When peer review is scent marking


So we all know what scent marking is. It’s when animals set out the boundaries of their territory by leaving their scent in strategic places. Scentmarked territories are often used for sleeping and/or mating and rearing young. The marked area may also contain a food supply. Scent marking animals will fight others of their kind and other species who try to encroach their territory, or try to take it over.

The scent is a warning to any potential intruders. Watch out this is my space! Come in at your peril!

Now, there is an equivalent behaviour in the academy too. Some subfields within disciplines are particularly prone to highly territorialist activities – they engage in scholarly scent marking.

Some academic communities are often highly focused. This is of course a Good Thing as it allows for effective knowledge building. Tight knowledge building communities share a common base of literatures and long-standing conversations about particular topics.  They expect newcomers to the field to know and understand its history and be suitably deferential to key figures. But sometimes they aren’t all that welcoming of difference. They are territorial.

How can you tell if an academic territory is of this kind? Well, they do have some qualities you can see. Academic territoriality is often apparent in the journals that serve seriously boundaried communities. Their journals have a clear and explicit statement of what they are trying to achieve. They will probably state particular themes that they are interested in exploring. They are clear about their ongoing conversations and they invite in only those people who are interested in participating in their existing subfield.

But disciplinary boundaries are often not explicit. The edges of what’s acceptable appear by omission –  you have to look for what isn’t said in their journal mission statements as much as what is.  Boundaried academic community journals may just not say anything about welcoming debate, or encouraging innovation, or inviting diverse approaches. genres and methods – nor will they mention other, perhaps rivalrous, groups in the same discipline. The unwanted are only present by their absence.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong in either loose or tight disciplinary boundaries. And it’s not a conservative versus progressive behaviour question either. A hard disciplinary border can serve multiple ends. But the existence of the invisible wall has implications that potential new members have to think about.

Journal communities often police their boundaries very strongly. And one of the ways they do this is through peer review. Researcher-writers who stray into a tightly defined territory without knowing the core texts, knowledge building interests, methods, important scholars and seminal papers may well get desk rejected for these omissions – you have picked the wrong journal (subtext you are writing about something we are not interested in). If sent to review, peer reviewers may well say much the same. They may be helpful and outline the texts and themes the new writer needs to address if they want their paper in the journal. Or they  may suggest the genre that they expect writers to conform to. This is a helpful response as it helps the new contributor work out whether they want to proceed or not.

So here is a trap lying in waiting for early career writers. How do you know if the journal you have targeted is one which is highly territorial in its behaviour? The answer to this is to (1) ask around, particularly a mentor or supervisor, about the boundaries of the journal, and (2) check to see if there is any work broadly like yours in the journal. If there isn’t then it’s probably a good idea to look for another journal which is more inclusive. And (3), if you are still in doubt, email the editor to ask whether they would be interested in your paper. But beware, sometimes journal editors are more open than their reviewers!

And there is another trap here too. Some early career researchers want to critique closed fields. They want to question the boundaries that have been established. They want to bring new ideas. The want to insert different literatures and novel perspectives into the subfield. The critique + new angle is often part of the contribution of a PhD for instance. But when it comes to turning this critique into a publication, reviewer territoriality can be profoundly in unreceptive. Peer review becomes a matter of teeth and claws.

Some territorial subfields are highly resistant to critical alternative views, approaches or even writing genres. When they receive a paper which problematises their territory, they don’t simply become defensive – we already do this – they also go on the attack – this is a foolish and unwarranted critique, this is unsubstantiated if you knew our stuff you’d never say this, this is unscholarly.

 Unknowingly sending in a paper to a journal and getting this kind of response can be off-putting to experienced researchers particularly if you aren’t expecting it. But when you are an early career researcher an aggro scent marking response can be really demoralising. It’s as well to understand that what is being said may not be about the scholarship at all but be about the incursion into unwelcoming territory.

And this negative response works both ways.  Paradoxically many journals that attempt to push interdisciplinary boundaries, or experiment with different genres, won’t be terribly interested in conventional papers. They too actually operate in ways not dissimilar to a narrowly focused sub-disciplinary journal suspicious of something from way beyond its borders. Its the general journals where there may be more open-to-all-comers approach. The tightness or otherwise of the journal area and its subsequent scent marking behaviour depends on its knowledge building intentions.

So what do you do about this if you are an early career researcher-writer?

My usual advice in writing workshops for early career and doctoral researchers is to publish first of all in the journals which will welcome your work and will see it as a contribution to their conversation. Then have a go at putting something into the bordered territory.

Save the article that is highly critical of the subfield until you have a bit of publishing under your belt and can withstand the possible scent marking response. But do try to construct a white flag in your paper. Full-on attacks  of a subfield are pretty well guaranteed to bring out an aggressive counter move – you’ve invaded my territory –  so framing a new view as a respectful, constructively critical and positive contribution is often a helpful claw-retracting move.