Evolution of a Textbook

Despite the increasing popularity of digital learning tools, print textbooks still are in demand. Here’s the story of how one came to be.

Miranda Robertson first approached Nancy Craig about authoring a molecular biology textbook in the late 1980s.

It was well before the online migration of textbooks began, and Robertson, an editor at New Science Press, wanted to add some print titles to their Primers in Biology—a series of upper-level undergraduate textbooks with a unique pedagogical approach. The Primers had a modular design; every chapter contained multiple topics, each confined to a two-page spread including text, illustrations, definitions, and references.

Despite its allure, Craig wasn’t interested—she had recently joined the faculty at the University of California, San Francisco, and was busy teaching and overseeing a lab.

But Robertson persisted, and more than 10 years later, Craig finally reached a place in her career where she thought she could tackle the project.

Craig, by this time an HHMI investigator at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, assembled a team of local scientists as her coauthors. She recruited three colleagues from Hopkins—Carol Greider and HHMI investigators Rachel Green and Cynthia Wolberger—and two from the National Institutes of Health—Gisela Storz and Orna Cohen-Fix.

“I thought that it would be nice to have a textbook that was fairly accessible and I also figured that I could learn something while writing it,” says Greider. “I had been teaching molecular biology for a while and there wasn’t any textbook that took the subject through the same sequence that I found logical.”

The women decided to create a book that described the fundamental principles of how the genome worked without overloading the reader with tons of examples.

“There are different philosophies,” says Wolberger. “There are books that go from experiment to experiment and follow the evolution of the field. Then there are books that don’t mention any experiments at all and just present the information.” After much debate, the authors decided to go with the latter, concept-based approach, with a twist. They would include an “experimental approach panel” in each of the chapters. The boxes would walk students through the key research corresponding to concepts covered in the text, paring classic studies with contemporary research to give a feel for how inquiry evolves as new techniques are invented.

“We really felt that to do the topic justice within a very concise framework it wasn’t possible to put in all of the experimental detail and justification for all of the facts we were presenting,” Greider says.

By the early 2000s, the women had divided up the chapters according to their areas of expertise and started to write. Although they worked within 40 miles of each other, they all had family and academic obligations and were unable to take off long periods of time to work on the book. Their solution was to block off several days every five or six weeks and meet with Robertson at Craig’s house. “We sat around my dining room table a whole lot,” says Craig.

With no strict deadline from Robertson, they took their time, drafting chapters, editing them, sending them out for scientific review, and revising them again.

In 2008, however, Robertson dropped a bombshell. New Science Press was selling off its textbook division and would no longer be publishing the book.

“We were a long way into the writing process,” says Craig. “The notion of simply dropping the book was unacceptable. We had put too much into it for that.” Fortunately, they found another publisher and started working with Jonathan Crowe at Oxford University Press. But the switch had its consequences.

“It forced us to take stock of where we were going and what we were doing,” says Wolberger. “We made some changes to our approach to the book, and we also made some changes in how we approached getting the book written.”

The two-page format was history. “The Primer format restricts what you can say about a particular topic because you have to fit everything into two pages,” says Crowe. “Another paragraph here or there can sometimes make the difference between understanding and not. Also, when you’re writing as double-page spreads, you’re seeing each topic as an individual entity, and you’re lacking a story and narrative to draw the students in. The authors weren’t getting across the bigger picture.”

The authors welcomed this change. “We were freed from the two-page spread just in the nick of time,” says Wolberger, “but thinking in that framework for so long was actually quite beneficial. It’s kind of like starting out by writing haiku and then moving on to Elizabethan sonnet form. Both have constraints, but you have a little more freedom and space with a sonnet.”

Crowe also invited instructors to review the draft chapters. “New Science Press had done a lot of work getting other scientists to look at the book and comment on the content from a scientific perspective,” says Crowe, “but what hadn’t been done up until then was to look at what instructors thought of it as a teaching and learning tool. The science has to be right, but it’s also got to be presented in a way that’s going to engage students and work for instructors.”

And finally, Crowe gave the authors a strict deadline. He wanted the book published in time for the 2010 academic year. Thanks to weekly conference calls with Crowe that kept the project at the forefront of their minds, the authors managed to publish the 846-page Molecular Biology: Principles of Genome Function in the summer of 2010. The book covers everything from chemical bonding to genetic diseases. As a nod to the digital revolution, it has a companion website that contains resources such as enhanced PowerPoint slides, updates to the text, and “journal club” guides for discussing specific scientific articles related to topics in the book.

Although the final product is quite different from their initial vision, it benefited from the authors’ initial ideas, and the team is already planning the second edition. This year, Crowe will gather feedback from the book’s users on its strengths and weaknesses. Next year, the team will decide what needs to be revised—and will start writing. This time they have a firm deadline from the get-go—Crowe wants the next edition out by 2014.

-- Nicole Kresge
HHMI Bulletin, August 2011

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