Blogging journal clubs as a tool for disseminating science

A while back, I gave a keynote talk at an evo-devo conference, and one of the things I told them was that public outreach was important, and one tool to get your message out was blogging. Telling that to a mob of working scientists who have other pressing matters occupying them is dangerous, but I also told them of one easy way to spread the word about science: make your students do it, and coopt existing educational frameworks to make it happen. The specific suggestion I made was that graduate student journal clubs should be drafted to make writing a blog entry about that week’s paper a part of the work.

Those of you who haven’t been through the grad student grind may not be familiar with journal clubs, but they’re nearly universal. A general topic is chosen for a term — I’ve been involved with journal clubs as broad as “Neurobiology” and as specific as “Astrobiology and mechanisms of bacterial survival in space”. The group usually meets once a week, and each week one member presents a discussion of a single paper in the field. It’s fun, it hones critical thinking, and forces students to trace ideas through the primary research literature.

Anyway, you can see how easily that would adapt to science blogging. Just have your student presenter be responsible for writing up a basic summary of the paper to be posted to the web ahead of time — they’re already doing all the work, they’ve made notes on the paper, it’s an easy step to take…and it adds an outreach and communication component to an existing educational responsibility. It’s win-win all around. If you’re faculty running a journal club at your university, think about doing it next term — it adds to the flowering of accessible summaries of key research papers.

Want an example? Here’s one from the evo-devo group at the University of Oregon, on Evolution, Development, and Genomics. It contains everything you need, references, links to sources, and good summaries of research — and it all spins out organically from something grad students everywhere do all the time. The only thing it’s really missing now is active comments from outsiders, and that’s one concern … when we’re all doing this, it’s going to be hard to get the readership for any one journal club blog to get good feedback. The important thing, though, is that the information is out there.

One thing I can do to help is link to some of these sorts of blogs. If any of you are going to be trying this next fall, send me a link to your public journal club page, and I’ll put together a listing and post it at the start of the school year (don’t send it to me now, it’ll get lost — contact me in August). Also, and even more importantly, get your blog registered with Research Blogging, which is an excellent central aggregator of exactly the kinds of articles a journal club blog will be churning out.