Scientists and librarians embrace decentralization to fix broken incentives and protect human legacy

Knowledge is vulnerable when centralized, and we have seen it both in the East in censoring of Wikipedia in Turkey, and in the West during whitewashing of climate research data in the aftermath of the US presidential elections. Decentralized technologies are more than a blockchain hype — they leverage otherwise wasted resources on your computers such as empty space on your hard drive or idle computing power. It is not only about providing anonymity to whistleblowers but to anyone who wishes to use freely the technology without being tracked. And it brings the possibility to anyone to benefit financially from this peer-to-peer architecture, and not only the powerful intermediaries.

One of such intermediaries are scientific publishers, who have been openly called out as corruptors of the scientific ecosystem. They feed on scarce governmental funding for basic research, making profits of “producing envelopes without having any idea of the contents”, while researchers do the peer review for free, and yet have to spend thousands of dollars from their research funding to share their work through scientific articles. Later on, to gain access to those outputs, their universities are required to pay millions of dollars to cross paywalls.

As Plan S comes into effect, funding organizations require data management plans, and political situation challenges the resilience of humanity’s body of knowledge, libraries have a chance to reorganize and take back control of the university-funded research outcomes, rather than buy them back from a publisher, who makes insane profit margins of nearly 1 billion dollar a year on it. And as simple problems in science have already been solved and we enter the Science 2.0. era of collaborative efforts to be able to make incremental progress, we may need to stop relying on personal satisfaction and individual’s reputation as currencies for doing research.

To make matters worse, to this day research funding as well as hiring committees wrongly rely on the journal impact factor to judge the quality of individual researcher’s work. Researchers, who face weak prospects for permanent employment due to disproportionate funding, have no choice but to comply and reinforce the metric. This carefully spun web cannot be untangled solo but has to be done collaboratively, taking into account the complexity of science economics, challenges in data management, research assessment metrics and the wobbling marble reputation structure, on which depend both the foreseeable future of individual researchers and the credibility of science as a whole.

We may hope that the resolution comes top-down but it is more likely that it will take a bottom-up approach to decentralize science; to incentivize collaboration and openness, perhaps even provide new ways of funding research projects. But most importantly, to empower the scientific community to be appropriately rewarded for their work. If you paid attention to the latest news, you’ve seen what embracing peer-to-peer networks and blockchain technology has done to a financial system through the back door. Why don’t we do the same with science?

Scientific Ecosystem Experimentation with Decentralization (SEED) is currently making a world-wide call for actors of the research ecosystem — researchers, librarians, funding organizations, publishers, technologists, policy makers and executives — to gather in Davos in February and take action. Through a practical approach of educational conference, interdisciplinary think tank and finally incubator, the organizers hope to build disruptive open source prototypes. Validity Labs, a startup from the Swiss Crypto Valley in Zug, have issued a dedicated team, which will be building not hodling during the incubator, together with renown partners such as ETH Zurich Library Lab.