Scientific priority

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In science, priority is the credit given to the individual or group of individuals who first made the discovery or propose the theory. Fame and honours usually go to the first person or group to publish a new finding, even if several researchers arrived at the same conclusion independently and at the same time. Thus, between two or more independent discoverers, the first to publish is the legitimate winner. Hence, the tradition is often referred to as the priority rule, the procedure of which is nicely summed up in a phrase "publish or perish", because there are no second prizes.[1] In a way, the race to be first inspires risk-taking that can lead to scientific breakthroughs which is beneficial to the society (such as discovery of malaria transmission, DNA, HIV, etc.). On the other hand, it can create unhealthy competition and incentives to publish low-quality findings (e.g., quantity over quality),[2][3] which can lead to an unreliable published literature and harm scientific progress.[4][5][6]

Priority disputes[edit]

Priority becomes a difficult issue usually in the context of priority disputes, where the priority for a given theory, understanding, or discovery comes into question. In most cases historians of science disdain retrospective priority disputes as enterprises which generally lack understanding about the nature of scientific change and usually involve gross misreadings of the past to support the idea of a long-lost priority claim. Historian and biologist Stephen Jay Gould once remarked that "debates about the priority of ideas are usually among the most misdirected in the history of science."[7]

Richard Feynman told Freeman Dyson that he avoided priority disputes by "Always giv[ing] the bastards more credit than they deserve." Dyson remarked that he also follows this rule, and that this practice is "remarkably effective for avoiding quarrels and making friends."[8]


The priority rule came into existence before, or as soon as modern scientific methods were established. For example, the earliest documented controversy was a bitter claim between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the 17th century about priority in the invention of calculus. This particular incidence clearly shows human biases and prejudice[according to whom?]. It has become unanimously accepted that both the mathematicians independently developed calculus. Since then priority has caused a number of historical maladies in the history of science.[4][9] In the cases of scientists who have since achieved incredible levels of popularity, such as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, priority disputes may arise when similarities in previous research are identified. This can give rise to suspicions for plagiarism and often requires a thorough historical source analysis.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Strevens M (2003). "The Role of the Priority Rule in Science". The Journal of Philosophy. 100 (3): 55–79. doi:10.5840/jphil2003100224. JSTOR 3655792.
  2. ^ Tiokhin, Leonid; Derex, Maxime (2019). "Competition for novelty reduces information sampling in a research game - a registered report". Royal Society Open Science. 6 (5): 180934. Bibcode:2019RSOS....680934T. doi:10.1098/rsos.180934. PMC 6549967. PMID 31218016.
  3. ^ Phillips, Nathaniel D.; Hertwig, Ralph; Kareev, Yaakov; Avrahami, Judith (2014-10-01). "Rivals in the dark: How competition influences search in decisions under uncertainty". Cognition. 133 (1): 104–119. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.06.006. hdl:11858/00-001M-0000-0024-E7F9-9. ISSN 0010-0277. PMID 25010397. S2CID 41705036.
  4. ^ a b Fang FC, Casadevall A (2012). "Reforming science: structural reforms". Infect Immun. 80 (3): 897–901. doi:10.1128/IAI.06184-11. PMC 3294664. PMID 22184420.
  5. ^ Tiokhin, Leonid; Yan, Minhua; Morgan, Thomas J. H. (2021-01-28). "Competition for priority harms the reliability of science, but reforms can help". Nature Human Behaviour. 5 (7): 857–867. doi:10.1038/s41562-020-01040-1. ISSN 2397-3374. PMID 33510392.
  6. ^ Ryan Hill & Carolyn Stein. "Race to the bottom: Competition and quality in science".
  7. ^ Gould SJ (1977). Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, p. 35.
  8. ^ Freeman Dyson, 2011, "The Dramatic Picture of Richard Feynman, " New York Review of Books, July 14, 2011. Reprinted in ISBN 9781590178546
  9. ^ Fang FC, Casadevall A (25 July 2012). "Intense Competition among Scientists Has Gotten out of Hand". Scientific American. Retrieved 2013-05-31.

Further reading[edit]

  • Barbalet, J., "Science and Emotions", pp. 132–150 in Barbalet, J.(ed), Emotions and Sociology (Sociological Review Monograph), Blackwell Publishing, (Oxford), 2002.
  • Boring, E.G., "Cognitive Dissonance: Its Use in Science", Science, Vol.145, No.3633, (14 August 1964), pp. 680–685.
  • Boring, E.G., "The Problem of Originality in Science", The American Journal of Psychology, Vol.39, Nos.1-4, (December 1927), pp. 70–90.
  • Hanson, N.R., Patterns of Discovery: An Inquiry into the Conceptual Foundations of Science, Cambridge University Press, (Cambridge), 1962.
  • Merton, R.K., "Priorities in Scientific Discovery: A Chapter in the Sociology of Science", American Sociological Review, Vol.22, No.6, (December 1957), pp. 635–659.
  • Merton, R.K., "Science and Democratic Social Structures", pp. 604–615 in Merton, R.K., Social Theory and Social Structure (1968 Enlarged Edition), The Free Press, (New York), 1968 [originally published as "A Note on Science and Democracy", Journal of Legal and Political Sociology, Vol.1, Nos.1-2, (1942), pp. 115–126].
  • Samelson, F., "History, Origin Myth and Ideology: "Discovery" of Social Psychology", Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, Vol.4, No.2, (October 1974), pp. 217–232.
  • Samelson, F., "Whig and Anti-Whig Histories — And other Curiosities of Social Psychology", Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Vol.36, No.4, (Fall 2000), pp. 499–506.