Time for the academy to retire the giants

The academy can’t afford a culture centered on creating giants in their fields

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants.” Isaac Newton. 1676. Letter to Robert Hooke (before they became bitter enemies). This notion was a commonplace in the 17th Century, with the implications that even a dwarf would see further than a giant if he were standing on the giant’s shoulders. (Wikipedia).

“If our team’s ideas add value to the current state of knowledge, it is because we have stolen widely and well from the abundance of prior understanding surrounding us, and climbed a stairway of knowledge built by others.” Modern version… no giants.

PLEASE NOTE: This is a draft of a bit of the Open Scientist Handbook. There are references/links to other parts of this work-in-progress that do not link here in this blog. Sorry. But you can also see what the Handbook will be offering soon.

Open science needs to admit that no scientist is a lone giant in their field

One of the hard lessons for open science is to abandon the notion that “great” scientists — those “giants” of the academy — were and are individuals of some unique and rare quality; that their shoulders tower above those of their peers, and that the optimal career goal of a scientist is to become a giant in their field. And, if you are a woman in science, while standing on the shoulders of “giants” in the academy, you can be fairly certain that some of them would have been intent on looking up your skirt; another reason why open science needs Fierce Equality.

In Isaac Newton, the Asshole who Reinvented the Universe (Freistetter 2018) we get a picture of Newton’s brilliance as a natural philosopher, and of his serial acts of intellectual and careerist selfishness. Biographies of Newton’s career and personality issues are several (See also: Clark and Clark 2001; Manuel 1979; Gleick 2004). The biographies of several of his contemporaries (Leibniz, Hooke, Gray, and Flamsteed for starters) reveal their side of the dangers of being on Newton’s wrong side. But then Newton’s bad behavior was not as unusual as it perhaps should have been. Rather, it was distinguished by its obsessive persistence, and made potent by Newton’s position at the head of the Royal Society. Freistetter excused much of Newton’s bad behavior as emblematic of an academy culture where intellection was — and still is — a cerebral variety of blood sport. He did venture that Newton would still be called an asshole if he were working today.

Newton’s interpersonal misconduct is less of an issue here. For more on assholes, take a look at The Need for a Zero-Asshole Zone. While producing a series of astonishing research findings from his own work, Newton was soaking up ideas and credit from others, while insisting that his ideas were his alone. Apparently, we wasn’t entirely serious about the whole “giants’ shoulders” thing.

You want to get good at doing science — as a personal goal — because this leads to more satisfaction in your daily life and career, and because you can become more valuable to science by having better conversations that lead to more interesting questions and new ideas. Your getting better at being a scientist should, in no manner obstruct others on their path to getting better at this. In fact, one of the advantages of open work in science is that you can lift others during your climb up the same stairs. You can always grow. You can grow a larger sense of the science you are working with/on, a perception of how your work fits into the field, and appreciation for the work of your colleagues. Your primary challenge is to be better at science (and being human) today than you were yesterday.

A lot of scientists worked to build the stairs you are climbing

“[B]y some measure, every important innovation is fundamentally a network affair” (Johnson 2011).

“[M]odern scholarship is based on cooperation. Ideas are not created in a vacuum. Reuse of research processes, methods and results as well as abstraction and extension should therefore represent basic values of scholarly communication. The possibility to reuse data, materials and results enables researchers and communities to learn from each other and to speed up the production of new knowledge” (Vienna Principles 2016; Accessed July 10, 2020).

There’s a badge for that

What’s wrong with having and celebrating “giants” in your field? We can explore this. Firstly, the goal of exclusive achievement and individual fame requires and produces way too much scarcity in the process (Against Exclusion: open is open to all). In the game of “giant-making,” recognition points might need to be hoarded, reputation metrics jealously guarded, and ideas (and data) locked away until some strategic moment. Secondly, the practice of acknowledging a science giant requires the production of science dwarves. It’s a zero-sum game. If nobody’s small, someone can’t be giant. Most giants only look large from far away because of the cumulative advantages they were given across their careers. They are actually standing on the shoulders of privilege. Finally, the desire to be a giant fuels narcissistic behavior, of which the academy has an abundance already.

