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Bit by Bit

A new form of publishing honors a pioneering researcher

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Publishing an anthology of scientific papers can be an arduous job, involving years of research and reviewing—not to mention obtaining copyright permissions and creating a framework that puts everything in perspective. That was the task that faced Lee B. Kass, PhD ’75, when she decided to collect the papers of pioneering researcher Barbara McClintock.

McClintock earned undergraduate (1923), master’s (1925), and doctoral (1927) degrees from Cornell and later served as an instructor and research assistant. She went on to a long and distinguished career in cytology and genetics research, where her thinking was, in the words of Professor Mark Sorrells, “clearly decades ahead of her time.” In 1983 McClintock was awarded an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of “mobile genetic elements.” She is the subject of a forthcoming biography by Kass, a visiting professor in the Department of Plant Biology. To accompany the biography, Kass wanted to publish a volume of McClintock’s papers with perspectives—summaries and analyses of the papers—by noted experts.

But assembling such perspectives can be as time consuming as collecting the papers and obtaining permission to reprint them. “When you’re waiting for people to submit a promised piece,” says Kass, “you can wait until the cows come home.” That problem promised to delay the completion of her planned collection by years. The solution? A new kind of publication from the Internet-First University Press.

Founded ten years ago by J. Robert Cooke and Kenneth King, Internet-First has taken a technology-driven approach to academic publishing. Cooke, professor emeritus of biological and environmental engineering and former dean of the faculty, and King, former vice provost for information technology, recognized that online publishing offers new opportunities for presenting material that go far beyond conventional books. Their ever-expanding catalog includes such works as The Legacy of Dale R. Corson, which combines print materials and photographs with videos, as well as a series of Cornell departmental histories, collections of works by faculty members, and many lectures and presentations.

For the McClintock anthology, Internet-First used an approach that Cooke has dubbed an “incremental book.” Rather than waiting for all of the desired perspectives to be completed, an online publication was established that adds new pieces as they come in—and that’s how Perspectives on Nobel Laureate Barbara McClintock’s Publications (1926–1984): A Companion Volume was created. “An incremental book becomes a viable means of publishing due to the existence of the Internet,” says Cooke. “The packaging required for traditional print volumes can be relaxed for a gain in timeliness, but without a loss in coherence or quality.”

This new publication fills a gap in McClintock’s legacy. In 1987, an anthology of her papers was published that focused on her Nobel Prize-winning discovery; McClintock wrote an introduction that summarized her work. “She mentions how the early papers were important for her findings later on,” says Kass, “but those papers were not reprinted.” Kass decided that collecting and reprinting those papers, along with newly written perspectives on their importance, would make an ideal companion volume for her biography.

Kass spent years collecting all of McClintock’s publications, obtaining the necessary copyright permissions, and assigning perspectives. Once she had fourteen completed perspectives, she wanted to move ahead, and the first version of the incremental book was issued late last year. It’s available online in PDF form and can be printed on demand—currently 782 pages in two volumes—by Cornell Business Services.

As more perspectives are written, edited by Kass, and then peer reviewed, they will be added to the work. It will continue to grow, Kass hopes, until there are perspectives for all of McClintock’s published papers. As she states in the book’s preface, “Starting at the beginning of her scientific career [is] essential for an understanding of her insights and an appreciation of McClintock’s unconventional approach to research.” And this unconventional approach to publishing is providing the perfect way to explore that work.

To access the McClintock book, go to: ecommons.library.cornell.edu/handle/1813/34897

For more on the Internet-First University Press, go to: ecommons.library.cornell.edu/handle/1813/62

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