Thinking about “scholarly” vs. “popular” serials

We’ve all done the classic “how to tell a scholarly journal from a popular magazine” lesson, usually with a face-off between something like Newsweek and The Journal of Neurobiophysiology or Critical Discourses in Freudian Meta-Rhetorical Analysis.  And we all tell our students that one of the classic hallmarks of a “popular” or trade magazine, as opposed to a scholarly journal, is the presence and prevalence of advertising, right?  That’s one of the easiest aspects to teach, and one of the aspects that students grasp quickly and thoroughly, right?

Have you looked at the New England Journal of Medicine lately?

I just copied an article from it to use in a nursing class next week, and Holy Pharmaceutical Advertising, Batman!  It’s just chock-a-block with ads. So many, in fact, that I had trouble finding the page numbers to locate the article I actually needed.  Now granted, the pages with the actual research article had no ads at all, and if I were accessing it electronically (which, sadly, I am not, though we do apparently have online access from one or two specific public terminals…another issue entirely) I might not even notice the ads, but still, it’s astonishing.

And then there are the nursing trade journals, which I’m having the nursing students compare with peer-reviewed research articles for this assignment.  I’m trying to figure out how to explain that these aren’t scholarly articles, even though I’m sure they’re not.  Yes, the articles have photos, especially on the first page or two, that are more mood-setting than informative, so that’s a vote in favor of non-scholarly.  And while they’re written in a more conversational style than the research articles, as a non-nurse I can tell you that the professional jargon flies pretty fast and furious in these articles, so that might be a vote in favor of scholarly.  And every one of the longer articles has references at the end.  Now that’s confusing, since that’s one of the criteria that’s almost as easy for undergrads to evaluate as the presence of advertising.

And then there’s Nursing 2009, which is clearly (to my mind, at least) a trade magazine, but describes itself as “the peer-reviewed journal of clinical excellence” and has been peer-reviewed and evidence-based since its inception in 1971.  So how on earth do we explain this to students? I think I’m just not even going to mention that it’s peer-reviewed, and focus on the audience and purpose of the journal: advice to nurses in their clinical practice, vs. disseminating research to other researchers.

But dang, they don’t exactly make it easy, do they?