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":
- 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."
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 article 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:
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 some 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.