Blockchain for Science: Part Three - Advanced Peer-to-Peer Systems in Research

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.

An academic librarian by training, Lambert Heller has a background in social sciences. He founded the Open Science Lab at TIB (German National Library of Science and Technology) in 2013, and runs a number of grant projects, some with partners from the Leibniz Research Alliance Science 2.0. Many TIB Open Science Labs efforts are about linked-data-based research information systems (VIVO), as well as communicating/cultivating what “Open Science” is all about. Below, he shares his own views on how and why scholarly objects as well as transactional metadata can and should be taken care of by advanced peer-to-peer systems.

Turning the Client-Server Paradigm Upside-Down

Today, researchers rely on a vast collection of scholarly objects – article PDFs, book chapters, annotations and personal notes, data sets, etc. – to conduct their work, particularly in the social sciences. To get access to these various and sundry objects, they must navigate a number of different platforms, deal with various APIs, interpret differing policies, and comply with divergent business models – a time-wasting and costly problem slowing science, which is prime for a technical solution.

Enter BitTorrent: a de-centralized web communication protocol for peer-to-peer file sharing which can be used to distribute data and files over the internet. Unlike traditional client-server relationships where increased activity slows service, loading gets easier the more people are interested. New protocols like IPFS and DAT also allow for web-like experiences. So, instead of gatekeeping and administrating a database of (open) works on a server, open protocols could be used to make scientific objects available online. The result is more resilient object storage, where privileged access is replaced with permission-less innovation, leveling the playing field for business model innovation.

Facilitating the Exchange of Value with Transparency and Decentralization

Another pain point of today’s research ecosystem is the disconnect between researchers, contributors, and the public, which rarely directly interact. Instead, journal editors or metadata aggregators intermediate, usually through a designated corresponding author who is trusted to answer on behalf of colleagues. This arrangement can lead to quality issues, inaccuracies, and other unnecessary challenges.

But what if researchers involved directly claimed their own contribution to a given piece of work, or their assessment or review of another’s work? Producing a scholarly metadata trail of sorts, blockchain could help researchers do just that, rather than relying on stewards or third parties to make information public. Responsible, efficient governance of the metadata trail may even have the power to set new standards among researchers and publishers, increasing the rigor and accuracy of science.

Blockchain in Action: Educational Certificates

For about three years now, institutions of higher education, such as the MIT Media Lab, or the Open University in UK, have been leveraging blockchain technology to convey certificates or diplomas, putting the autonomy of learners at the forefront. Traditional digital certificates issued by institutions operate under the assumption that the institution itself will endure into the future and remain available and accessible for verification. But very few institutions work this way in practice, being susceptible to and affected by economic, social, and political forces, and as such, change constantly. So, it’s a very important and relevant concept – that you could have immutable, cryptographic proof that you earned that certificate. In this scenario, it’s also completely within control of the learner as to how, when, and why they share their certificate with other people or institutions.

Scholarly Publishing: In Blockchain We Trust

Imagine applying this same blockchain technology model from higher education to peer review – one of the most fundamental processes in academia, central to publishing, tenure, funding, and hiring. We could have an ‘ownerless’ database of the highly valuable research metadata trail, with proof of exchange between peers that are directly controlled by the researchers involved. This is not to say that peer review won’t require facilitation from publishers, but rather that no one particular party is in control over the record of it. Just as the advent of the internet revolutionized science, so too will there be important advances from this new set of peer-to-peer systems and unprivileged scholarly interchange protocols.

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Author: Lambert Heller

With a background in social sciences, Lambert Heller is an academic librarian by training. He founded the Open Science Lab at TIB (the German National Library of Science and Technology) in 2013. He’s running a number of grant projects with his group, some of them with partners from the “Leibniz Research Alliance Science 2.0”. A lot of the TIB Open Science Labs efforts is about Linked-Data-based research information systems (VIVO), as well as communicating/cultivating what “Open Science” is all about. In the webinar, he gives an overview on how and why scholarly objects as well as transactional metadata can and should be taken care of by using P2P systems.
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