Blockchain and STM — a marriage made in heaven?

Two weeks ago, in our blog post the AI Elephant in the room, we welcomed the fact that blockchain was to be discussed at the London Book Fair for the very first time. This week, as the crowds descend upon Philadelphia for the STM US Annual Conference, blockchain is once again on the menu, however, less as a starter and more as a main course. This is the second year running that the STM Association has featured the topic in its conference programme, and it follows a similar session at the APE Conference in January where it was also on the agenda.

It perhaps comes as little surprise that the STM sector is somewhat ahead of the curve on conversations around blockchain innovation. Whether STM is riper for disruption, open to change, or just more in need of it remains to be seen, but over recent years, in spite of many bemoaning slow rates of change and adoption, we’ve witnessed a great deal of effort go into transformational technology in STM, specifically in areas like Open Access, discoverability, metrics and impact measurement, and peer review.

So why is blockchain such a hot topic in STM right now? What kind of blockchain innovations can we expect to see? And how does the industry stand to gain from them?

It’s all about trust

The fact that STM had a head-start on blockchain may quite simply point to a greater need for it. In October 2017, publishers took academic social networking site ResearchGate to court for mass scale copyright infringement. It was the most recent in a long line of high profile cases which have highlighted the flaws in a system still grappling with the new normal of Open Access, social media and big data.

The industry is plagued with disputes around ownership, provenance, authenticity and credibility, and battles are regularly fought around the plagiarism and misappropriation of scientific endeavours. STM’s history of trust issues, who-said-what clashes and copyright court cases, makes it the perfect stomping ground for blockchain technologies. Whether new industry-wide initiatives driven by blockchain are rolled out or companies start to embed parts of blockchain technology as part of their individual ecosystems, scholarly communication could undoubtedly benefit from unequivocal, time-stamped records for every submission, citation, edit or transaction taking place along the chain. If any industry could do with a “Network of trust”, which is what the STM Association is billing blockchain, it’s STM.

Another area of STM publishing where many are predicting blockchain will make inroads is peer review. Whilst widely considered the bedrock of academic publishing, traditional peer review frequently comes under fire, particularly for slowing down the publishing process. In Blockchain for Research: Perspective on a New Paradigm for Scholarly Communication, a paper published by Dr Joris Van Rossum of Digital Science, he suggests that: “The peer review process could greatly improve through blockchain and data underlying the published results could be made available. This would not only improve reproducibility in general, but also allows reviewers to do their work more thoroughly.”

Meanwhile, as new wave journal publishers, like UK-based Veruscript, seek to reward reviewers in an effort to make the peer review system more efficient and streamlined, there would inevitably be scope to implement Bitcoin type technology to facilitate this process.

Blockchain in action

Last week, Digital Science announced its first round of Blockchain Catalyst grants, which are awarded to “any project implementing blockchain in a scholarly or scientific context, especially those that address the dissemination of research”. The initiative was established to find, support, fund and fly the flag for those using blockchain to innovate within the sector.

The publication of the first two projects to be awarded this grant provided a fascinating insight into where and how we might see blockchain technology applied to research in the not so distant future. Hong Kong-based Datax are developing a data crowdsourcing and exchange platform while VIVO from the US are working on a value recognition tool which rewards and incentivises researchers for their contributions.

Equally exciting is the new pilot initiative from ARTiFACTS, which launches this week, using blockchain to record a “permanent, valid and immutable” chain of records in real time, from research to peer review to post-publication.

Scholarly publishers are also discovering that blockchain can offer plenty of benefits in terms of helping them fine-tune and automate day-to-day processes. In a business like STM journal publishing, where a publisher is likely to have a range of journals to manage, with multiple articles and papers on the go, and teams of staff working across editorial and production, blockchain can offer a lifeline when it comes to version control, providing clarity on ownership and navigating digital rights management.

In the world of STM, blockchain makes perfect sense. There are several very obvious areas where this technology could be applied to great effect while making a huge impact and not necessarily forcing scholarly publishers to reinvent the wheel. It’s refreshing to see new initiatives incorporating blockchain being trialled, while others are in the works, and perhaps unsurprising to see STM as the market sector forging ahead and testing the waters before others.

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