Is Genius Discouraged in Academia?

We all know that peer review filters out weak studies that are either deeply flawed or make no new contribution to knowledge. In this sense, peer review can be said to “work” as intended. As a journal editor, I frequently desk reject papers that are methodologically unsound or, more likely, that just regurgitate what we already know. “File drawer” papers are no real loss to science. But is it possible—and I’m just speculating here—that amongst the trash may also be found the occasional diamond? Is it possible that some of the rejected papers that end up in the file drawer shine so brightly with genius that they are not recognized as such?

I think so.

It is increasingly difficult to define genius in academia today. Who among us can claim that descriptor? Historical geniuses are easy to identify with the benefit of hindsight: Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, Marie Curie. More recently, we could probably throw the late Stephen Hawking, whom I had the pleasure of meeting briefly when I was at Cambridge, into the mix. But among living academics, which of us qualifies as a genius?

I believe we are living in an era that either stomps out, or at least obscures, genius. I blame this on the perverse incentives system in academia today. Books, which allow for the breadth and depth of one’s genius to truly shine through (yes, I just used a split infinitive, so I must not be a genius!), are discouraged. Instead, we write very short articles that report the results of empirical research, about 98 percent of which (in my estimation) is pretty bland and not very surprising.

The structure of journal articles is extremely rigid and highly repetitive, and not just in terms of headings (Introduction, Literature Review and Hypotheses, Methods, Results, and Discussion), but also in terms of individual paragraphs within headings. Through peer review, we learn the “secret ingredients” to a good journal article and any deviation from that recipe will result in rejection. In short. I would argue that the whole system of peer review is designed to smother creative expression and innovative thinking. Deviate from the “correct” structure at your own peril.

“Through peer review, we learn the “secret ingredients” to a good journal article and any deviation from the recipe will result in rejection. In short, I would argue that the whole system of peer review is designed to smother creative expression and innovative thinking.”

In my view, creativity is genius, and genius is creativity. It follows logically that the stifling of creativity is the stifling of genius. Perhaps this explains why it is so difficult to identify genius in academia today. The system itself is stripping us of our creativity. Our freedom of expression, and perhaps even epistemological freedom, is constrained by peer review.

For this reason, it is possible that the next Einstein or Oppenheimer is out there, probably feeling anxious or depressed, because his or her genius is being ripped to shreds by peer reviewers whose mediocrity makes it virtually impossible for them to see what’s before their very eyes: a thought revolution screaming to break through the barriers of academic conformity.

Could you be that genius?

Professor Andrew R. Timming

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

One thought on “Is Genius Discouraged in Academia?

  1. Regarded as a genius by whom? For the general public, I suggest Stephen Hawking was more a human interest story that a story of scientific achievement.

    His peers would regard James Allison as a genius largely because he was smart enough to ask the right question.


    What triggers an immune response?


    What halts or checks an immune response?

    And so he and others discovered how cancer cells evade attacks from the immune system. Thus was born immunotherapy.

    I think if you look into it you will find many people unknown to the public who are regarded as geniuses by their peers.

    Were people like Lagrange, Euler, Peter Mitchell regarded as geniuses by the general public in their lifetimes?

    How many people have heard of Andrew Wiles who finally cracked Fermat’s Last Theorem? Yet, among mathematicians, he is a much-admired figure.


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