“As Justice Louis Brandeis, who witnessed our previous Gilded Age, might have said: ‘We may have democracy, or we may have praise showered on the heads of a few, but we can’t have both’” (Johnson 2019: Accessed July 24, 2020)

In a fiercely-equal, open-science culture, zero-sum games of prizes and awards handed out to would-be giants can be replaced in favor of a larger emphasis on a system of open badges that anyone can earn: with intention, time, and effort (An Introduction to Badges). The use of badges earned instead of prizes won for recognition of accomplishments would build a reputation economy for the academy that rewards achievement anywhere on the planet, and refocusses attention on science’s generative engine: learning and community effort. “Although the edifice of scientific understanding is sometimes envisaged as an accumulation of individual discoveries, in reality science is a community effort comprising innumerable interdependent contributions. Credit is disproportionately awarded to principal investigators for what is truly the product of teamwork, and nearly all scientific contributions are heavily dependent on knowledge obtained earlier…. In the spirit of an Amish barn-raising, a celebration of the collective achievement of science should subsume individual achievement” (Casadevall and Fang 2012 [ASM]).

The finite game (Open Science and the Infinite Game) of “making a name for oneself” in the academy is far too expensive to the academy to allow this to be a central goal of science. Science demands so much already from you: both rigor and wonder, and in generous amounts. “Science is an inherent contradiction — systematic wonder — applied to the natural world” (Lewis et al. 2001).

Because it is important to regularly celebrate open science cultural practices, and contributions to science, and to institutions, and teams, you can create honors that are playful and honest (Celebrate Open Science). Science doesn’t need fellows in national academies as much as it needs researchers who deserve to get honored for their dedication and their kindness. Be generous to those who are, too. Don’t tell your team members to “leave their frowns at home,” but hand out medals (perhaps made of chocolate) to those with the most difficulties to overcome, and the best spirit. Give away prizes every week. Cheer when someone earns a difficult badge. Turn learned society elections into lotteries, and celebrate when volunteer leaders chosen at random step up and perform. Find ways to reward as many early career colleagues as possible. In the end, you realize that everyone who makes a serious attempt to do science is already a giant. You didn’t notice because you are one too.

Marc McGinnes taught for decades at UCSB. On civic holidays, he would walk on stilts as an “occasional giant.” He is a giant in many ways.

Afterthoughts: If you still want to be a giant, be a giant for your family, be a giant in your town. Perhaps there used to be giants, back when the only way to fund science was to attract the attention and the purse of a king. If the person paying your rent is named de’ Medici, perhaps you should get used to wearing stilts, just ask Galileo Galilei. The main lesson of that famous “standing on the sholders of giants” quote is that if you are going to be a life-long jerk, pop some really nice sentiments on your blog that people might remember you by three hundred years later. Even then, someone will write a book about what an asshole you were.


Casadevall, Arturo, and Ferric C Fang. Reforming Science: Methodological and Cultural Reforms. Am Soc Microbiol, 2012.

Clark, David H., and Stephen P. H. Clark. Newton’s Tyranny: The Suppressed Scientific Discoveries of Stephen Gray and John Flamsteed. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co, 2001.

Freistetter, F. Isaac Newton: The Asshole Who Reinvented the Universe. First American hardcover edition in English. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2018.

Gleick, James. Isaac Newton. New York; Westminster: Vintage Imprint ; Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group ; Random House, Incorporated Distributor, 2004. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10063736.

Johnson, S. Where Good Ideas Come from: The Seven Patterns of Innovation. Penguin UK, 2011.

Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. A General Theory of Love. 1. Vintage ed. New York: Vintage, 2001.

Manuel, Frank Edward. A Portrait of Isaac Newton. Washington: New Republic Books, 1979.

online science community architect; media; expression, education and gaming; fiction as needed. Also blog at <https://cybersocialstructure.org/>

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