Blockchain seems to be the word of the moment — both in scholarly communications and elsewhere. And it elicits strong opinions, both positive and negative, even though many of us aren’t completely sure what it is! Is it really going to transform scholarly communications, or is it just another flash in the pan?
In the description of their PIDapalooza presentation on the topic, Geoffrey Bilder (Crossref) and Martin Fenner (DataCite) put it like this: “In the past, at least one of us has threatened to stab himself in the eyeball if he was forced to have the discussion [about blockchain] again. But the dirty little secret is that we play this game ourselves. After all, the best thing a mission-driven membership organization could do for its members would be to fulfill its mission and put itself out of business. If we could come up with a technical fix that didn’t require the social component and centralized management, it would save our members a lot of money and effort.”
In this interview, Joris van Rossum (Director of Special Projects, Digital Science) and author of Blockchain for Research, and Martijn Roelandse (Head of Publishing Innovation, Springer Nature), discuss blockchain in scholarly communications, including the recently launched Peer Review Blockchain initiative (disclaimer: my organization, ORCID, is also involved in the initiative).
How would you describe blockchain in one sentence?
Joris: Blockchain is a technology for decentralized, self-regulating data which can be managed and organized in a revolutionary new way: open, permanent, verified and shared, without the need of a central authority.
How does it work (in layman’s language!)?
Joris: In a regular database you need a gatekeeper to ensure that whatever is stored in a database (financial transactions, but this could be anything) is valid. However with blockchain, trust is not created by means of a curator, but through consensus mechanisms and cryptographic techniques. Consensus mechanisms clearly define what new information is allowed to be added to the datastore. With the help of a technology called hashing, it is not possible to change any existing data without this being detected by others. And through cryptography, the database can be shared without real identities being revealed. So the blockchain technology removes the need for a middle-man.
How is this relevant to scholarly communication?
Joris: It’s very relevant. We’ve explored the possibilities and initiatives in a report published by Digital Science. The blockchain could be applied on several levels, which is reflected in a number of initiatives announced recently. For example, a cryptocurrency for science could be developed. This ‘bitcoin for science’ could introduce a monetary reward scheme to researchers, such as for peer review. Another relevant area, specifically for publishers, is digital rights management. The potential for this was picked up by this blog at a very early stage. Blockchain also allows publishers to easily integrate micropayments, thereby creating a potentially interesting business model alongside open access and subscriptions.
Moreover, blockchain as a datastore with no central owner where information can be stored pseudonymously could support the creation of a shared and authoritative database of scientific events. Here traditional activities such as publications and citations could be stored, along with currently opaque and unrecognized activities, such as peer review. A data store incorporating all scientific events would make science more transparent and reproducible, and allow for more comprehensive and reliable metrics.
But do you need a blockchain to build this datastore?
Joris: In principle, no, but building such a central store with traditional technology would imply the need for a single owner and curator, and this is problematic. Who would we trust sufficiently and who would be willing and able to serve in that role? The unique thing about the blockchain is that you could build this database without a single gatekeeper — trust is created through technology. Moreover, through cryptography you can effectively manage crucial aspects such as access, anonymity, and confidentiality.
Why is blockchain so divisive — both in scholarly communication and more widely? Why do some people love it and some hate it?
Joris: I guess because of blockchain’s place in the hype cycle. Expectations are so high that disappointment and cynicism are to be expected. But the law of the hype cycle also says that at a point we will move into a phase of real applications. So we believe this is the time to discuss the direction as a community, and start experimenting with blockchain in scholarly communication.
Martijn: In addition, bitcoin, built on top of blockchain technique, is commonly associated with black markets and money laundering, and hasn’t built up a good reputation. Blockchain, however, is so much more than bitcoin. Blockchain for business does not require any mining of cryptocurrencies or any energy absorbing hardware. In the words of Sally Davies, FT Technology Reporter, “[Blockchain] is to Bitcoin, what the internet is to email. A big electronic system, on top of which you can build applications. Currency is just one.” Currently, blockchain is already much more diverse and is used in retail, insurance, manufacturing etc.
How do you see developments in the industry regarding blockchain?
Joris: In the last couple of months we’ve seen the launch of many interesting initiatives. For example scienceroot.com. Pluto.network, and orvium.io. These are all ambitious projects incorporating many of the potential applications of blockchain in the industry, and to an extent aim to disrupt the current ecosystem. Recently artifacts.ai was announced, an interesting initiative that aims to allow researchers to permanently document every stage of the research process. However, we believe that traditional players, and not least publishers, should also look at how services to researchers can be improved using blockchain technology. There are challenges (e.g. around reproducibility and peer review) but that does not necessarily mean the entire ecosystem needs to be overhauled. In fact, in academic publishing we have a good track record of incorporating new technologies and using them to improve our role in scholarly communication. In other words, we should fix the system, not break it!
What is the Peer Review Blockchain initiative, and why did you join?
Martijn: The problems of research reproducibility, recognition of reviewers, and the rising burden of the review process, as research volumes increase each year, have led to a challenging landscape for scholarly communications. There is an urgent need for change to tackle the problems which is why we joined this initiative, to be able to take a step forward towards a fairer and more transparent ecosystem for peer review. The initiative aims to look at practical solutions that leverage the distributed registry and smart contract elements of blockchain technologies. Each of the parties can deposit peer review activity in the blockchain — depending on peer review type, either partially or fully encrypted — and subsequent activity is also deposited in the reviewer’s ORCID profile. These business transactions — depositing peer review activity against person x — will be verifiable and auditable, thereby increasing transparency and reducing the risk of manipulation. Through the shared processes we will setup with other publishers, and recordkeeping, trust will increase.
A separate trend we see is the broadening scope of research evaluation which triggered researchers to also get (more) recognition for their peer review work, beyond citations and altmetrics. At a later stage new applications could be built on top of the peer review blockchain.
When are current priorities, and when can we expect the first results?
Martijn: The envisioned end-game for this initiative is a platform where all our review activity is deposited in a blockchain that is not owned by one single commercial entity but rather by the initiative (currently consisting of Springer Nature, Digital Science, ORCID), and maintained by an Amsterdam-based startup called Katalysis.io. A construction that is to an extent similar in setup to Crossref.
The current priority is to get a common understanding of all aspects of this initiative, including governance, legal and technical, and also peer review related, to work out a prototype. We are optimistic this will be ready by September of this year. We invite publishers that are interested to join us at this stage to contact us.
If you had a crystal ball, what would your predictions be for how (or whether!) blockchain will be used in scholarly communication in 5-10 years time?
Joris: I would hope that peer review in the blockchain will have established itself firmly in the scholarly communication landscape in three years from now. And that we will have started more initiatives using the blockchain, for example those around increasing the reproducibility of research. I also believe there is great potential for digital rights management, possibly in combination with new business models based on micropayments. But, this will take more time I suspect.
Martijn: I agree with Joris, I hope our peer review initiative will be be embraced by many publishers by then and have helped researchers in their quest for recognition for peer review work. At the same time, I think there is more to come in the blockchain space as it has the potential to change the scholarly publishing industry, and solve many of its current day challenges by making processes more transparent and traceable.
* Perhaps not quite everything!