Tuesday, November 27, 2018

It's "academic"

We all know that writing and publishing is of great concern to those whose work is in academia; the "publish or perish" burden haunts pre-tenure educators and grant-seeking researchers. Revelations that data had been falsified in published experimental results brings great condemnation from publishers and colleagues, and yet I have a feeling that underneath it all is more than an ounce of empathy from those who are fully aware of the forces that would lead one to put ones' thumbs on the scales for the purposes of winning the academic jousting match. It is only a slight exaggeration to compare these souls to the storied gladiators whose defeat meant summary execution. From all evidence, that is how many of them experience the contest to win the ivory tower - you climb until you fall.

Research libraries and others deal in great part with the output of the academe. In many ways their practices reinforce the value judgments made on academic writing, such as having blanket orders for all works published by a list of academic presses. In spite of this, libraries have avoided making an overt statement of what is and what is not "academic." The "deciders" of academic writing are the publishers - primarily the publishers of peer-reviewed journals that decide what information does and does not become part of the record of academic achievement, but also those presses that issue scholarly monographs. Libraries are the consumers of these decisions but stop short of tagging works as "academic" or "scholarly."

The pressure on academics has only increased in recent years, primarily because of the development of "impact factors." In 1955, Eugene Garfield introduced the idea that one could create a map of scientific publishing using an index of the writings cited by other works. (Science, 1955; 122 :108–11) Garfield was interested in improving science by linking works so that one could easily find supporting documents. However, over the years the purpose of citation has evolved from a convenient link to precedents into a measure of the worth of scholars themselves in the form of the "h-index" - the measure of how often a person (not a work) has been cited. The h-index is the "lifetime home runs" statistic of the academic world. One is valued for how many times one is cited, making citations the coin of the realm, not sales of works or even readership. No one in academia could or should be measured on the same scale as a non-academic writer when it comes to print runs, reviews, or movie deals. Imagine comparing the sales figures of "Poetic Autonomy in Ancient Rome" with "The Da Vinci Code". So it matters in academia to carve out a world that is academic, and that isolates academic works such that one can do things like calculate an h-index value.

This interest in all things academic has led to a number of metadata oddities that make me uncomfortable, however. There are metadata schemas that have an academic bent that translates to a need to assert the "scholarliness" of works being given a bibliographic description. There is also an emphasis on science in these bibliographic metadata, with less acknowledgement of the publishing patterns of the humanities. My problem isn't solely with the fact that they are doing this, but in particular with how they go about it.

As an example, the metadata schema BIBO clearly has an emphasis on articles as scholarly writing; notably, it has  a publication type "academic article" but does not have a publication type for "academic book." This reflects the bias that new scientific discoveries are published as journal articles, and many scientists do not write book-length works at all. This slights the work of historians like Ann M. Blair whose book, Too Much to Know, has what I estimate to be about 1,450 "primary sources," ranging from manuscripts in Latin and German from the 1500's to modern works in a number of languages. It doesn't get much more academic than that.

BIBO also has different metadata terms for "journal" and "magazine":
  • bibo:journal "A periodical of scholarly journal Articles."
  • bibo:magazine"A periodical of magazine Articles. A magazine is a publication that is issued periodically, usually bound in a paper cover, and typically contains essays, stories, poems, etc., by many writers, and often photographs and drawings, frequently specializing in a particular subject or area, as hobbies, news, or sports."
Something in that last bit on magazines smacks of "leisure time" while the journal clearly represents "serious work."  It's also interesting that the description of magazine is quite long, describes the physical aspects ("usually bound in a paper cover"), and gives a good idea of the potential content. "Journal" is simply "scholarly journal articles." Aside from the circularity of the definitions (journal has journal articles, magazines have magazine articles), what this says is simply that a journal is a "not magazine."

Apart from the snobbishness of the difference between these terms is the fact that one seeks in vain for a bright line between the two. There is, of course, the "I know it when I see it" test, and there is definitely some academic writing that you can pick out without hesitation. But is an opinion piece in the journal of a scientific society academic? How about a book review? How about a book review in the New York Review of Books (NYRB), where articles run to 2-5,000 words, are written by an academic in the field, and make use of the encyclopedic knowledge of the topic on the part of the reviewer? When Marcia Angell, professor at the Harvard Medical School and former Editor in Chief of The New England Journal of Medicine writes for the NYRB, has she slipped her academic robes for something else? She seems to think so. On her professional web site she lists among her publications a (significantly long) letter to the editor  (called a "comment" in academic journal-eze) of a science journal about women in medicine but she does not include in her publication list the articles she has written for NYRB even though these probably make more use of her academic knowledge than the comment did. She is clearly making a decision about what is "academic" (i.e. career-related) and what is not. It seems that the dividing line is not the content of the writing but how her professional world esteems the publishing vehicle.

