Blockchain Solutions for Scientific Publishing
co-authored by Shermin Voshmgir
The idea of leveraging Blockchain technology to open up science and knowledge creation, bringing together entrepreneurs, developers and scientists from different disciplines started two years ago, when Berlin based think tank Blockchain for Science was launched by Soenke Bartling. In May we teamed up with Blockchain for Science to organize a 2 day Un-conference at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. Almost all relevant international projects currently working on proofs of concepts in the field of Blockchain for science and scientific publishing, came to showcase and discuss their projects which aim to leverage Blockchain properties, such as decentralisation, transparency, and immutability of records, as well as the token economy to improve the scientific process. The event in Vienna was followed up by twin conference in Zurich on Cryptoeconomy for Science & Research, where topics like the token economy, ICOs for scientific projects, tokenized research platforms, decentralized peer-review models, and new collaboration tools were addressed.
Challenges of traditional Scientific Research and Publishing Process
Current incentive systems for academics and their institutions force researchers to “publish or perish”. If you want to stay in academia, publication and acceptance in high-quality publications is indispensable. Sometimes published papers bring immediate payoff to the author, as for example, a special incentive scheme of the research institutions, and a delayed payoff: higher academic reputation, better chances for promotion or a high profile academic position, as well as improved ranking of the respective department and university that academic is working for. High-quality publications are published in top journals, which — because of the oligopoly structure of scientific publishing market — have a power to define rules of the game and make all the money, while not paying scientists for their work of authoring and reviewing contributions. Subscription fees are expensive and are often paid by the libraries of the research institutions, therefore, scientists who are not part of the leading universities or come from the developing countries do not have access to the top research. The same applies to the taxpayers: published research papers remain often inaccessible to a general public who in many countries pays the researchers’ salaries indirectly through taxes.
However, high access barriers is not the only problem. The whole publication process, from submitting the paper until publishing it, lasts for several months, if not years. One of the main reasons for that is a peer review process, which is extremely important to ensure the high quality scientific publishing, but the tools and practices of the peer review that are currently used in academia are in control of journals and publishers, come from the pre-internet era and are outdated, where the only place to publish was the academic journals and the only place to meet and discuss was at high end academic conferences. This is true for manydisciplines, however publishing process in computer science proves that time to publish can be much quicker than most other domains. State of the art technologies web applications already allow for more fluid and quicker processes, but in most disciplines they are not yet adopted by quality journals and conferences. As a result, by the time when the paper is published, some results might have become less relevant and outdated.
Tampering and misreporting data and research findings, fabrication of results and experiments, plagiarism — these other challenges that arise in the semi-transparent research process not only slow up the scientific progress but undermine the core values of science. The validity of empirical data and reproducibility of experiments are usually not evaluated within a peer review. According to some studies, around 10% of significant studies in cancer biology are reproducible. This is a serious problem for science, since various experimental design leads to various results and the subsequent research might be based on wrong findings.
Another challenge in the scientific research community comes from funding though research grants. Application for such grants is an integral part of the research process, but many of these grants are highly competitive which, at least to some degree, secures an appropriate quality of the research projects granted. However, high quality of the research is not the unique criteria for a successful application: information asymmetries, policy agenda, relevance for the industrial companies, academic reputation of the applicant and other factors play a role as well. In such a system some high-quality research projects might remain underestimated and, consequently, underfunded due to semi-transparent funding processes.
Blockchain based Value Propositions
Many teams are working on Blockchain based solution, and a great number of them came to Vienna to from various countries like South Korea, Austria, USA and Australia. While the proofs of concepts presented varied in their solution process, the value propositions addressed shared some common features like:
- Transparency & Efficiency
Blockchain technology allows for more transparent, instantly accessible, time efficient solutions for scientific collaboration.
- Rewarding Contribution through Tokenized Inventives
Inclusion of economics and reputational incentives in the Blockchain protocol; Development of reward mechanisms based on (own) cryptocurrency to proper compensate any forms of academic activities, including peer reviews, for example;
- Seamless Communication
Seamless communication and integration of all stakeholders of scientific publishing process: researchers, institutions, publishers and funders — on the Blockchain-based platform, covering of all three pillars of academic research — collaboration, funding and publishing.
