The Lone Genius Loses to the Team

What’s your visual image of a brilliant scientist? A nerdy man in a lab coat, working late in some basement laboratory with beakers and test tubes? Someone typing at a computer in their office? Well, clear your mind of that image, because science today is all about collaboration and teamwork. This is the message of a truly impressive study published in SCIENCE magazine 18 May 2007. Three professors at Northwestern University, Stefan Wuchty, Benjamin F. Jones, and Brian Uzzi, analyzed huge databases–of 19.9 million scientific papers over 50 years, and 2.1 million patents–and found that collaboration is rapidly becoming the norm in science and in invention.

They focused on a few key numbers. First, the databases allowed them to determine which papers, and which patents, had one author, two authors, or more. Two or more authors means that the creation was collaboratively generated. In science, the average team size (number of co-authors) doubled over 45 years–from 1.9 to 3.5 authors per paper. Of course, science has become a lot more complex, and requires a lot more funding, and that might account for the larger team size. But the databases also had data about the social sciences and the arts and humanities; social science research hasn’t increased in scale and cost the same way particle physics and medicine have. And surprisingly, even in the social sciences, collaboration has become a lot more important. In 1955, only 17.5% of social science papers had two or more authors; in 2000, 51.5% of those papers did. And although papers in the arts and humanities still are mostly sole authored (over 90%), the trend over the last 50 years has also been toward more collaboration.

But what about quality and creativity? Can we find out if the collaboratively generated papers are any better? Fortunately, the databases allowed the researchers to determine the impact and influence of each paper, and of each patent, because those databases keep track of how many times the paper or patent was cited by a later publication. More citations means a more influential paper; and more citations have been shown to correlate with research quality. And guess what: over the 50 year period studied, teams generated more highly cited work in every research area, and in every time period. The implication is that teams generate better scientific research than solitary individuals.

One final interesting finding is that the creative advantage for teams has increased over the last 50 years. Although teams generated more highly cited work back in 1955, by 2000 the advantage of teams over sole individuals had become even greater. In 1955, team-authored papers received 1.7 times as many citations as sole authored papers; in 2000, they received 2.1 times as many.

In a later issue of SCIENCE magazine (14 September 2007) several letters challenging this research were published; the authors convincingly responded, by providing additional data. There’s no question that teams do better science than solitary individuals, and that the trend is working in teams’ favor.

14 thoughts on “The Lone Genius Loses to the Team

  1. I suggest that highly cited works and academic influence have little to do with creativity if you use educator Sir Ken Robinson’s definition of creativity generating ideas that have value.

    The Economist this week has a section on innovation. There is a chart in one of the articles (print edition) and at the top is where most ideas come from (employees) and at the bottom is where the fewest ideas come from (academia).

    While there are benefits to team development in the sciences, when it comes to the arts, creativity is more likely to be a solitary pursuit (Solitude, Anthony Storr). But even in groups, there is a danger of groupthink, that is, the tend toward conservatism and compliance rather than going out on a limb. Peer pressure is conformity.

  2. Thank you for your response!

    The study in question examined not only scientific articles, but also patents, which are not academic in nature. So although I emphasized science in my blog, the findings are broader than that; and, published articles in the arts and humanities have shown the same pattern.

    Many studies have shown a high correlation between citation, influence, and creativity (as measured in a variety of ways; almost all such measurements include some notion of “value” which I agree is absolutely critical). The leading researcher in this area is Dean Keith Simonton, of University of California at Davis. The idea that many creative ideas are rejected during the creator’s lifetime is largely a myth.

    I completely agree that groups are often less creative than individuals. There’s a lot of research showing this, in fact, and I discuss this in Chapter 4 of my book GROUP GENIUS. But there are techniques you can use to avoid those pitfalls. And according to this new study out of Northwestern, on average groups are in fact more creative than solitary individuals, and the advantage to groups has been increasing over time.

  3. There are a lot of complex reasons why our image of the lone genius is so resilient, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that groups are the predominant source of innovation. Say a bit more about why you disagree, and either I’ll turn out to agree with you after all, or I’ll be able to direct you to research that responds to your specific point.

  4. Some complex projects may need team effort, especially with the constraint of time. Can you imagine a team of artists painting in one canvas? There are social dimentions though that may somehow have some subtle influence but too complex to identify…that the lone genius will continue to have its romantic appeal to most of us.

  5. I agree it’s an appealing romantic image. That’s why lone genius artists keep appearing as stock characters in Hollywood movies. Painting seems to be most resistant to collaboration, but in the visual design world “crowdsourcing” is the trend of the moment–collaboratively generated visual images.

  6. I think it is telling that the research focused on the last 50 years – an era post-WWII where government financing has had an increasing role in funding and compliance which bleed over into the humanities and social sciences in addition to the STEM disciplines.

