Blockchain: Coming to a publisher near you

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Scholarly publishing leaders must show the way in using the technology to solve problems within the industry, writes Darrell Gunter

At a recent scholarly publishing conference the closing segment focused on a panel of industry experts.  The moderator did a wonderful job with her eclectic tapestry of topics and questions for the executive panel with the exception of one... Blockchain. 

After a 45-minute period of great Q&A with the panel of experts, the moderator opened up the Q&A to the audience of roughly 300 people, and the room fell silent. I eventually made my way to the microphone with the first question.

My statements and follow-up question for the panel of experts were as follows:  'I am surprised that after 45 minutes no one on this executive panel has mentioned Blockchain. This concerns me quite a bit as  often times our industry does not assertively support new technologies and that creates a significant lag in the acceptance and ultimately the adoption of new technology.  So, I’m curious, what are your thoughts about Blockchain?'

Just as my Blockchain question fell on deaf ears, it reminded me of the 2001 PSP Annual Conference where there was a session titled 'The E-book: Crouching Dragon or Hidden Tiger?', which debated whether or not all books would be eventually digitised. I was so disappointed and annoyed by the session that I advised the then PSP director that I would not return to the annual conference if PSP continued to pursue topics that discouraged innovation.  My 2014, Against The Grain article1, titled, 'As Worlds Collide – New Trends and Disruptive Technologies', I chronicled this event as it was my opinion that the scholarly publishing industry was slow to adopt digital books because of the PSP session. It is quite understandable for the industry to vet new technologies to ensure that any investment in a new technology would result in a new benefit to the researcher which ultimately supports the industry’s mission.

It is important to note that while the industry was debating whether or not books would be digital, Derk Haank was leading the way by uploading journal backfiles at Elsevier. Then as the CEO of Springer (2006), he digitised their catalogue of books ahead of the other publishers. This was five years after the PSP session that debated whether books would be digital or not! Imagine if this session was titled 'Digital Books Are The Future!' and the panel talked progressively about the benefits of digital books. My guess is that the industry would not have waited five years or more to digitise their books.

With this as a backdrop to my question, the moderator of the executive panel, in jest stated, 'I was hoping that we could get through the conference without mentioning Blockchain'. The audience responded with gentle chuckles then one of the executive panelist responded with the following statement: 'Is this a technology solution in search of a problem?' I am used to hearing this response, since I began my formal education on Blockchain with an MIT course that I completed last fall. It is understandable that the general public does not understand the concept of Blockchain and its potential application(s) to their respective industry.

My response to executive panelist focused on two specific areas where Blockchain could solve real problems within the scholarly publishing industry.  First, in the area of managing the peer review and publishing process more effectively and secondly, protecting the copyright of authors whose papers get rejected and then a similar paper is published a year later. Blockchain’s fundamental general ledger would drive efficiency to the critical path of the publishing activities and could identify all of the parties involved in the process if the participating parties agreed to the disclosures.

After my response, the remaining panelists did not speak further on the topic of Blockchain and I wondered why there was not more discussion.  Could it have been that it was late in the day and the last session of the conference, or that the panelists were ready to depart for their flights or other activities?  Or could it be that if the panelists had more knowledge about Blockchain they would have been able to weigh in on the topic.

Well, my interactions with this executive panel prompted me to write this article in hopes of providing some foundational information about Blockchain and its potential to play a pivotal role in providing strategic innovation to our industry.

There is so much information available about Blockchain, its origin, its applications, capabilities, etc., but here is a pretty good definition of Blockchain. Blockchain is a shared, distributed ledger on which transactions are digitally recorded and linked together so that they provide the entire history or provenance of an asset. A transaction is added to the blockchain only after it has been validated using a consensus protocol, which ensures it is the only version of the truth. Each record is also encrypted to provide an extra layer of security. Blockchain is said to be 'immutable' because the records cannot be changed and transparent because all participants to a trade have access to the same version of the truth.

Now that we have the basic definition for Blockchain out of the way, let’s take a look at a few of the Blockchain projects that are underway in the scholarly publishing industry.
•    Taylor and Francis & Cambridge Univ Press Join Springer Nature - Blockchain for Peer Review
•    IEEE – Blockchain projects for IoT
•    Orvium – Incentivized Peer Review
•    Pluto – High Performance Search Engine
•    ScienceRoot – Blockchain to achieve funding
•    Open Science Organization – Scientific Eco-System

As you can see, there are many great Blockchain initiatives and developments in the scholarly publishing industry. Blockchain is being adopted in other industries as well. JP Morgan Chase Bank announced their establishment of a digital coin for payments and State Farm and USAA joined forces to test Blockchain for auto claims. Our lives are driven by contracts to purchase homes, cars, equipment, to rent apartments and the list goes on. Smart Contracts utilising Blockchain will be quite prevalent as the Blockchain technology emerges over time.

This article from Medium demonstrates the many areas (50) that Blockchain will improve the efficiency, effectiveness and productivity of many industries.  These applications will be developed overtime.  While the internet came about in the early 90’s, we were happy to just connect to URL’s and we never imagined how the web and applications would develop over time. The same will be true of Blockchain. I am placing a proverbial stake in the ground that Blockchain will begin to show an early stage dominance in 2020 and beyond.

The intention of this article is to keenly raise the scholarly publishing industry’s awareness of Blockchain and inspire the many players to give thought to the many opportunities to develop Blockchain applications and improve the workflows and capabilities of the publishing value chain.

We, the leaders in the scholarly publishing industry must accept the responsibility, charge and challenge of defining not if we should adopt a new technology, but ask the question(s) as to how the technology could be of benefit to the publishing industry.  Let us be the leaders who are seeking technology to solve the many problems facing our industry.

References: 1.