I work in STEM, and in recent years I have been troubled by this trend in academia where certain individuals are elevated to the status of celebrities. Their appearances alone draw crowds in the hundreds and their "latest" interviews are almost taken as edicts directly from God and are debated endlessly. They are sometimes literally referred to as "Heroes" or "God (fathers)".

Sure, there has always been certain academicians (especially authors or professors) who are popular, and I think we should acknowledge them. But I don't understand the point of celebrating certain individual just because of what he or she is doing, or what this person has done or achieved in the past. The whole point of academia is cross-examination, and no person has absolute say in anything. I think people have lost sight of that. Plus, I don't believe in the "self-made" researcher.

What really prompted me to write this is when I discovered a serious error in a widely cited paper by a very prominent scientist (who has published books, been on TED talks, etc.). How can the paper be so widely cited given such a glaring and serious error? I am also troubled by some recent "non-sense" work from the same author. But this is just one example out of many (countless). I have seen people citing the work of a famous person despite the content or quality of the work, and then doubling it down by defending the indefensible. This also connects to the well-known debate over the meaningfulness of citation count.

But am I just imagining all of this? Perhaps the power in academia is more diffused as compared to what I have been exposed to and these so-called "Gods" of academia are more frequently challenged than what I know of. And ultimately, if this celebrity culture exists, then should we discourage it?

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    humans like role models and many to be governed by someone they look up to, this will never change. Yet, the point of academia is to undermine subjective factors as much as possible and in books about philsophy of science (Popper, Kuhn,...) you can read about this. Always keep in mind, it's hard to disprove one of Einstein's theories, yet on many of them he was the most skeptical person. I also recommend recent book "Lost in Math" by Sabine Hossenfelder that shows that heros or "schools of thinking" can lead to unscientific paths. Feb 23, 2019 at 21:39
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    Some are well-worth looking up to though, and not just for academic reasons : Stephen Hawking comes to mind...
    – Solar Mike
    Feb 23, 2019 at 22:52
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    Academics are, on the whole, very class-conscious.
    – user74089
    Feb 23, 2019 at 23:24
  • I modified the following quote of OP's post only slightly and now it perfectly sums up another hot topic: "I have seen people citing the work of a high impact factor journal despite the content or quality of the work, and then doubling it down by defending the indefensible. This also connects to the well-known debate over the meaningfulness of citation count." Feb 24, 2019 at 7:08
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    @Monkia "Neil degrace Tyson" Is that an unfortunate typo or a misspelled personal attack?
    – forest
    Feb 24, 2019 at 10:18

3 Answers 3


Academia is an extremely primitive and immature system in many ways, driven disproportionately by emotion and status over merit or egalitarianism. You will be reminded of a lot of academic social behavior if you read about the social behavior of the other primates.

However it is a unfair to suggest that people are simply acting as smitten teenagers swooning over big-shots because they have their own academic reality show. It is a social system which is behaving rationally in rewarding those who move it forward (or some new direction which at the time seems to be forward). Papers are almost a sideshow (written by underpaid postdocs), and citation count is merely a proxy metric for this. But impact, that which citation count tries to measure, is a very real and valuable thing; how well you can attract lots of funding to a research direction, as well as attract lots of other researchers into that direction, determines how important your career is to the system. And, in the absence of other sources of information, makes for a decent predictor for how important your work is currently and will be in the future.

  • in particle physics this impact of famous scientiests maybe drove the whole community into a deadend asking now to build the next even bigger >10b $ accelerator, although the last one didn't bring up any interesting data to progress with theories. Single scholars act rationally, hundreds or group thinking socially connected often not. And it turns out a lot of the interdependencies in the current academic social system (publish or perish to gain fame) are rather detrimental to its progress.I would claim the less socially connected academic system before internet was more innovative than todays Feb 24, 2019 at 10:50
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    @MichaelSchmidt I'd argue the behavior is rational, just not according to the rules and goals you'd like. For example in favoring money over truth, or favoring safe short-term benefits over potentially much larger, but risky, long-term benefits. Feb 24, 2019 at 16:39

To add another perspective: Academia is evolving towards a more complex social system also much more than it has already been in the early and mid 20th century. This is partly caused by the social linking of researchers due to the internet, but also because ground-breaking discoveries single scholars like Einstein, Perelman.. made with less collaboration/help are not possible anymore, when the big problems to solve are cancer, AI,...

