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.