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Friday, February 21- 

One fateful day in Journal Club, my professor announced that we would be taking turns explaining the figures four sub-figures at a time, instead of the usual one sub-figure at the time. 

I looked at my friend next to me with rounded eyes. 

“I didn’t read the paper, did you?” I whispered out of the corner of my mouth. 

She shook her head. “Didn’t have time,” she whispered back. 

And so I did a quick scan of the room with my eyeballs, calculating which subfigures I’d be responsible for based on the 5 people that separated me and the person talking. “Okay, you’re Figure 3C-F. I’m Figure 3G-H and Figure 4A-B,” I hissed under my breath. 

We flipped to Figure 3. There we were, looking at a monster of a heat map full of alphabet soup (protein name abbreviations). “Shoot!” 

“Shoot!” 

And then she let out a little wheeze. I couldn’t help it. I busted up. There we were, silently guffawing behind our papers at the whole hilarity of the situation, 5 people away from certain disaster. 

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I know I get less out of the journal club discussion if I haven’t read the paper beforehand (though this is the exception rather than the norm), but this is a rare occurrence. The good thing that comes out of being a last-minute heathen is that I’ve at least devised a method to sop up the information into my brain in a relatively quick and thorough way. Happily, this method is also tree-friendly and can be done on a laptop. 

Materials: This is applicable for a primary manuscript (not a review paper), and a blank document on the laptop

Time requirement (20-30 minutes)

Methods: 

  1. Read the abstract and pull out the sentence about the main findings of the paper. Also paraphrase the sentence about the significance of the findings. Put these two sentences at the top of the document, and add a “rationale for paper” sentence. 
  2. Skim the introduction portion that discusses background (if you already have a pretty good background, you don’t really need to read this part), and go to the part that talks briefly about study design. Ex . “Here we investigated the factors underlying procrastination in a double-blind, randomized, controlled study involving 20 PRO grad students and 20 PRE grad students.”
    1. Note any abbreviations and definitions down in your new document. Ex. “PRO refers to those graduate students that are exceptional procrastinators.” These will be helpful for quick reference later when you’re looking at a big figure full of abbreviations. 
  3. Results section (the most important section!) 
    1. Cut and paste the sentence preceding each sub-figure reference. Ex. “To test how quickly I could forge my way through reading a paper, I set a timer. (Fig. 1A)” Of course, cite the paper appropriately! 
      1. As you’re cutting and pasting, you will automatically read these short explanations of sub-figures. 
      2. When you’re done, write a sentence about the main purpose of Figure 1 at the top. Usually, the title of the Figure 1 caption provides some hints. 
      3. Put your document side-by-side with the actual Figure 1 from the paper. This makes it easier to link descriptions with their graphical representations and assess whether you agree with the authors’ conclusions about their findings.
    2. Repeat 3a with each figure. 
    3. As you’re going through the figures, write down questions that may come up. These are good starting points in journal club. 
  4. Usually, 1-3 is good enough for being able to discuss your overall thoughts on the paper and where you thought the authors could have done a little more work or an extra experiment to verify that indeed, poor time management directly results in last-minute work! However, if you need some ideas for future directions and have time, usually the authors will themselves provide these in the Discussion section. You can write these down in your document. 
Side-by-side comparisons of the subfigure descriptor to the subfigure graphics. From Wahlquist et al., 2014, click on image for link to paper.

Good luck contributing meaningfully to journal club, and hopefully you will only need to use this strategy on rare occasions! A future blog post will focus on reading papers for full understanding, and the different color-coding systems I’ll use for review papers and for primary manuscripts. 

Sincerely,
the microbepipettor

microbepipettor