- Tamper Proof Scientific Process
No possibility for manipulation of scientific results in order to fill the criteria for publication in a particular journal. All the results, including, for example, negative results of the experiment, are published and cannot be modified.
- Fair Funding Processes
Giving the opportunity for any scientist, regardless of his career status, to receive proper funding for a particular research project.
Who are the Players?
Scienceroots, based in Vienna, wants to create the transparent and efficient platform where anyone can contribute to research landscape by publishing the results, apply for funding, reviewing papers. The plan to build on top of the Waves Blockchain and issue their own cryptocurrency, the ‘science token’. The three key elements are: (a) a decentralized open access collaboration platform; (b) funding and job platform; (c ) a Blockchain-based ‘Scienceroot Journal’ where all the scientific results, regardless of the outcome, might be published and rewarded.
The mission of Pluto from South Korea is “to make scholarly communication efficient, reasonable and transparent, decentralizing the system from potential control of any single party” by using the a combination of Ethereum and IPFS (Interplanetary File System) to store all the papers, reviews, surveys and other information sent to the platform. Unique identifier such as Digital Object Identifier is assigned for each piece of information. The showcase of the latest features of Pluto project was complemented with presentation about ongoing research on clustering journal papers on Scinapse.
Boston-based Artifacts wants to integrate not only scientific papers, but also all representations of scientific research that usually remain unpublished in a traditional system. Such ‘artifacts’ include presentations, data sets, study designs, posters, manuscripts, grant applications, and published papers. “Science is much more than articles in scientific journals, and blockchain offers a solution to integrate all the artifacts produced by scientist”, sain one of the founders in their pitch.
The international team that stands behind DEIP — Decentralized Research Platform, is currently developing an economic model to ensure public and tokenized research funding and assessment with following tokens: DEIP token, DEIP common, DEIP gravity, Research token and Research Group token. A DEIP token represents a main transferable liquid token of the platform and a financial incentive for any activities aimed at protocol support and contribution to research. A DEIP common is a token being issued for new users to enable them to use the platform free of charge. A DEIP common can be converted into DEIP token in 10 weeks time. A DEIP gravity is an ‘expert token’, a type of the reputation token, which reflects the proficiency and expertise of the researcher. Research Group tokens are owned by the scientists of the particular group and can be distributed only among members of this group.
Frankl from Australia helps researchers to collect, store, and share the data using Blockchain technologies. In his skype talk during the second day of Unconference, the team member of Frankl focused on the cryptocurrency airdrop for scientists and told about their first project — development and managing data from cognitive assessment tests for autistic people. The data from these tests will be stored on Blockchain, allowing for data sharing for research while maintaining privacy of the tested people using encryption.
Summary & Next Steps
Most of the startups are still in their early stages, building first proof of concepts. A lot of their solutions build on initiatives and ideas of Science 2.0, Open Science, Open Data, Open Peer-review, but are now using Blickclain, DLTs and the Token Economy to take these ideas to the next level, sometimes maybe even leveraging the hype around this technology to push ideas that have been around for a long time. The follow up twin symposium in Zurich brought the blockchain for science community closer together and resulted in the formation of the International Society of Blockchain for Science. There is a lot of potential, however, while all teams have interesting concepts and show great enthusiasm, their ideas need to be verified in the next steps of building prototypes and a community around the suggested solutions. There is no one size fits all solution to many of the problems, as each scientific community has their own intricacies and different pain points. These pain points need to be addressed in a differentiated ways. Furthermore, a lot of those pain points are not technological problems and it remain to be seen what blockchain technology can really do for the community.
Video of conference talks: here
List of all blockchain for science project (not all of them attended the conference)
Digital Science Report “Blockchain for Research”, Joris van Rossum
A Decentralized Publication System for Open Science using Blockchain and IPFS, Tenorio-Fornes et al.