such a good thing. Or you might not be wondering, since the benefits are more or less the same: digesting, discussing and analyzing research findings. But whether or not you realize the benefits of journal club participation, I’ve noticed that a lot of young PhD and Master’s candidates horribly under-prepared to present a paper. As a result, I thought I would enumerate some of the commonly held expectations of the person presenting the day’s journal article.

First off, I think it goes without saying that the presenter should read the article, cover to cover, every single word. The Intro, Methods, Results, and Discussion sections do not exist in isolation. Each of them was written in the context of the others, forming a cogent ‘story.’ Additionally, each section has an appreciable level of detail, making it very easy to miss a vital detail if you just skim a section – a detail that completely changes the meaning of the paper. Journal articles are tricky like that, so do your homework and read the paper thoroughly.

But that will only get you so far. Merely reading a paper will not help you interpret the results or put the methodology in its proper perspective. I’m going to argue that, here, an understanding of the philosophy of science (and of biology in particular) is especially helpful. Sir Karl Popper, in his seminal work The Logic of Scientific Discovery, described in more detail how scientific knowledge proceeds from our problems and from our attempts to solve them.

These attempts of scientific discovery involve the formulation of theories which, if they are to explain anomalies which exist with respect to earlier theories, must go beyond existing knowledge and therefore require a leap of the imagination. … Further, since the scientist begins with problems rather than with observations or “bare facts’, Popper argues that the only logical technique which is an integral part of scientific method is that of the deductive testing of theories which are not themselves the product of any logical operation. In this deductive procedure conclusions are inferred from a tentative hypothesis. These conclusions are then compared with one another and with other relevant statements to determine whether they falsify or corroborate the hypothesis.

In other words, my second tip is to formulate the journal article that you’re presenting into a series of questions. What questions do the authors of the journal article seek to answer? How do they test their hypotheses? Have the authors considered all of the plausible alternatives? What questions do they raise for future research?

I’d just really like to see the ‘fresh’ researchers take the time to do these things better, when preparing for journal clubs.

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