ramen and pickles

science, technology, and medicine served up with some tasty noodles

How to find a good paper for a journal club

Hi, after talking some starting medical students and graduate students, it seems some people wonder how they should go about finding a good paper to go over when they have to do a journal club type report or if they just want to follow the literature in an area.  Obviously, there may be particular papers that are directly in your area of research or that you need to read as background for a project, so then choosing them would be a good idea, as it saves your time and forces you to go into that paper in depth.
However, there are a lot of poorly written papers out there (I know, I’ve written some stinkers).  It is also unfortunate that we are exposed to so many stinkers as we go along, particularly in many niche clinical areas.  The first paper draft I wrote on my own was horrible because I was emulating the terrible computer science conference papers I had read.  That’s not a great model for our education.  It would be like trying to teach journalism students by having them read UsWeekly and InTouch instead of the New York Times or having creative writing students studying the Twilight books.  Well, that would be slightly better, because lots of people actually like UsWeekly and the Twilight books.  No one likes reading a poorly written scientific paper.
Instead of reading poorly written papers with lots to criticize, you can focus on great papers, and try to identify and emulated what makes them great.  Usually clarity of writing and good figures are at the top of that list, along with a strong narrative hook so that you can summarize the key findings of the paper without any trouble.
Check out “Faculty of a 1000”.   This is sort of like reddit for science.  Senior faculty around the world submit citations to papers they really like.   This is broken down by discipline, and there are several different ways to access the material with different rankings and prioritizations, but the basic idea is that these are papers that established scientists really want to recommend or highlight.
Academics pay a lot of attention to impact factor of journals, and although there are a lot of problems with that, one important difference between journals is how good the editing is.  The top journals (NEJM, Lancet, Nature, Science, etc.) have bigger budgets and along with that, really good editing departments including art departments whose members go through every word and every figure of a paper to make it better.  That’s a key service provided to you as a reader.    One reason to focus on high impact journals it that sometimes the science is better, but almost always, the writing is better.
As you go along and start to find a few people whose papers you really like, you can just focus on their work.  One tip that I inherited from my postdoc adviser who got it from James Watson is to use this to follow a whole field.  If you find a few major players in a field, you can often follow the whole field by what they write.   Either they will be directly producing the new science, or they will be discussing the key developments in reviews they write or other work that they cite in their papers.  You can go to PubMed and put in a search (such as for an author and affiliation) and then use that to generate an RSS feed with a single click, which will continue to provide you with citations to that person’s work.   Even better, a lot of great scientists tweet or blog a lot.  You just have to find a few that write well and you can follow their writings and get all the key developments a field over many years.
It can be a useful exercise to always think about what could be done to improve a paper.  However, you don’t need to make it easy on yourself.
Your time is limited.  Don’t spend it reading bad papers.
Comments appreciated.  Other suggestions or ideas?.


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