Tag Archives: originality

Arguing with myself

Image: arguing Northern Mockingbird (© Chiltepinster CC BY-SA 3.0). I’m the one on the left.  And also the one on the right.

It was bound to happen sooner or later.  I’ve written about 240 posts for Scientist Sees Squirrel, and the other day I busted myself: I discovered that I’ve written two contradictory ones.  They’re both about originality (and yes, I can smell the irony in having written two posts on originality).  The first one (We praise originality, but we don’t value it) argued that we undervalue originality in research.  The second (Originality is over-rated – even by me) argued that we overrate originality in research.  Nice job, Heard.

Now, I’ve re-read both posts carefully*, and I can just barely build an argument that they’re not quite as contradictory as that.  Continue reading


Originality is over-rated. (Including by me.)

Image: Tulips, Vera Kratochvil CC-0 released to public domain.

Last week I reviewed a grant proposal for one of the European national granting agencies.  It was an interesting piece of work, which – if funded – would gather probably our best dataset so far to test some longstanding questions in my field.  It was ambitious, thorough, and well planned.  But it didn’t blaze any particularly new path: the techniques were standard, the questions have been in the literature for decades, and every planned analysis has been done before (albeit with smaller and less suitable datasets).

Before I’d even quite noticed, I found that I’d written a sentence in my review saying “There’s nothing original about the proposed research”.  But as I looked at that sentence – and as it glared back at me from the screen – I felt like it was judging me more than the applicant.  And it should have.

You see, originality in science is highly over-rated.  Continue reading

We praise originality, but we don’t seem to value it

Image: Citation impact vs. originality, for 55 of my own publications.  See text for explanation.

 Warning: a bit cynical.

Last week I filled out a grad-school recommendation form for a terrific undergraduate student.  Among other things, it asked me to rate her “originality”.  That got me thinking.

We tell each other often that we admire scientists who are original thinkers. Originality is often an explicit criterion in manuscript assessment, in tenure assessment, even at science fairs.  The related idea of “novelty” is a major criterion in many (if not most) grant applications. Herman Melville might almost have been speaking for scientists when he said “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation*”.

So we praise originality. But do we value it?  I’m skeptical.  Continue reading