Not to single out BIBO, I should mention other "culprits" in the tagging of scholarly works, such as WikiData. Wikidata has:
  • academic journal article (Q18918145) article published in an academic journal
  • academic writing (Q4119870) academic writing and publishing is conducted in several sets of forms and genres
  • scholarly article (Q13442814) article in an academic publication, usually peer reviewed
  • scholarly publication (Q591041) scientific publications that report original empirical and theoretical work in the natural sciences
There is so much wrong with each of these, from circular definitions to bias toward science as the only scholarly pursuit (scholarly publication is a "scientific publication" in the "natural sciences"). (I've already commented on this in WikiData, sarcastically calling it a fine definition if you ignore the various directions that science and scholarship have taken since the mid-19th century.)  What this reveals, however is that the publication  and publisher defines whether the work is "scholarly." If any article in an academic publication is a scholarly article, then the comment by Dr. Angell is, by definition, scholarly, and the NYRB articles are not. Academia is, in fact, a circularly-defined world. 
Giving one more example, schema.org has this:
  • schema:ScholarlyArticle (sub-class of Article) A scholarly article.
Dig that definition! There are a few other types of article in schema, org, such as "newsArticle" and "techArticle" but it appears that all of those magazine articles would be simple "Article."

Note that in real life publications call themselves whatever they wish. With a hint at how terms may have changed over time: Ladies' Home Journal calls itself a journal, and the periodical published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science, gives itself the domain sciencemag.org. "Science Magazine" just sounds right, doesn't it?

It's not wrong for folks to characterize some publications and some writing as "academic" but any metadata term needs a clear definition, which these do not have. What this means is that people using these schemas are being asked to make a determination with very little guidance that would help them separate the scholarly or academic from... well, from the rest of publishing output. With the inevitable variation in categorization, you can be sure that in metadata coded with these schemas the separation between scholarly/academic and not scholarly/academic writing is probably not going to be useful because there will be little regularity of assignment between communities that are using this metadata.

I admit that I picked on this particular metadata topic because I find the designation of "scholarly" or "academic" to be judgemental. If nothing else, when people judge they need something criteria for that judgement. What I would like to see is a clear definition that would help people decide what is and what is not "academic," and what the use cases are for why this typing of materials should be done. As with most categorizations, we can expect some differences in the decisions that will be made by catalogers and indexers working with these metadata schemas. A definition at least gives you something to discuss and to argue for.  Right now we don't have that for scholarly/academic publications.

And I am glad that libraries don't try to make this distinction.


2 comments:

arhutch said...

Very useful and entertaining read.

I would only differ with your final line about libraries not trying to make this distinction.

Those librarians who are involved in scholarly communication programs and who collect the research output of an organization, are often asked to produce a report of "peer reviewed" or "scholarly" works published in a given year or by a certain department.

We are wrestling with this and are going to have to settle with including a blanket prefatory statement with each report basically repeating what you've said above (but short enough so that the powers-that-be will read it).

Additionally, some library publishing programs provide the service of creating DOIs for content and where they use CrossRef, I think there is an understanding that the DOIs will only be created for (ahem, "scholarly") works. So it is again up to the librarian to decide a question that nobody else seems to be able to decide.

I'm glad you posted this and hope you don't mind if I quote (with attribution of course) to our research community when we describe the difficulty of answering the question: What scholarly publications has our organization produced in the past year.

The only thing we can say to the requestor at this point is, "Here is the list of publications; you figure it out."

Karen Coyle said...

Thanks much for these comments - very apt and adds good info. I probably should have been clear that I mostly meant that library data doesn't indicate "scholarly" in our genre designations. I worked "around" but not "in" academic libraries so I can only imagine how it is to navigate the requests you describe. It's such a strong part of the academic culture that we will just have to deal with it, in some way or another. (Of course you can quote, link, or do whatever because I put CC-non-commercial on this, although I may just change it to CC-BY sometime in the future - shouldn't change what you wish to do.)