    Over the last 70 years, I posit this has helped produce a cultural change in academia favoring certain personality orientations. As the credentials and references of academia are deterministic of who gets funding, and who even gets heard or hired both inside academia and outside, it is not surprising the “lone genius” has more and more become a myth.

    I favor the solitary route, and I see the culture of academia which includes a strong “hidden curriculum” of forced team work as one (of a few) of the reasons it’s taking me over 16 years (with multiple dropouts) to finish a bachelor’s degree despite my 1330 SATs when I was 14 years 10 months old, my 32 ACT composite when I was 17, and my recent 1460 (4.5 A.W.) GREs taken without prep a month short of 32 years old.

    We are being driven out of science, and possibly out of the humanities. Our contributions devalued by those who think in different ways, and thus can’t fully appreciate what we have to bring to the table (ex. by not citing us, or peer-reviewing us into the journals). So of course we have less and less of an impact as the years go on.

    Where would Nietzsche be in this new world order (and he was mostly ignored in his time as well). Where would George Green be? Barbara McClintock?

    P.S.: I think it’s somewhat disingenuous to list multiple authors for the sciences given that in academia one of the authors is the professor, another is one or more grad students, and another the occasional undergrad. It just isn’t feasible given the training culture in academia for there to be less than 2 authors for almost every scientific paper, regardless of how the actual work was divvied up.

    1. Great post! Sure, it could be that the social systems (funding agencies, disciplinary cultures, etc.) reward/foster collaborative work (or perhaps, collaborative-collegial sorts of people) and that loners who “don’t play well with others” have become less tolerated over the last fifty years. When you say “We are being driven out of science” I assume you mean “people who prefer to work alone” but what is the connection between being a loner and taking 16 years to graduate? Do college classes today always require collaboration? In my classes, I do, but my students tell me this is the exception, not the rule, especially in science and engineering where solitary assignments and grading are the norm.

  7. Radical innovation is never about teams, it’s always about the individual, although the individual uses information that has been collected from others in the past as a foundation for making advancements in knowledge and in new ideas & products. I’m sorry, but those who think that a team of non-geniuses can outproduce the genius in creative endeavors is clinging to wishful thinking.

    Creativity and innovation is unlike almost all other human activities. In an established business model, a war, etc. the team will beat the individual every time. But not in creativity and innovation. And those who write about creativity and innovation are often mediocre innovators.

    What I’ve noticed is that creative people focus on content, not process. In other words, people who are truly creative are creating businesses, composing music, doing scientific experiments without getting paid for it. They’re not trying to think about creativity – they’re living it.

    1. Well, I would prefer to say that a team of geniuses outproduces solitary genius, and that participating in a team (the right kind of team) can raise the genius level of everyone in it. Of course, not every collaboration is effective; that’s why I wrote my 2007 book Group Genius, to tell everyone about the research showing which types of collaboration enhance creativity.

      I appreciate your opinion in favor of the individual, but the evidence is fairly overwhelming against your claim that radical innovation is “always about the individual.” But if you have evidence in support of your argument for the individual, this is the right place to make your case! Let’s hear it! Perhaps you could start by providing an example or two of a radical innovation that you believe did not involve any teams or collaboration?

  8. Scientific ideas usually begin with observations, and observations are usually better carried out by groups. But a truly radical idea can only ever be the product of one mind, and since other people are usually not interested in truly radical ideas, very often the inventor develops the idea alone.

    The motion of the planets was known to the Ancient Greeks, but only Aristarchus suggested that they could be orbiting the sun. It took over 1500 years before Copernicus and later Galileo, accepted the heliocentric idea. Kepler studied the data and realised that for heliocentrism to work, the orbits must be elliptical, and did the maths to prove it; but his work was ignored for many years, because people like Galileo were convinced that all heavenly motions had to be perfect circles.

    Newton realised that white light was a mixture of all the different colours. Other physicists of the time, like Hooke, were also trying to figure out the nature of light, but only one person could make that important discovery. However Newton did not leave it there, he went on and provided a full mathematical description of all the features of a rainbow. Similarly Newton realised that the spinning of the earth must produce an equatorial bulge, long before there was any evidence for this, and also calculated the correct size of the bulge for a uniform earth.

    Practical science is usually done best by teams, although Faraday experimented alone. However radical theoretical work is usually the product of lone geniuses, using existing data, and often building on the ideas of earlier scientists. But the situation today is somewhat different, as physics is now a religion, where physicists believe in nonsense like time travel, and a nonsensical interpretation of relativity. A lone genius would never be able to get a paper published, because physicists just dismiss radical ideas as heretical crackpottery, because they are unable to contemplate the possibility that any part of their religion could be significantly wrong. Ideas in physics are no longer judged on merit, they are just judged on whether or not they agree with current belief, as I know from my own attempts to dismantle the nonsense of quark theory.

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