The Truth Behind the Lone Genius Myth

August 23, 2019 Samantha Green

group of researchers and scientists When we think of many of the most famous scientists, whether in literature or in the real world, they work alone. These people are “geniuses;” they are “discoverers.” But while discoveries may happen, they rarely – if ever – are the work of an individual. Research is the work of many, fueled by questions and debate, and always improving through critique and feedback. Collaboration makes research better.

So why does the idea of the “lone genius” hold appeal? Why does it stick around? We asked Dr. Jennifer Rohn, a scientist and novelist, to answer some questions about this stereotype.

Q. Are there ways in which the research community itself perpetuates this myth? Are there changes that institutions can make to show how important collaboration is?

A. Research funding, execution and dissemination are all geared towards individuals – it's even encoded in the language we use to describe scientific roles. A grant has one "principal investigator"; the lab is run by a single "head" or "group leader". The "senior author" on the resulting paper typically gets the credit for the work, even if he or she has contributed little other than the funding and over-arching vision. When journalists come calling, it's usually the senior author who is interviewed and whose name becomes associated with the work – often the lead author, who sweated blood and tears over many years to make it happen, is not even mentioned in press write-ups. So this is one way that the lone genius idea can take hold.

Meanwhile, collaborations are increasingly common, but they are certainly not incentivized in academia despite their ability to add richness and depth to a project. If two or more lab heads are involved, which one gets to be senior author (in my field, listed last)? There's a lot on the line in that decision, as senior authorships boost your chances of getting funded, hired and promoted. What's more, having too many authors on a paper is often seen as "diluting" the impact of each individual author. Some scientists think it's better to go it alone and do worse science, because at least they can claim more credit.

Collaborative projects also sometimes stumble at the publication stage. There are few journals suited for cross-disciplinary projects, and I am probably not the only scientist who has ever received negative peer review comments from a referee who demonstrably did not understand one of the disciplines in the interdisciplinary mix.

Q. Does popular culture influence public perceptions of scientists? We see characters like Dr. Frankenstein or Bruce Banner/the Hulk capturing our imaginations, but it’s not very realistic.

A. It certainly did in the past – and that genius was pretty much always a white male as well. I think this is partly due to the deep and anciently rooted ambivalence society has about those who push the boundaries of knowledge and meddle with things "man wasn't meant to know". It's probably easier to accept this trope if your scientist is seen to be working outside of the confines of humanity, unchecked by any surrounding collegial influence that might dampen down any dangerous impulses. I think this view is changing, in Hollywood at least. I almost cheered during the opening scene of Ang Lee's 2003 remake of The Hulk, when Bruce Banner was seen sharing a beer with a female colleague in the lab, commiserating over their latest grant rejection.

Q. Why does the lone genius myth matter? What impact does it have on the research community?

A. Given that the unchecked lone genius trope in popular culture tends to heighten suspicions about the scientist's motives, it's likely that suspicions about science and scientific experts will continue to erode the public's trust in their important messages. Gone are the days when a scientist can ask people to get their vaccines because they are safe and beneficial – there are a thousand people on the internet delivering the opposite message, usually more persuasively. If, on the other hand, scientists are seen to be more human and "normal", part of large, well-organized and regulated teams working together to solve problems, it might go a long way towards improving levels of trust in the scientific process and in the evidence that results from it.

Q. What can individual researchers do to push back against this idea? How can they show the reality of lab culture?

A. First, scientists interacting with the media should work very hard to convince journalists to give credit to more people actually involved in the discovery.

In parallel, individual researchers at the top of the hierarchy should push for the idea that if academia wants to promote valuable collaborations, universities should make allowances for how such arrangements affect authorships when making hiring or promotion decisions, and funders should likewise consider how applicants working in large teams might have a different style of publication record.

And finally, scientists need to open up their labs to the world – not literally, but in terms of disseminating their culture and practices as much as the facts and figures, they produce. They should engage with the public, even if that's just as simple as posting lab selfies on social media. We need to show the world that we are vibrant teams of real, live people, doing a job we love for the greater good.

Dr. Jennifer Rohn wears many hats: she is a scientist, a novelist, a journalist, a public speaker, and a pundit. Fueled by the desire for more science and scientist characters in mainstream fiction, she founded to illuminate the world of scientists and laboratory culture. She is also the founder of Science is Vital, and the author of three novels: Cat Zero, The Honest Look, and Experimental Heart.

About the Author

Samantha Green

Society Marketing, Wiley // Samantha Green joined Wiley in 2012, working in the Social Science and Humanities Community Marketing team at Wiley. She now works in the Society Strategy & Marketing creating content on publishing trends and the research community.

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