February 19, 2016

I am working up a serious antipathy to the notion of scientific priority, spurred most recently by the #ASAPbio conference and the associated fervent promotion of pre-print deposit of scientific manuscripts.

In science, the concept of priority refers to the fact that we think of the first person to [think up, discover, demonstrate, support, prove, find, establish] something as somehow special and deserving of credit.

For example, the first paleontologist to show that this odd collection of fossils over here belonged to a species of Megatyrannoteethdeath* not previously known to us gets a lot of street cred for a new discovery.

Watson and Crick, similarly, are famed for working out the double helical structure of DNA** because they provided the scientific community with convincing amounts of rationale and evidence first.


Typically the most special thing about the scientists being respected is that they got there first. Someone else could have stumbled across the right bits of fossil. Many someones were hotly trying to determine how DNA was structured and how it worked.

This is the case for much of modern bioscience. There are typically many someones that have at least thought about a given issue, problem or puzzle. Many who have spent more than just a tiny bit of thought on it. Sometimes multiple scientists (or scientific groups, typically) are independently working on a given idea, concept, biological system, puzzle or whathaveyou.

As in much of life, to the victor go the spoils. Meaning the Nobel prize in some cases. Meaning critical grant funding in other cases- funding that not only pays the salary of the scientists with priority but that goes to support their pursuit of other “first” discoveries. Remember in the Jurassic Park movies how the sober paleontology work was so desperately in need of research funds? That. In addition, the priority of a finding might dictate which junior scientists get Professorial rank jobs, the all-important credit for publication in a desired rank of scientific journal and ultimately the incremental accumulation of citations to that paper. Finally, if there ends up being a commercial value angle, the ones who have this priority may profit from that fact.

It’s all very American, right? Get there first, do something someone else has not done and you should profit from that accomplishment. yeeehaw***.

Problem is……****

The pursuit of priority holds back the progress of science in many ways. It keeps people from working on a topic because they figure that some other lab is way ahead of them and will beat them to the punch (science always can use a different take, no two labs come up with the exact same constellation of evidence). It unfairly keeps people from being able to get rewarded for their work (in a multi-year, multi-person, expensive pursuit of the same thing does it make sense that a 2 week difference in when a manuscript is submitted is all-critical to the credit?). It keeps people from collaborating or sharing their ideas lest someone else swoop in and score the credit by publishing first. It can fuel the inability to replicate findings (what if the group with priority was wrong and nobody else bothered to put the effort in because they couldn’t get enough credit?).

These are the things I am pondering as we rush forward with the idea that pre-publication manuscripts should be publicized in a pre-print archive. One of the universally promoted reasons for this need is, in fact, scientific priority. Which has a very, very large downside to it.
*I made that Genus up but if anyone wants to use it, feel free

**no, not for being dicks. that came later.




February 19, 2016

This version is for Comradde PhysioProffe