What is blockchain for research?

Jon Treadway (pictured) and Joris Van Rossum explain Digital Science's new report, Blockchain for Research: Perspectives on a New Paradigm for Scholarly Communication, exploring the  impact the technology could have on scholarly communication and research

Digital Science has recently published a new report,Blockchain for Research: Perspectives on a New Paradigm for Scholarly Communication. The report explores the potential impact blockchain could have on scholarly communication and research.   

Blockchain technology has the potential to transform research, and in particular scholarly communication. It allows data to be stored in an open, decentralised database, without any central authority. As the technology progresses and is adopted, some of the familiar challenges facing research – transparency, accessibility, reproducibility and assignment of credit – may become solvable.

There are hundreds of blockchain initiatives, but the best known is the digital cryptocurrency, or crypto asset, Bitcoin.  Financial transactions are conducted using bitcoins and broadcast to the peer-to-peer network. A ledger of all historic transactions is created and shared. Ethereum is another well-known example - it is broader than a financial transaction system and runs smart contracts that are safeguarded from any other third-party interference. Developers are able to build applications on top of the infrastructure.

Blockchain for Science’, a think tank founded by Dr. Soenke Bartling, aims to ‘open up science and knowledge creation by means of the blockchain (r)evolution’. The organisation maintains a living document collecting ideas on how blockchain could open up science and knowledge creation.

According to Bartling, the use of blockchain in research instead of working on separate, disconnected systems would bring significant advantages to researchers. It would make larger parts of the research cycle open to self-correction, and could be a new potential to addressing the reproducibility and credibility crisis as well as reducing overhead. The team proposes an array of applications for the blockchain within science, including:

  • Automatically uploading, time-stamping and where necessary, encrypting research data;
  • Speeding up the research workflow and reducing error;
  • Providing a notarisation function by allowing researchers to post a text or file with ideas, results or simply data;
  • Registering study designs using the blockchain;
  • Smart contracts could be used so that research protocols are set in ‘blockchain stone’ before data is collected, and processing and analysis would be automated; and
  • The peer review process could greatly improve through the blockchain and data underlying the published results could be made available.   

Bartling argues that the blockchain 'bears the unique chance to realign science’s incentive structures with honesty, effectiveness, collaboration and true inventiveness'.

The blockchain could change the business model underlying the dissemination of research articles. The subscription model and open access, the current dominant business models, each come with disadvantages. Access and usage could be granted with micropayments on a blockchain, and this would be a different, and possibly sustainable model.

Research on the blockchain could also have an impact on the way researchers build their reputation. Whenever a researcher creates data, performs statistical analysis, writes an article or reviews a manuscript, it could be automatically tracked and recorded. This would allow for more sophisticated and reliable metrics.  A reform of academic endorsement is proposed in the manifesto ‘Towards Open Science: The Case for a Decentralized Autonomous Endorsement System’, published anonymously.  An academic endorsement system (AES) is put forward built on the blockchain, based on academic endorsement points (AEP), which can be used to reward work worthy of validation. Researchers whose output is endorsed to a high degree obtain more points, and thus greater influence in the community. Any research output or contribution – blogposts, data sets, software etc – could in theory be be recorded and endorsed instantaneously. Significantly faster than the time it takes for citation metrics to accrue, at least. But this is just one of the possibilities.

Research appears to be highly amenable to the blockchain but any new technology is susceptible to hype and overstatement of its potential impact. In the article ‘Do you really need a blockchain for that’, a checklist is presented to determine whether a blockchain really is a solution, or whether improvements could be achieved without it.

So will research and scholarly communication eventually take place on the blockchain?

In light of its potential to solve challenges in the  current ecosystem, it is tempting to predict that scholarly communication and other research activities will eventually take place on the blockchain.

However, science has evolved over hundreds of years, and with its history comes a significant amount of legacy in technology, systems, organisation as well as culture. This legacy makes any change difficult, despite the challenges associated with the current system.

Moreover, there is an aspect of blockchain that makes a transition to this technology even more challenging. Adopting a blockchain for research successfully implies that it is adopted widely, and this requires a fundamental transformation at the level of funders, institutions, publishers, as well as researchers themselves, which increases the level of change required.

The likelihood and success of a blockchain for scholarly communication also depends on its level of implementation. For example, information stored on the blockchain could be restricted to traditional researcher roles, publications and use of content (e.g. authorship of scientific articles, usage and citations). But it could also reward unconventional roles and affect wider aspects of the research workflow including peer review, publication of datasets, hypotheses, etc., which would increase the level of complexity. The blockchain, however, could have an even broader scope, transcending scholarly communication. Lab equipment and resources could be shared amongst research groups using the blockchain, with aspects such as credit or financial compensation being managed through the platform. Funding could also take place using a blockchain, and spending could be tracked and made transparent.

Whether scholarly communication takes place on a blockchain will also depend on developments in adjacent fields. In education, for example, blockchain developments are moving at a faster pace. Blockcerts, developed by MIT’s Media Lab and Learning Machine, is an open initiative that has introduced verifiable blockchain-based certificates for academic credentials (amongst others).

Another example is Sony, which announced in the summer of 2017 that it has finished developing a digital system for storing and managing educational records on the blockchain  Obviously there is an overlap between an educational record and the academic record of a scientist, so it is possible that developments in education may speed up the development of a blockchain in research as well.

Jon Treadway is chief operating officer at Digital Science; Joris Van Rossum is Digital Science’s director of special projects

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