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Science’s Water Coolers: Turning Up the Volume On Journal Clubs


Soap with Journal Club
Widely used Fight Club-inspired journal club meme (Origin unknown)

London, 1835 – 1854.  Sometimes they just played cards. But mostly, they would gather in a small room over a baker’s shop and read journals.

The doctors had formed “a kind of club” because the hospital library didn’t have a reading room. It was a mix of study and socializing around new research and ideas that’s become characteristic across science, medicine, and philosophy.

There were probably science journal clubs much earlier in Germany. When Osler started the first journal club recorded in the Americas, he is said to have gotten the idea from there. Scientific journals really started to boom in Germany in the 1800s.

Access was an issue from the start. Every doctor and scientist couldn’t afford to get all the journals they might want – nor read everything that might be interesting to them. The journal club is a core strategy for scientists and practitioners to share the load of filtering and absorbing at least some of science’s prodigious output.

Journal clubs became a core part of both study and continuing professional education (with education credits), too. By the 1980s the journal club was developing into a key element for teaching clinicians about how to critically appraise research results – and itself the subject of clinical trials. Journal clubs may now be the principal form of teaching evidence-based health care.

These days, science has more water coolers – especially blogs, social media, and websites just for this (like PubPeer). And there are now Twitter journal clubs, too – some journals have them as well. But other than conferences, the most intensive group engagement with scientific research is still the face-to-face journal club.

What are they like then, and what works well? Food might increase attendance “and conviviality” – but given how passionate or social it can get, alcohol might not be the best idea!


Cartoon of people lining up to get into a journal club


There’s enormous diversity in journal clubs – from this or this to this – and from small groups through to a hundred or more.

Usually a new paper in a journal is discussed, but ongoing work is often the theme in research groups, as well as invited guests presenting their research. From the Berkeley physics journal club (which has also been called the “Departmental tea”):

“The uninitiated might have anticipated a casual event, but would have been stunned by its formality, from the invitation to the intellectual power of the speaker and the audience.”

Check out their photos – including Oppenheimer participating.

The journal clubs with longevity tend to be incorporated in work or study hours and happen once a month or more. Someone is responsible for identifying the paper or issue for discussion – and often presenting it as well.

But while some journal clubs record and share the results of their discussions, most of the discussion isn’t captured – and definitely isn’t readily accessible to the rest of us. I think that’s a great loss – a colossal amount of intellectual effort that’s not being captured. Researchers aren’t getting the benefit of hearing, in real time, from other researchers – or from practitioners who could have an influence on their work, too.

Gary Ward: "This kind of collective discussion is a great way to surface the strengths and weaknesses of a study and to identify connections to other work."Today there’s a new way to connect these clubs, and to connect their conversations with the scientific record – at PubMed. PubMed Commons has launched journal club membership. You can read more about it at the PubMed Commons blog. (Declaration: PubMed Commons is part of my day job. More from me about it here.)

If you’re a member of a journal club in the biomedical sciences, I hope you’ll get your club involved. I hope this will be the start of more club-to-club communication too. Journal clubs are a valuable part of the scientific community that’s been too submerged from community view.

And I’m delighted that this pet topic of mine got to be the subject of my first post here at the PLOS Blogs Network. It’s a pleasure to deepen my involvement with PLOS and a great privilege to join this wonderful open access community. If you’ve not encountered Absolutely Maybe before, welcome!


The cartoon in this post is my own (Creative Commons, non-commercial license): more at Statistically Funny.


* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.



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