Could blockchain unblock science?

The technology has potential to solve some transparency problems, but there are many obstacles to clear first.

COMMENT

29 August 2018

Jon Brock

rico ploeg / Alamy Stock Photo

Could a science journal run on blockchain? And how would it work in practice? These questions were addressed in an August 15 editorial in the journal Semantic Web.

Blockchain is best known as the technology behind cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. In essence, it’s a mechanism for storing multiple copies of the same data across a network of computers. Data can be accessed easily via any computer in the network. It’s resistant to technical failures and censorship. And most important of all, the data are ‘immutable’ - something written to blockchain can’t be unwritten.

Jon Brock

Given these properties, blockchain is finding an increasing number of applications beyond cryptocurrency in contexts where trust between parties is at a premium. Examples include supply chains, voting, and the management of digital assets and identity. The past two years have also seen a growing interest in the application of blockchain to research, with numerous projects around the world addressing different stages of the scientific cycle.

Blockchain for science

The editorial, co-authored by Semantic Web’s chief editors Krzysztof Janowicz and Pascal Hitzler with six other colleagues, lists six possible uses of blockchain for science and scientific research publishing:

  1. Making journal management workflows transparent.
  2. Storing and curating scientific data to improve access and support reproducibility of results.
  3. Connecting researchers to funding sources and allowing researchers to bid for existing proposals.
  4. Managing intellectual property, establishing identity, and preventing fraud.
  5. Making decisions of scientific organisations more transparent and enabling voting on important decisions.
  6. Opening up the algorithms and data sources behind metrics such as impact factors.

In each case, Janowicz and his colleagues note the opportunities afforded by blockchain. But they also acknowledge the practical challenges and potential unintended consequences of technological solutions to what are essentially human problems.

To give one example, a blockchain-based voting mechanism could help allocate research funds to problems that the scientific community as a whole sees as worthwhile. The danger, the editorial suggests, is the exaggeration of existing biases that favour whatever topic is currently popular and marketable.

All data edits permanently visible

Blockchain could also improve the reproducibility of research by facilitating data sharing and helping establish the provenance of data reported in scientific publications:

“In contrast to today’s situation where research teams are often in exclusive control of their data, storing them on a ledger would make all edits permanently visible. Hence, everybody could track what data were used for a scientific publication and whether they have been altered in some way.”

However, as the editorial points out, writing data to blockchain is expensive relative to other forms of data storage. There are also legal and ethical concerns about putting human research data on blockchain. And so blockchain’s role should really be seen in terms of the indexing of data that is stored ‘off-chain’, rather than the actual storage of scientific data, as I have argued here.

Increased workflow transparency

The main focus of the editorial, however, is scientific publication. Janowicz and colleagues imagine a journal workflow controlled by ‘smart contracts’ (programs written to blockchain) and incentivised by a cryptocurrency token similar to Bitcoin but dedicated to scientific publishing. Authors pay in tokens at submission of their article and reviewers and editors receive them as reward.

The concept is similar to a number of existing proposals and, the editorial argues, has several advantages over traditional journal operations:

“The presented workflow increases transparency in multiple ways, rewards editors and reviewers for their work, allows authors that would not be able to pay for (open access) publications to participate by using coins received from reviewing, manages timestamps and deadlines, and so on.”

But again the editorial highlights some potential unintended consequences. For example, depending on how the rewards were structured, reviewers might be incentivised to give overly positive or negative reviews or, alternatively, request unnecessary rounds of revision. One solution, Janowicz and colleagues suggest, is for rewards to be distributed via a lottery mechanism rather than being directly linked to individual reviewer actions.

A scientific economy built around tokens

Another concern is that the cost of submission and the value of rewards for reviewers will vary due to fluctuation in the value of the token relative to traditional fiat currencies such as the US dollar. However, in my view this may become less of an issue as a scientific “economy” grows around the token. If individual scientists can assume the role of author, reviewer, and editor at different times, and if the token gains other utilities, there’s less of an incentive to immediately exchange token rewards for fiat. The challenge, of course, will be getting to that point.

The Semantic Web editorial serves an important purpose in articulating both the potential of blockchain-based journals and some of the obstacles that may lie ahead. Janowicz et al. are optimistic that these challenges are addressable via “a consensus process developed together with a broad base of researchers, publishers, and funding agencies.”

It’s also worth putting the challenges in context. The growing interest in scientific applications of blockchain is motivated by long-standing concerns over the reliability and transparency of contemporary science and the inequities of the academic publishing industry.

Certainly we should beware the hype that currently surrounds blockchain. It’s important to consider for each problem whether blockchain is the most appropriate solution. That being said, there is, in the words of John Wolpert of blockchain tech company Consensys, an “odd utility” to the hype cycle. Perhaps blockchain can be the catalyst that allows the scientific community to address problems that could and should have been resolved a long time ago.

Dr Jon Brock is co-founder of Frankl, an open science project on the Ethereum blockchain. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on the Frankl blog.

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