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Technology behind bitcoin could aid science, report says

1 December 2017

The decentralized platform known as blockchain has the potential to increase transparency and change the funding model of journal publishers.

Blockchain, the technology behind the popular digital currency bitcoin, has the potential to transform research and the science publishing landscape. That’s the conclusion of a 28 November report released by the research technology firm Digital Science. By providing a decentralized platform with self-regulating data, blockchain could solve thorny problems concerning such issues as research reproducibility and authorship credit, the report says. However, the technology has drawbacks, and some observers are skeptical of its use in science.

Blockchain is essentially a shared database that allows secure storage of verified and encrypted digital information. Each parcel, or block, of data contains links to the previous block, and this produces a digital chronology of events. Whereas most databases are hosted by a single entity, such as a bank, all the information in a blockchain is stored in every computer in the network. Corrupted records that differ from others around the world are removed, which makes it easier to track fraud.

The new report, authored by Digital Science’s director of special projects, Joris Van Rossum, argues that blockchain could increase the transparency of every step of the research process. Even at preliminary stages, scientists could have their notes and data automatically updated to blockchains, which would make it easier to later receive credit for ideas. Those uploads would speed up research and make it more reproducible, the report argues, since the time-stamped data would be available for other scientists to see. And disseminating data regardless of an experiment’s outcome could reduce the impact of publication bias, journals’ tendency to favor positive over negative results. Blockchain may also improve the way credit is shared among the members of a research team. The contributions of everyone involved, from the postdoctoral researcher who designed an experiment to the undergraduate who conducted a statistical analysis, would be traceable online.

Potential benefits of blockchain
Using blockchain throughout the research process (pink line) could make science more open, according to a new report. Credit: Soenke Bartling, CC BY

Blockchain could also redefine the relationship between journals and the researchers who read and contribute to them, the report says. Many academic publishers have had trouble finding a sustainable business model; both subscription publishing, in which readers pay to access paywalled content, and open access, in which authors pay to publish content that is free to read, have problems. But micropayments made via blockchain, using what amounts to a bitcoin for research, might be a fairer and more sustainable model, the report suggests. Publishers could, for instance, use the cryptocurrency to charge users for accessing content, while researchers could earn digital money for conducting peer review.

The benefits of recording all research activities with blockchains come at the price of generating enormous amounts of data that have to be stored. “If not absolutely necessary, blockchains should be avoided,” says Daniel Himmelstein, a data scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Blockchains are “extremely inefficient” compared with centralized databases, he argues, and can become difficult to change or upgrade once deployed.

Several applications of blockchain that focus on disseminating content already exist, including the Swiss-based platform DECENT, Boston-based LBRY, and Amsterdam-based Katalysis. Earlier this month, PLUTO, a nonprofit blockchain initiative in Seoul, South Korea, released a proof-of-concept prototype of a product that allows users to share and rate articles. Papers are scored on four criteria: originality, significance, validity, and organization. Referees can leave textual reviews alongside their evaluation scores. Also, each user has a reputation score, which is earned as a reward for activity on the platform.

In the future, Van Rossum envisions blockchain working in sync with the current publishing system, not instead of it. Digital Science is offering a $30 000 catalyst grant for an existing blockchain technology or a new idea that can be applied to academic publishing.

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