The Myth of the Lone Genius

Starship Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation Photograph by Paramount via Everett Collection

As a devotee of the finer arts of television, I recently watched an episode of that masterpiece of the small screen, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The most brilliant human in the galaxy, Dr. Ira Graves, had intentionally marooned himself on a distant planet to focus on his work, but he has to call on the Enterprise for assistance when he becomes ill. He’d brought along a single assistant and for decades toiled away in complete isolation from the scientific community, eventually discovering how to digitize human consciousness.

So what is the most outlandish part of this premise? Here’s a few candidates that you may have thought of:

• He managed to survive 30-odd years cut off from the Federation.
• There’s actually a way to digitize consciousness.
• The Federation didn’t have ample warning that arguably the most important human in the universe was about to keel over.

All good answers. And all wrong. The craziest thing about this episode is that one of the most important technological advancements in the universe would come from a single individual. But aren’t there plenty of examples of individual geniuses who changed the world? Edison, Gates, da Vinci—the list goes on.

Unfortunately, these examples all fall flat. It’s no accident that the achievements of Leonardo da Vinci, often credited as the greatest inventor of all time, happened during the Renaissance. Contrary to popular belief, he did not cloister himself away in a cabin and just invent wonders. Da Vinci was part of a vibrant community and collaborated with almost every major luminary of his day. The same goes for Thomas Edison, who built upon the work of his Industrial Revolution contemporaries to produce innovations such as the phonograph and the incandescent lightbulb.

What do the data tell us? I mined the 1,000 most-cited articles from the top scientific journal, Nature, from 2001 to 2010 to illustrate the relative contribution of single-author research. If you’re not familiar with the fast-paced world of academic publishing, the number of citations a paper receives is broadly indicative of its impact.

A paper receiving a large number of citations doesn’t just provide the author with prestige; it also improves the case for tenure (the many problems of which I discuss here). Nature is, along with Science, one of the top journals in academia. Therefore, articles that appear within its pages can be considered the crème de la crème of peer-reviewed research and an appropriate venue for investigating claims of the primacy of individual genius. Here are the results:

Let’s unpack the first graph. We can see that a single-author paper will get slightly more citations than a multiple-author paper, although this difference is not significant. Importantly, though, the highest-impact work comes from multiple-author papers (the small orange slivers in this graph). From this data it’s clear that single-author papers are of roughly the same quality on average as multiple-author papers, but at the extremes we can observe a difference: The five most-cited papers all have multiple authors. These are the papers that change science, that move entire fields—the ones we would expect “geniuses” to write. Except they’re all written by teams.

The second graph shows just how much top-flight research is done by people collaborating in groups. There are almost 10 times the number of citations for multiple-author papers compared with single-author papers. Clearly, that’s where the bulk of research is going. Not only are the multiple-author papers the movers and shakers at the far ends of the distribution, but in terms of raw scientific impact they positively dwarf the contribution of single authors.

These results might be surprising, but consider this scenario:

I hire 100 of the smartest people in the world, then lock them in broom closets with no Internet access for a year. Besides an overpowering stench from a lack of bathing facilities, they’re probably not going to produce anything of substantive value.

So why the focus on the individual? Of course we are all individuals, so this does make sense at a basic level. We need to move beyond this focus, however, and instead look at the people who enable us to excel. We need to focus on creating innovative groups, not mindlessly searching for the one “genius” who’s going to solve all our problems. Because groups are where the real ideas are created—not broom closets.

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