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Journal Club: SWOT Report Style

I’ve been playing around with the format of our weekly journal club. The weekly activity now alternates between critiquing the draft manuscript of a group member and the published works of others. The motivation for this format is to engage the students more by making clearer links between reviewing others work to strengthening their own writing, as well as keeping us up-to-date with research outside of the group.

Having worked in industry, I’m very passionate about ensuring any students I mentor are taught skills that they will need in business as well as helping them with their academic work. Hence, I decided to introduce an often used business procedure to our journal club, the SWOT report. A SWOT report is a short document that succinctly summarizes the strengths, weakness, opportunities, threats (and sometimes also trends) of a project. It can be used in many contexts, from assessing human resource requirements to assessing whether a new marketing plan needs to be adopted.

S: Strengths
W: Weaknesses
O: Opportunities
T: Threats and Trends

I know many of my students won’t have heard of SWOT analysis or reports, yet I know it’s likely they will have to write one if they progress to a management level outside of academia. I also know that some of these techniques used in business are used precisely because of their effectiveness for assessing information.

So, how can the SWOT report be utilized in an academic journal club setting and what are the advantages?

It helps when critiquing literature to have a structure to how you are going to group your various thoughts about what is good and bad about an article, as well as where you see the work positioned within the field and the future prospects for that avenue of research or the approach being employed.

When reviewing literature the last thing you want is to increase the time involved by writing an in-depth report. Writing such a report is not what the SWOT analysis is about. The SWOT approach can be harnessed to help quickly digest a research article in a structured manner by using it as a method to create a one page summary critique.

Instructions

1. Separate a single letter or A4 sized piece of paper into four quarters and write at the top of each quadrant the letters S, W, O and T.

2. As you read through the paper try to identify both strengths and weaknesses and start entering them as bullet points in the relevant quarter of your page.

Questions to keep in mind as you do this are:

  • Is there something you think is missing, such as an analysis you deem essential to be able to draw their conclusions
  • Were the results significant?
  • Were the statistical tests and analysis used appropriate?
  • Was the paper written in a clear and understandable way?
  • Does the study contribute to the body of knowledge?
  • Is the approach used, experimental or theoretical, appropriate for this work?
  • Is the work reliable, in your opinion?
  • Based on the methods and analysis used, do you think the results are valid?
  • Are the methods well described?
  • Could the work be reproduced from the information given?

3. Now identify opportunities. Re-scan the article if you need to.
Consider the following:

  • How could the research be extended?
  • What would you do next if this were your research?
  • Was there a set of results that you think warrant further examination/confirmation in a follow up paper?
  • Does the paper reveal something new, a new approach or hypothesis, which could open a new direction of research and perhaps be the start of a new field with lots of opportunities for future research?
  • Do you see an opportunity for a study to try and refute the conclusions?

4. The last step is to identify threats and trends. This is a little bit different from what we’d consider direct weaknesses of a paper and more about considering how the work presented sits within the field.

Trends can be the increasingly common use of an experimental method for examining a certain property, or the popularity of a certain area of research, such as that illustrated by the sudden growth in research articles regarding intrinsically disordered proteins.

Threats are usually aspects of the work in opposition to those that you would list under “opportunities.” For example, it could be that the researchers have used an approach about to be superseded by more modern techniques. It could be that the authors have used experimental methods with known limitations that could bring the results of the article into question when more advanced experiments become available.

Threats could also be other groups that are known to be performing the same (or similar) research, possibly with different results that conflict with the conclusions made in the article. This would lead us to consider if both sets of results are valid and whether real controversy exists or whether it is a case of one group being limited to using methods that may not report on the properties being measured accurately enough.

Other questions to consider are:

  • Is the research methodology following old trends?
  • Are they introducing new methods?
  • Or using methods, recently introduced by others, that seems to becoming a popular approach in the field over other older methods?
  • Is the research presenting anything that builds on current knowledge or is it clear that this research avenue is coming to a close?
  • Have the researchers taken advantage of recent advancements in experimental or theoretical methods?
  • Is the continuance of this line of research threatened by a lack of resources?
  • Are the methods they used soon to be superseded by advancements that might bring their results into question?

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