AJB Special Issue on Tropisms

I am honored to have a paper in this month’s American Journal of Botany, a special issue focused on plant tropisms. Below is a collection of links highlighting some of the work:

Scientists join forces to bring plant movement to light:

Elementary school students often learn that plants grow toward the light. This seems straightforward, but in reality, the genes and pathways that allow plants to grow and move in response to their environment are not fully understood. Leading plant scientists explore one of the most fundamental processes in plant biology—plant movement in response to light, water, and gravity—in a January Special Issue of the American Journal of Botany.

Low Phosphate Alters Lateral Root Setpoint Angle and Gravitropism (our paper):

Lateral root orientation and gravitropism are affected by Pi status and may provide an important additional parameter for describing root responses to low Pi. The data also support the conclusion that gravitropic setpoint angle reacts to nutrient status and is under dynamic regulation.

I’ll post again on the work that went into our paper, including a breakdown of the inputs of time and talent that made this work possible. In short though, three awesome students worked many hours in the lab over the course of four years to produce these insights.

Journal impact factor losing impact

George Lozano, blogging about a recent study he published on journal impact facors:

Furthermore, we found that until 1990, of all papers, the proportion of top (i.e., most cited) papers published in the top (i.e., highest IF) journals had been increasing. So, the top journals were becoming the exclusive depositories of the most cited research. However, since 1991 the pattern has been the exact opposite. Among top papers, the proportion NOT published in top journals was decreasing, but now it is increasing. Hence, the best (i.e., most cited) work now comes from increasingly diverse sources, irrespective of the journals’ IFs.

To me, this is an indicator of the power of, first scholarly databases, then the internet, to make important work more discoverable. When I began graduate school, I remember doing literature work in the library and watching all the faculty come for their weekly journal check-in to “stay current” (or name-check themselves and their pals). How much more efficient and effective it is now to rely on things like saved database searches to keep us informed of important advances in our field. And database searches democratize by returning all related citations, not just those from so-called top-tier journals. This is a great step forward, I think.

iBooks, HyperCard, and creating beautiful things

Back in January I wrote about using iBooks Author to create a companion “textbook” for a course I teach regularly. The term textbook is in quotes because I don’t really think of this as a true textbook, but something new – smaller, more focused, less encyclopedic, targeted to my class. I somehow managed to (mostly) keep up with writing a summary of each topic we discussed as the semester progressed, publishing them on the web for students to use as study aids. At the end of the term they told me these overviews were very helpful, which I found satisfying. My plan was to compile these into a single stand-alone iBook for next year’s class, and probably also produce an ePub and/or PDF.

Then something awful happened. I downloaded an iBook called Paperless by David Sparks, of MacSparky fame, and it made me realize I’m doing it wrong.

Paperless is so beautiful. Sparks has paid so much attention to every single detail that he has succeeded in setting the bar incredibly high for self-publishing in this new form. This would be easy to dismiss as the work of a full-time freelance writer/publisher, but Sparks has a full-time job – he’s done all this in his spare time. You would never know this, though, given the exquisite care he’s taken to create something that communicates his points powerfully and effectively.

Last week I came across this article about HyperCard that reminded me of my time as a HyperCard enthusiast when I was a kid, experimenting with creating adventure stories and encyclopedia-like reference works, complete with hyperlinked text. The obvious descendent of HyperCard of course is the web itself, and it far exceeds the possibilities of the original HyperCard concept in many ways: it’s distributed, cross-platform, and world-wide, to name a few. But I can also see iBooks as a kind of spiritual descendant of HyperCard in that the combination of the iPad + iBooks app acts as a viewer for a package that includes rich media, images, interactive elements, and text. This fulfills the promise of HyperCard in a way even the web doesn’t because everything is bundled into a single, portable, stand-alone package. It has no external dependencies on web servers or even network access, which is, unfortunately, still questionable in many schools.

Thinking about iBooks as the descendant of HyperCard is a powerful motivator for me personally. At the same time, seeing an example like the Paperless book opened my eyes to the possibility of using iBooks Author to make a beautiful thing. There is a real payoff to investing in the capabilities of the platform instead of just treating it like a digital replica of a previous form.

DRM on e-books should go

This is seeming more and more like the only reasonable next move for publishers:

By foolishly insisting on DRM, and then selling to Amazon on a wholesale basis, the publishers handed Amazon a monopoly on their customers—and thereby empowered a predatory monopsony. […] If the major publishers switch to selling ebooks without DRM, then they can enable customers to buy books from a variety of outlets and move away from the walled garden of the Kindle store.

Unfortunately, it will probably take a good five years for them to realize that the basis of power for Amazon is the closed format insisted upon by the publishers themselves. The other wonderful byproduct of eliminating DRM would be the ability to share an e-book with a friend, something that is not possible now.

Academic Publishers Enemies of Science

The academic publishing system has bothered me for some time, seems like it’s only getting worse:

The Research Works Act, introduced in the US Congress on 16 December, amounts to a declaration of war by the publishers.

Sounds like the act is basically an end-run around the NIH rules requiring open access. Nice. I’m pleased to see my society is not part of the Association of American Publishers, which fully supports the legislation.

A textbook need for disruption

Nicholas Carr has an insightful piece on WSJ.com today, in which he points out that, with electronic books, the option to revise and update continues past the initial publication. One observation in particular struck me:

Because e-readers gather enormously detailed information on the way people read, publishers may soon be awash in market research. They’ll know how quickly readers progress through different chapters, when they skip pages, and when they abandon a book.
The promise of stronger sales and profits will make it hard to resist tinkering with a book in response to such signals, adding a few choice words here, trimming a chapter there, maybe giving a key character a quick makeover.

This is something I suggested back when I was reviewing electronic textbook platforms, which could benefit immensely from this kind of feedback. I had in mind that publishers could use the data for marketing to faculty who adopt books:

This pays off for the textbook companies in another way, I’m sure, which is that they can track how thoroughly I’ve reviewed one of their titles. I don’t know for sure whether CourseSmart is providing tracking data back to the publisher, but I’m sure they will soon. It just makes sense to collect this information and use it to improve your sales approach and/or to improve the textbook.

But I could imagine the publisher using these data to refine or improve the text to improve learning outcomes, especially if they were also providing a course management platform that provided assessment. Ideally, the book would learn how to communicate better by taking into account its own performance.

How likely is this scenario? It’s almost unimagineable. Textbook publishers make their money by selling new editions. What would be their incentive to improve a “book” after its publication but before they could charge for a new copy? In my experience, almost nothing changes between editions of the books I adopt, yet I cannot officially adopt a previous edition through the campus bookstore because they can’t source the copies needed.

The efforts of the publishers to make electronic textbooks all seem crafted to maintain a business model anchored in the past and centered around physical books. The “electronic” versions they have released are more or less a facsimilie of the paper book — unchanging, rooted in the concept of the edition so important for the profits of a paper world.