Blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin, offers a peer-to-peer network for trust that potentially can disintermediate traditional brokering authorities like banks, notaries – and perhaps even publishers. Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) and the International Council for Scientific and Technical Information (ICSTI) hosted a webinar led by industry experts to investigate what opportunities blockchain has to offer in the scholarly publishing world.

Panelist Joris van Rossum, Director of Special Projects at Digital Science, recently authored a research report investigating the new possibilities of blockchain. Below, Joris shares his own views on the ways blockchain could be a game changer in the ecosystem of scholarly publishing.

Scholarly Communications: A Challenging Landscape Ripe for Change

Within the academic publishing ecosystem, there are a number of fundamental challenges with which all stakeholders wrestle in some capacity. The deficient state of research reproducibility impacts publishers, authors, funders, and institutions. Integral to the core values of scholarship and the efficiency of acquiring knowledge, reproducibility is central to rigorous scholarly communication, and yet current practices, methods, and models hinder it significantly.

In a similar way, the community also suffers from poor transparency into the peer review process, along with a lack of recognition for the fundamental and important work done by reviewers. Metrics for evaluating research and researchers, largely directed by the original constraints of print publishing, are also limited and outdated.

In a more macroscopic capacity, the industry as a whole is experiencing a commercial crisis of sorts, having yet to hit upon a business model that is sustainable for all parties well into the future.

A Cryptocurrency for Science

So, what is blockchain and how might it prove useful for scholarly communications? The most well-known application of blockchain is, of course, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin – digital assets designed to work as a medium of exchange that use encryption to secure transactions, to control the creation of additional units, and to verify asset transfer.

What if we were to leverage blockchain to create a digital currency specifically for science? How might we use it? Some new organizations, such as Scienceroot, Pluto, and Einsteinium, envision a future in which the academic publishing ecosystem is driven by a closed token-based economy. Publishers, for example, might choose to grant all contributing peer reviewers digital ‘tokens,’ which researchers could then redeem for services, content, or even funding, bringing value and recognition to an exchange that is vital to scholarly communications yet currently asymmetrical.

From Information to Value

Another key feature of blockchain technology is that it excels at establishing ownership and preventing duplication – functions just as pertinent to banking as to scholarly communications. In the area of data rights management (DRM) for example, blockchain is well positioned to automate rights and permissions management, including the payment of royalties, when combined with smart contracts.

In this same vein, blockchain also opens the way for new business models apart from subscriptions, tokens, and open access, by making direct micropayments between two parties very easy. This new reality might look something like researchers paying small fees directly to publishers for each research article they download.

The Promise of a Single Science Repository

At a more fundamental level, blockchain is about data storage – but a very special variety. Unlike many other mechanisms we have today, blockchain is de-centralized and distributed, meaning that no one particular entity owns or controls it. Instead of a server in your office, or a system maintained in the cloud, data is divided into small pieces and scattered over a vast network. Hacking becomes nearly impossible, because there is no single point of entry. Data held in blockchain is also immutable and transparent while simultaneously remaining pseudonymous – a perfect foundation for a singular scientific data store. A data trail of research, from the point of submission all the way through to subsequent citation in other works, would enable the protection of IP and assignment of credit, the development of more sophisticated research evaluation metrics, and enhance reproducibility.

Taking Action

A handful of players are already hard at work to capture the potential blockchain has for the research process. ARTiFACTS, a new start-up, is tackling this concept of a “ledger of record for research,” that traces all transactions and linkages across all research artifacts, published or pre-published. Similarly, a collaborative effort between Springer Nature, Aries Editorial Manager, Katalysis, and ORCiD, known as the Peer Review Blockchain Initiative, initiative aims to look at practical solutions that leverage the distributed registry and smart contract elements of blockchain technologies. Later phases aim to establish a consortium of organizations committed to working together to solve scholarly communications challenges that center around peer review.


Author: Joris van Rossum

Joris van Rossum is a publishing consultant and entrepreneur with a long background in STM Publishing. Currently he’s the director of Special Projects at Digital Science. Joris recently wrote a research report for Digital Science Inc, investigating the new possibilities of Blockchain.
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