When I was a grad student, I participated in the usual seminars and journal clubs at which a group of students +/- faculty read and discussed journal articles. Typically, the group would take each article apart in great detail: text, figures, tables, everything.
I was fascinated by this. I found it intensely interesting to scrutinize a paper in extraordinary detail and argue about it with a group of people with different points of view and personalities. It took me a while to gain enough confidence and knowledge to jump into the discussions, so in my early grad years I listened much more than I spoke, but later I got more comfortable contributing to the discussion.
These discussions were not for the sole purpose of tearing everything down and determining that everyone (else) was stupid. Of course any paper can be criticized, but in general we found something worthwhile in most papers. Some contained fatal errors, and I admit that it could be fun to find these, but most papers, despite their flaws, have something of interest. We were certainly highly critical of the articles, but (at least, for me) the main purpose of these discussions wasn't to attack and destroy.
I learned a lot from these discussions of journal articles, and so, as an assistant professor, I looked forward to teaching seminar courses or leading other such discussions with my own graduate students and postdocs. I wanted to show my students how to look closely at a paper and extract its essence, evaluating the data and ideas, and how to be critical of methods, assumptions, and interpretations.
And my students hated it. They hated that every week we criticized a paper and tore it apart. They found the experience deeply depressing.
I altered my approach a bit with later journal discussion classes and groups. I tried a more balanced approach, so that it was obvious that these articles had content of interest, otherwise we wouldn't be discussing them. Students still hated it. They didn't want to read the articles in as much detail as I was asking them to do, and they didn't want to be so critical. They thought I was being too mean.
When I moved to a different university, the culture of my new department was a bit more serious and I had more success with students who enjoyed detailed journal article discussions, but I have never again found the type of stimulating environment that prevailed at my grad school in this particular respect.
That's actually OK with me. Now I am satisfied with a much less intense and critical discussion of articles. I'm happy if we focus on the core concepts and interpretations, and if everyone learns something from the reading and discussions. You don't have to take apart every sentence and figure and table to get a lot out of this type of exercise. If an article makes us think and leads to interesting tangential discussions, that's great.
I wonder, though, if students who don't participate in the attack-dog style of journal reading are learning less about how to put a paper together, and are not as prepared to review manuscripts if they end up in an academic career after graduate school.
The intense paper deconstruction in which I participated as a graduate student was a great education for me in terms of the mechanics of what goes into a paper and how best to construct a solid paper. But maybe there are other ways to learn this skill; perhaps just by diving into writing and getting a lot of feedback is just as (or more) effective.
And as for learning how to review: Perhaps reviewing skills can be gained in part by looking at reviews that others do of one's own submitted manuscripts.
I know that journal clubs are alive and well at many institutions and I think that is a good thing. I don't believe that the culture of attack-and-destroy for these discussions is harmful and instills a culture of aggression and contempt. I think that intense experiences with criticism and discussion of published work can be extremely valuable training for intellectual development and acquisition of knowledge about how things are done (e.g., the mechanics of putting together a paper).
However, I no longer think, as I used to, that such experiences are critical to graduate or postdoctoral training. That is, I think students and postdocs do need to learn how to be critical -- to question assumptions, examine the evidence, think about other interpretations -- but there are other ways to get there.
2 months ago