Monday, December 21, 2020

On December 21, the California Institute of Technology Library published its first textbook, The Atlas of Bacterial and Archaeal Cell Structure, as part of their new publishing program. The Caltech Library now publishes researcher-led, open access journals and books that serve the larger academic community. Research data specialist Tom Morrell is the engineer behind the new publishing platform developed by the Library, which helps researchers preserve content and share findings widely with minimal cost and substantial impact.

The innovative platform hosted on GitHub—integrating customized tools, CaltechDATA, and the open source software Pandoc—was devised as a joint project of the Digital Library Development team, led by Stephen Davison, and the Research Services department, facilitated by subject librarians Kristin Briney and Donna Wrublewski. The publishing program continues the Library’s long history of making the scholarly works of Caltech researchers available online.

The Library publishing program partnered with Bren Professor of Biology Paul W. Sternberg to create the first publication to emerge from the Library. microPublication Biology is a peer-reviewed journal for research that does work outside the confines of traditional academic publishing—brief, novel findings, negative and/or reproduced results, and results that may lack a broader scientific narrative.

The Library’s first textbook publication Atlas of Bacterial and Archaeal Cell Structure, co-written by Professor of Biophysics and Biology Grant Jensen and Research Scientist Catherine Oikonomou, is now available to readers, researchers, and educators worldwide.

The book draws on the specialized expertise of the Jensen Laboratory at Caltech in state-of-the art 3D cryogenic electron microscopy (Cryo-EM). In the 1960s, international researchers began to use electrons rather than light to study cells, and later advancements allowed biological samples to be frozen before viewing to protect them from destruction (a coup that resulted in the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry). Over the last 15 years, this technique has allowed researchers to see for the first time inside the tiny cells of bacteria and archaea, revealing rich interior structures never before imagined. 

To share these images with the world, Jensen and Oikonomou developed a textbook geared toward students in undergraduate and graduate-level cell biology courses. They found the traditional textbook industry was being revolutionized by electronic options, making it no longer profitable to print books with lots of color images. As a result, the authors decided to release the textbook as a free online resource in partnership with the Caltech Library.

The development of an interactive publication freed the authors to offer much richer content, with movies to show the 3D data and flexible navigation options for readers to tailor their experience. The result is a guided tour of the microbial cell, using more than 150 movies of dozens of different species to illustrate the architectural features that allow cells to grow, divide, move, and thrive. 

Modeled on classic atlases of electron micrographs for medical students, Atlas of Bacterial and Archaeal Cell Structure is an experiment in open-access textbook publishing, aiming to take full advantage of the digital medium to showcase this state-of-the-art 3-D scientific imaging.