Here science becomes political, as you need some leaders to move into distinct directions and start approaches needing thousands of researchers to tackle the problem. In particle physics, as you can read in the book "Lost in Math" by Sabine Hossenfelder, many are helpless if the whole community moved into a dead end and nothing really new is anymore discovered but also no new approaches are developed or directions started among research groups. There, maybe a social group pressure is now at work and this is the apprehension she describes and supports with many notes and interviews in her community.

You can read about how schools of thinking/scholars and paradigms are build up and fade away studying philsophy of science (Thomas Kuhn wrote a lot on it).

The Schön scandal is a singular and small case on a lower level and time scale, but these social processes work also on much larger scales among thousands of researchers and over decades in a community. If the internet strenghtens the social binding in academia or increases independence of scholars I'm not able to judge. Likely both. The good thing is scholars like Mrs. Hossenfelder have a chance to reach other scholars with their concerns and decrease such scales. The internet makes everything evolving faster. When there are not two opinions/approaches to an unsolved complex problem in academia, something is going wrong, when so much people work in it and there is no progress over decades...

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    What made me freaking out is academia seems to have a pretty captivating context, but without deep and genuine content, it just hoaxes. Of course, we cannot make a sweeping generalization, but few researchers who do really do important and significant research. A well established a professor and also a pariah and met him at a top-tier conference, told me those research are a hoax and junk, I have been left baffled.
    – user103209
    Feb 24, 2019 at 0:21
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    Perelman's proof of geometrization was in 2003, hardly ancient history. Individual scholars can and regularly do make groundbreaking discoveries in pure maths. I understand it's a lot harder in the sciences and I'm pointing this out because you specifically used Perelman as an example of what was not happening any more.
    – Solveit
    Feb 24, 2019 at 4:08
  • @SolveIt Perelman had to leave academia to make this discovery. Some mathematicians even tried to claim his work as theirs he said in the aftermath to gain more fame/impact. If you think about the perelman case, it was not really positive for academia and its status. It's a tough question if savants like einstein/perelman are still attracted to academia to make ground-breaking discovery or end in fields like particle physics which are maybe in a deadend, most of the brightest minds in academia end in physics & math. The work of Peter Scholze is not understood by his former professors he says Feb 24, 2019 at 10:38


I am not against naming academicians in their fields, likely Geoffry Hinton, the Godfather of Machine Learning who was a pariah in his research community until late of nineteens and his ideas come true. Some of them deserve likely Geoffry Hinton when he said the future for the students who are going to be suspicious of every word I said.

Cames to your statement which is questionable why do we name that academician as the celebrity, who do that, and what is the benefit behind?

Of course this a big question and there are many advantages to making someone's work is great, maybe for political reasons, getting reputations, grants, and many things and most importantly dominating a field and ideas which is turns to be a toxic academic life.

We are a human being and we can easily be affected by words and aurora created around a person, and that is the trick, you aggrandize a work of professor, institute, and being in the media all the time, it is kind of positive marketing, but it turned out to negative in the end.

I am trying to answer your question, how we can discourage that habit of having a star and every work s(he) is like Holy book and no one can check the integrity of the work.

I have to say that I am suffering mentally because I had been forced to leave from my first PhD year because I proposed a methodology against the proposed one from a star in my field who was cooperating with my ex-supervisor.

I found their work had a flaw and cannot be applied for applicable applications, however, they managed to get published in top tier venues, and he here is another question about the integrity of journals and venues itself, I found serious mistakes from this star and badly written by his cooperators who were also working with me, so in the end I have been told, you cannot do something against his theories and blah blah, of course, I made a mistake I should not argue with them and follow the herd.

So, I think discouraging the habit of having a star is quite impossible as in my humble opinion it is like a gang, everyone knows that these results are not reproducible, but no one speaks up.

I think the best incident is Schön scandal, where he was a star and it turned out he was fabricating results.

My simple answer is if you found a serious mistake in the work of those celebs report it as it happened in school scandal. Of course, we still have those crown in the field who are hypocrite and I can say that being honest in academia would make you a pariah, sometimes you need to follow the path of celebs to be recognized and that what happened to me after being kicked out, everyone forget me and did not even look to the work that I proved and I am struggling to get in to the path again.

To sum up, being honest and don't be fully blinded with those celebs and report about them if you see a serious mistake in their work, however, I would be afraid that you would be a pariah by your community, so in the end, it depends on the conscience of the researcher.

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    +1 for Schön Scandal, many things to learn from and well documented, he nearly became Max-Planck-Institute director afair... Feb 23, 2019 at 22:29
  • @axsvl77, thanks for your notation, I have edited the answer
    – user103209
    Feb 24, 2019 at 11:25

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