Ask Us Anything: journal clubs for groups with diverse interests, and the questions we want to study but haven’t yet

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Here are our answers to our next two questions, from “lb”:

  1. How do you make a good journal club for people working on different topics, ranging from social insects to plants?
  2. What’s one question or idea you’ve always wanted to investigate but haven’t?

Jeremy’s answers:

  1. I suggest not reading technical papers about the topics the group members are working on. Instead read papers and blog posts about cross-cutting topics in which all group members are interested. The “replication crisis”, for instance, or how to write an “elevator pitch“. Or read the Origin of Species. And some of Meghan’s ideas for what to do at lab meetings (besides read papers) would work.
  2. I’ve long wanted to do something on modern coexistence theory. I think it’s a tremendously important complex of ideas that’s now ripe for empirical application. Maybe I will do something on this soon!


  1. I agree with Jeremy’s basic approach – reading a technical paper on pollination one week and salamander reproduction the next won’t work in the long run as a journal club. But I would add to Jeremy’s suggestions you can read science papers, just read really big idea science papers. EG papers that are in Science and Nature are already pre-selected to have broad appeal as are papers in TREE. My department over the last 5 years has successfully created an ecolunch out of nothing. Our basic formula is you either have to talk about your own work in which case be as technical as you want or if you’re going to pick a paper, pick a really broad topic (about half are skills based like Jeremy suggests and about half are big idea and/or controversial science topics). People seem to feel both of these are worth while.
  2. I’ve always wanted to apply evolutionary game theory to community ecology. And I have published a more typical evolutionary ecology paper using game theory (on evolution of mutualisms) and I even have a review paper on evolutionary game theory. And I have a couple of papers where I talk about how community assembly is a strongly frequency dependent problem. But I’ve never put it all together. Conversely, I have spent almost my whole career studying how climate change impacts species ranges but never really published a paper on that topic (I’m close though). I call this my big research question that is so big it won’t get solved in my life time. But I have fun puttering away at it.


I’m skipping the first one because I don’t have much to add to the above. My answer to the second question isn’t something that I haven’t worked on at all, but it’s something that I didn’t work on for many, many years and that we’re still really just kind of starting on: virulence evolution. I love virulence evolution theory and the potential to work on this is part of why I started working on parasites. But, in studies I did as a grad student, I ended up not being able to find any quantifiable variation in virulence in the parasite I was working on. (Even ~14 years later, we still haven’t found much variation in that parasite.) And you can’t look at evolution if there’s no variation in the first place! The ability to work on questions related to virulence evolution is part of why my lab members and I have invested quite a bit of time over the years in setting up additional parasites in the lab.

7 thoughts on “Ask Us Anything: journal clubs for groups with diverse interests, and the questions we want to study but haven’t yet

  1. I’ll add that in my experience review papers make for really poor journal club discussions (unless it is a systematic review with some results). The reason is, the discussion can often get bogged down in “I didn’t understand point y” which is in article x, but no-one (or at least very few) in the group have read article x. Additionally, many reviews don’t have a particularly strong message or story and usually don’t have figures. Nothing starts a conversation among ecologists like a good figure.

  2. Generally speaking- as best I can recall, all of the journal clubs I’ve attended that employed a broad topical approach failed and then fizzled out of existence. And believe you me, I have attended a boatload of journal clubs across the land over a 35+ year career.

    Here’s why I think they failed-

    1) There are usually a very small subset of papers that cut across disciplines in an equitable manner, and so these kinds of papers run dry pretty early on during the club’s existence.

    2) Most people like hearing something foreign and new at the outset but retreat into their niche fairly soon after.

    3) That gosh darned “cost-benefit” analysis we carry out in all aspects of our lives. So, if club A’s content matches up well with 80% of my interests, but club B only 35%- eventually I will ditch B for A.

    I’ve never witnessed a broad topical journal club last for more than maybe a couple of years, but it could well be my experience is limited and there are many success stories out there. The one exception to this rule is when faculty and/or graduate students are REQUIRED to attend- and then it becomes a snoozer for many people. The last club I participated in was one of these- mixing ecology and molecular biology. Truth be told, no one liked it except for me because I have backgrounds in both areas.

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