Being a research assistant who hates bad science like a homeopathist hates good science, I’m very anxious to know that the research I’m conducting is solid, and there’s no better way of ensuring that than to learn from others’ mistakes. I often find reading and analysing bad journal articles helps me avoid certain pitfalls in my own research (like running inappropriate statistical tests, forgetting about effect sizes, etc.). I take the same approach to it as some critics do with film analysis. The Room (2003) is one of my favourite movies of all time; it also just so happens to be one of the worst movies ever made. Not a single element of the film works, nothing is coherent, and every scene is one bizarre train wreck after another. It’s a fascinating piece of media to analyse, not just because it’s “so bad it’s good”, but it’s also an amazing case study in how NOT to make a movie. Just like The Room, these terrible articles can be case studies that paradoxically teach you how to do proper research. This is one of the reasons why I believe the journal clubs hosted by staff and students in our department are so important.
Journal clubs have been running in the department for about two or three years now, their purpose being to engage students and staff in recent research in different areas of psychology. Essentially, if you’re on a club’s mailing list, around once a month they’ll send a journal article out for you to read in your own time. A time and date will be set for a meeting, and you go there and chat about the article in question with staff and students. That’s it. No obligations, no initiation rituals, just a casual meeting, talking about research, usually with the aid of snacks. You won’t be exclusively discussing bad papers (I’ve read some desperate ones though), but even if the paper is methodologically sound, it still usually makes for lively discussion.
So, how is any of this relevant to you? Well, it doesn’t matter who you are, journal clubs will have something to offer. For undergrad students, they can provide a great way to identify the “Dos and Don’ts” of psychology research, as well letting you chat with other students who are interested in the same areas of psychology as you. They’re also a great way of casually venturing into areas of psychology you’re unfamiliar with, but interested in.
So, say you were thinking of choosing the Addiction module in third year, but weren’t quite sold on it. The Addiction journal club can give insight into what the area is like and allow you to interact with some of the staff running that module. Journal clubs are also a fantastic way to chat with staff, and a great way of networking, which can prove invaluable further down the line. Journal clubs can also inform your coursework as well, showing you which papers (and authors) to avoid citing, and which ones are solid pieces of evidence. For staff, journal clubs can be a great excuse to get out of the office and chat with colleagues while eating snacks, whilst also gaining more knowledge of good and bad research practice.
I imagine when they first heard about them, some students thought journal clubs were like bizarre secular versions of Bible study groups, where people sit around in eerie silence reading articles. Needless to say, this isn’t true. I’ve had some fascinating conversations in journal clubs, ranging from debating the potential influence of psychologists’ political opinions on their research, to whether or not squirrels actually purr like cats (they do). Nowhere else at university will you see a lecturer throw down an article in disgust, exclaim “This is ****!”, and then develop conspiracy theories about how a paper apparently written by three people could be so riddled with mistakes. One memorable moment for me was reading a paper that attempted to make a vast, sweeping indictment of psychologists’ typically left-leaning political beliefs, only for it to be revealed that, upon closer inspection, the author had actually found evidence that killed his own argument stone dead. Without the aid of discussion, it may have been that none of us would have picked up on that individually. However, because we engaged in an in-depth dialogue about the paper, its true nature was revealed. That’s what I believe makes journal clubs work so well: through discussion, new, previously hidden conclusions can be reached (also there’s free biscuits).
Personally, I can’t recommend journal clubs enough. They’re a fantastic way to meet and chat with staff and students, keep up-to-date with research in your areas of interest, and a great way to make sure you don’t unwittingly write the research equivalent of The Room one day. Without the aid of journal clubs, who’s to say that in the future, you won’t write a terrible paper that ends up getting roasted in a journal club?
For those of you interested, here’s the full list of the journal clubs currently running in the department, and the people to contact to get involved with them:
Appetite and Obesity – Tom Gough (firstname.lastname@example.org); Addiction – Patsy Irizar (email@example.com); Autism and Asperger’s syndrome – Melissa Chapple (M.Chapple@liv.ac.uk); Cyberpsychology – Maria Limniou (Maria.firstname.lastname@example.org); Developmental Psychology – Leonardo De Pascalis (Leonardo.email@example.com); Evolutionary Psychology – Minna Lyons (firstname.lastname@example.org ); Forensic Psychology – Sarah Gordts (email@example.com); Language – Ben Ambridge (firstname.lastname@example.org); Lifespan, health, and well-being – Laura Soulsby (email@example.com); Student course reading – Amelia Tlusty (Amelia.Tlusty@student.liverpool.ac.uk)
Contribution by Patrick Evison, Research Assistant at the University of Liverpool.