Firsting in Science and Research

By Rebecca Williams

Published on

25 Mar 2024


Read time

3 minutes

Scholars like to attribute discoveries to people. A new mineral, a new species of dinosaur, a new unifying theory. First reported by a pioneering geologist, first described by an eminent paleontologist who came across the fossil in a dusty drawer, first proposed in a paradigm-shifting paper. But does this constant framing of research and science as ‘first’ and ‘novel’ harm? And does it perpetuate colonial practices?

Beck defines firsting as “the process through which a scholar presents an act, circumstance, or phenomenon generated by man, or accomplishment to have occurred for the first time” (Beck, 2017). Think of the discovery of the Americas being attributed to explorer Christopher Columbus, despite the Americas having been settled for tens of thousands of years.

Declaring that a research project is the “first” to discover, do, or go somewhere is not only rarely correct, given the myriad local knowledges operating since time immemorial, but is also imperialist and colonial in nature, using language of priority, exploration, discovery, and uniqueness in a way that erases other people and forms of knowledge.

Liboiron, 2021 Discard Studies

In their book, Translating Nature, Marroquín Arredondo and Bauer reframe the discoveries attributed to modern, Western science as translations from indigenous cultures and knowledge. We explore this concept in the Earth Sciences in our work on geological exploration in Africa and the many discoveries attributed to pioneering British geologists (see our blog about this ongoing work). This practise however, is not confined to the historical past. Liboiron explores modern-day Firsting practices and directly links this to colonialism (Liboiron, 2021). This is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand this topic.

It’s a proclamation of the privilege to not see others, cite others, or acknowledge others. Firsting is about the power to discard. To paraphrase Zoe Todd, “first” is just another word for colonialism.

Liboiron, 2021 Discard Studies

Knowledge is power

Colonialism shaped the way in which ‘knowledge’ was created, by whom and for what. Colonialism dictated who was allowed to create knowledge and whose knowledge was valued. This legacy is perpetuated through Western institutions and their ways of creating and disseminating knowledge. A recent drive in Western science to acknowledge indigenous knowledge may be well meaning but if not done meaningfully and collaboratively can itself be harmful. The footnote to this press release about how Indian knowledge and the ‘Kerala school’ predated Newton’s ‘discovery’ makes for interesting reading. A 2017 paper on ‘Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia‘ garnered much attention in the press for reporting on a behaviour that had long been known to the Indigenous people of Australia. Why was this ‘discovery’ celebrated when Indigenous knowledge is, at best, overlooked and at worst belittled and erased?

The worldwide attention given to the firehawks article provides an opportunity to explore the double standard that exists concerning the acceptance of Traditional Knowledge by practitioners of Western science.

Nicholas, 2018 The Conversation
A thumbnail of the First Digs infographic

As we seek to decolonise science, to respect and center Indigenous knowledge, we should be cautious to not lay claim to that knowledge through our colonial structures of knowledge dissemination. Our infographic ‘First Digs’ introduces the concept of Firsting to Earth Scientists unfamiliar with the topic. It calls for Earth Scientists to engage meaningfully in ethical, collaborative research in which knowledge is co-created and not extracted. Perhaps if we shared this with our students, our mentees and think of it when designing and disseminating our research, we can shift the culture away from Firsting and towards a more honest and ethical research culture.


Beck, L. (2017). Firsting in Discovery and Exploration History. Terrae Incognitae49(2), 109-113.

Liboiron, M. (2021). Firsting in research. Discard Studies18.

Nicholas, G. (2018). It’s taken thousands of years, but Western science is finally catching up to Traditional Knowledge. The Conversation15.