#Scicomm Tip: Never claim to be the first to do anything in science

You see it all the time—in a popular news article about a groundbreaking research study to even the primary literature—that so-and-so researcher is the “first” to make some brand new discovery.

This claim makes me cringe every time I see it. Why? Well to be honest, it’s highly unlikely to be the absolute first at anything with millions of scientists around the world, many of whom are working in similar fields on similar problems.

While doing a thorough literature search should be part of any research project, it’s easy to miss a paper, especially publications in lesser known journals that might not be indexed in the database you use. Or perhaps someone is getting ready to publish the results and they are a little farther down the publication pipeline than you are.

I have called a researcher out on this first-hand when writing a past article review. In the literature paper, the lab claimed to be the first to identify the presence of a particular enzyme on the surface of a specific cell organelle. Thus, the PI wanted me to include a note in my review that they were the “first” to make this discovery. However, from a quick literature search, I found another group who previously had made the same discovery and I omitted the “first” language from the review.

I can definitely understand the temptation to do this. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of doing good science and want to get credit for all the hard work and dedication that goes into a single research paper.

You may even be thinking to yourself, “Hey, if I say I’m the first to do this experiment then I’ll definitely get published or get this grant, right?” Probably not. Reviewers are experts in their fields who are usually well-acquainted with the literature and that plan may backfire if they realize you over-inflated your work.

To avoid the issue, shy away from the word “first”. Be more specific in your claim to describe what is so unique about your work, whether you used a new approach or interpreted the results in a novel way. Show what the significant contributions of your work actually are to the research community.

But if you feel compelled to go with this terminology, at least use a phrase like “one of the first” or “to our knowledge no one has else has made this discovery”. Now you’re covered from making false claims that just look arrogant or are plain wrong.



2 thoughts on “#Scicomm Tip: Never claim to be the first to do anything in science

  1. Tom Manz says:

    Well, if you have done your homework, you should know whether you are first or not. If you are first, nothing wrong with pointing that out. It is actually good to point out if you are doing something for the first time, because that helps to put the work in a proper context. Yes, sometimes people make false claims about being first when they are not, but that error is most often due to their own carelessness of not having performed a literature search or not understanding the research field they are writing in. You don’t want to make a claim of being first to do something unless you understand the research in that field very well and know who has been working on what and how long.

    • Donna Kridelbaugh says:

      Yes agreed, as mentioned in the post, that a thorough lit search is a necessity. But that brings into question: how thorough of a search can you actually do? Literature databases only index certain journals and research done globally published in more obscure or non-indexed journals might not be included in your search. It also comes down to acknowledging that there is a global research community and other researchers doing work that you might not have heard about yet because they might not be considered part of the research “clique” in that area or have the funds to travel to a major conference to share their work. Overall, if you claim to be the first then you need to be very specific in what you are claiming to be the first to do, explain the relevance of this claim and acknowledge that others are also working (or could be working) on this same problem.

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