how to make a journal club presentation

Choosing a paper for journal club

How do you choose a paper for journal club?

For some bizarre reason, I volunteered to lead 2 journal clubs this week. They both were on the same day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Although I’ve improved at public speaking, I still get really nervous. Something about standing in front of a crowd, their eyes set on your every movement/jitter/stutter, and then wondering if they’ll catch on to your mistakes–I hate it. Fortunately, as you grow in your field you will realize that you know more about your topic than they do. You know the flow of your presentation, and you know the main points of your story. And you learn how to choose the right paper for your audience.

How do you choose?

First, what type of atmosphere does the journal club have?

The journal club could be very laid-back. For example, our regular lab journal club meets in our supervisor’s office. We sit around a small table in the morning around 9AM and discuss the general concepts of a paper. Since we’re a small lab, there isn’t a lot of pressure to get everything right the first time. You can miss the point of a figure, and the rest of the group will chime in and help analyze the results a bit deeper.

Or the journal club could be very discussion-heavy. Our joint journal club is held in a conference room really early in the morning once a week. We meet with another lab with an emeritus professor. A lot of background regarding the topic isn’t necessary, nor expected, but appreciated. The results will get scrutinized, and the group will expect you to have done extensive reading on the group/paper/topic.

Or the journal club could be all about your presentation skills and your growth as a student. The journal club for our graduate program meets in the evening, and people bring in beer to drink and relax. Each student picks a paper and analyzes it, and our director of graduate studies asks poignant questions related to the paper, and maybe how the paper relates to your field. I find that these are the best journal clubs to test whether or not you can apply recent findings to your work. And, of course, to assess how you’re progressing in the program.

Once you’ve assessed the dynamic of the audience, you can move forward and pick the best paper for the group. For example, my main project revolves around post-traumatic headache. These are the papers I would pick for these 3 journal clubs, and why:

  • Lab Journal Club

Development of CGRP-dependent pain and headache related behaviours in a rat model of concussion: Implications for mechanisms of post-traumatic headache

I would pick this paper for our laid-back lab journal clubs because it involves a new development on my topic of interest. I was actually lucky enough to meet Dara Bree at EHMTIC this past September. He is doing really exciting work involving traumatic brain injuries, and the headaches that occur afterwards! This paper would tell us about what they’re currently doing, and if it overlaps with our projects in any way. I would frame my talk this way:

  1. Background on post-traumatic headache
    • Just the highlights!
    • Maybe even some of our own background data as a refresher
  2. Figure-by-figure analysis (We spend the most time on this!)
    • How did they do the experiment? What did they find?
    • How is this similar to what we’ve found? Is it not similar to what we found?
    • Do we think that technique was appropriate, and is ours also appropriate?
  3. Overarching conclusions from all of their results
    • Does this agree with our overarching conclusions? Do we think that it’s fair to also reach the same overarching conclusions?
  4. How can we move forward with these results in our own experiments?
    • Usually, we decide that we could also try altering our experiments to try something out. Sometimes we find out something new, and sometimes we don’t. Either way, it’s good to know what others in your immediate field are up to!


  • Joint Journal Club

Histone deacetylase inhibitor-induced emergence of synaptic δ-opioid receptors and behavioral antinociception in persistent neuropathic pain.

I would pick this paper for our joint journal club because it involves a variety of techniques, is applicable to many fields, and has some interesting results. To be honest, I really enjoy following Zhi Zhang’s work and often discuss his papers. I feel like his lab is doing everything that I am interested in, often all at the same time. They are looking at chronic pain, depression, epigenetic mechanisms, and how opioid receptors can be involved. I’m sure that they also like taking long walks on the beach, making us all perfect for one another.

Sometimes I get flustered when I pick a difficult paper (or one with a variety of techniques I’m not familiar with), mainly because I’m worried that I’ll sound stupid when I’m talking. I have this fear that everyone will think that I don’t know what I’m talking about and just shrug me off. Sometimes this may be true, but usually the audience is depending on you to figure out the details. They may have also struggled with the details, and they’re hoping that you delved a little deeper so that they can understand a little better. I framed this discussion the following way:

  1. Background on the clinical problem that relates to these studies
    • The opioid epidemic is huge. I won’t go into it here, because that’s a whole other topic for another day. But I will say that it’s getting worse. If you’re interested, you can click on the picture and it will take you to the CDC website to check it out. A lot of factors go into why the USA is having such a huge opioid problem, and one of those factors is clinical pain management. You have chronic pain, so you get a drug. Unfortunately the pain doesn’t go away, so you get more of this drug. You may develop an addiction to the drug, but you start to have pain again… what do you do? Take more? It’s not that simple, of course, but it’s a huge problem that needs to be further studied.
    • Most of those drugs involve only 1 receptor in the opioid family. We could attack this problem if we studied another opioid receptor in the family (delta!). The delta opioid receptor is relatively understudied, and it doesn’t usually work well in neuropathic pain conditions.
    • If we could make this drug work in neuropathic pain, even though it doesn’t usually, could that be promising?
  2. Figure-by-figure analysis
    • I talk, in detail, about the methods used in each experiment. Then, I pretend that each figure is 1 big experiment, even though I know that that’s not how it probably progressed. 
  3. One thing I do differently in these journal clubs is that I usually have 1 sentence that summarizes the entire figure. This is a snippet from my slides, and it doesn’t include the entire figure. If you don’t really understand what the figure means, or what all of my little notes were trying to get at, you will still understand that this compound did not alleviate pain at this certain time point (see Figure 1B title).
    Histone deacetylase inhibitor-induced emergence of synaptic δ-opioid receptors and behavioral antinociception in persistent neuropathic pain
  4. Major Conclusions
    • By this point, we’ve discussed the figures in great detail. We’re tired. We have analyzed the results so much that they confuse us, and we no longer believe them. But we remember in the beginning when we did. This “major conclusion” is the overarching conclusion, and it usually sounds and looks a lot like the title.


  • Graduate Program Journal Club

Elevated levels of calcitonin gene-related peptide in upper spinal cord promotes sensitization of primary trigeminal nociceptive neurons

To be honest, I ended up discussing Zhang’s paper twice this week. But… that’s not what I had initially planned. I had planned to discuss Durham’s paper, but I ended up losing track of time. I felt most confident focusing on Zhang’s paper and presenting it twice, than dividing my limited time, and not knowing much about either paper.

Paul Durham’s paper is good pick because it involves neuropeptides that relate to my work, uses a method that I’m familiar with (and can teach others about, if they ask), and has a lot of visual images. Also, if there are any new students in the program, they may think about rotating in my lab if they find the talk interesting! I would frame this talk the following way:

  1. Background on the neuropeptide & how it relates to the disease of interest.
    • Include a mechanism flow chart, or some recent findings on how this neuropeptide for sure relates to the disease
  2. Figure-by-figure analysis
    • Talk about the methods of their experiments. If there is not a research strategy figure included, I’ll quickly draft one up in PowerPoint/Google Slides.
    • I like to end each figure/cluster of figures with a mini-conclusion (see example below!). This way, I can segue into the next figure & not lose anyone.
  3. Major conclusions & questions
    • I wrap up the talk with some major take-home messages. I include things that the group did well, things that need improvement, and if anyone has any questions.


I’m sure that my presentation style will change as the years pass by. For now, I think that I’ve progressed as a presenter. I used to mumble, read off my slides, and have an animation for every little piece of information. I’m glad those times have changed!

How do you choose an appropriate paper for your audience?


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