If the open flow of scientific information is a fundamental part of science, then the scientific community is in trouble. Academic publishers, which dominate scientific publishing, reap great financial rewards from the work done by scientists, who are often frustrated and handcuffed by the process. I believe that blockchain technology, if harnessed correctly, can enable the change the industry sorely needs. This instrument of transparency can return the power of science to scientists, giving them unprecedented levels of control over their work.
A Deutsche Bank report once described the “bizarre triple-pay system” of scientific publishing. It works like this: Scientists, funded by governments out of taxpayers’ dollars, do research and write articles about it under their own direction, and then give them to publishers for free. Although publishers pay scientific editors to review those articles, most of the work, such as the peer-review process of checking scientific validity and evaluating experiments, is done by scientist volunteers. Publishers then sell the articles to government-funded institutions, universities, and individuals at exorbitant prices, to be read by scientists, who are the ones who created those articles in the first place.
This is a flawed industry landscape, largely controlled by an oligopolistic status quo.
In 1973, the five major publishers of natural and medical sciences (Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, and Sage) accounted for little more than 20 percent of all papers published in those domains. By 2013, their share had increased to 53 percent. The limited competition in the publishing industry affords these publishers too much control over subscription fees. For example, the profit margin of Elsevier eclipses those of huge technology companies such as Google, Amazon, and Apple. Let that sink in for a minute.
The current nature of the industry breeds several problems that affect the research community: the high cost of accessing academic research, copyrights held by publishers instead of authors, lack of rewards and recognition for reviewers, and a proliferation of low-quality journals. Another major issue confronting the sector is the protracted and sometimes biased publication and peer-review processes, in which scholarly journals often allow authors to suggest potential reviewers, making it incredibly easy to game the system and acquire prompt and glowing reviews.
I believe that these issues can be addressed through a full-scale industry embrace of blockchain technology. I believe this so strongly that I co-founded Orvium, the first company to provide an open source and decentralized framework for managing scholarly publications.
Blockchain technology would make it possible to build an infrastructure that enables open, trustworthy, decentralized, and collaborative environments that let researchers submit their work into the public record, with the wider scientific community able to control how those records are amended and updated.
Blockchain in action
Say I just completed a paper on off-target effects of using CRISPR to treat sickle cell disease. Publishing it with blockchain would work like this: Using a browser, I upload the report to a blockchain-based publishing platform. Using an Open Researcher and Contributor ID (ORCID), which provides a persistent digital identifier, I can distinguish myself from other users on the platform. ORCID also provides a public sign-in mechanism that is perfect for dealing with researcher IDs.
Blockchain technology would enable my manuscript to be available from the moment it is submitted, creating an independent, decentralized, and immutable time-stamped proof of existence, authorship, and ownership.
Third-party companies have made huge profits from the work of scientists for many years, selling journals and reprints to a variety of institutions. In blockchain-powered scientific publishing, researchers would control whether or not institutions are required to pay to use their work, while making it freely available to the public and researchers alike, if they so wish.
Using blockchain technology, the entire editorial history and research quality of a manuscript could be evaluated continuously. If manuscripts are available from the moment they are submitted, even in early draft status, then the cumbersome process of re-submitting research would be eliminated and the dissemination of manuscripts would be greatly accelerated.
Accelerating review; sparking new discoveries
Despite major advances in information technologies, the time from submission of a manuscript to publication is a protracted and complicated process, averaging 12 months between submission and publication. On average, 17 weeks of this time is taken up solely by the peer-review process. By creating incentives to contribute to peer review through tokenised economic and reputational rewards, harnessing the power of blockchain technology can greatly accelerate the speed with which the academic review process takes place, fundamentally changing the academic publishing landscape as we know it.
Blockchain technology also opens the door to more discoveries through the empowerment of scientists. I believe that recognizing and rewarding the scientific community for its role in the peer-review process will provide incentives for more researchers to become active, participative, and opinionated. By establishing a decentralized and competitive market, blockchain can help align goals and incentives for researchers, funding agencies, academic institutions, publishers, corporations and governments.
Blockchain-based publishing would let authors retain ownership of their work through what are called non-fungible assets. These are mechanisms to define and store in the blockchain items like copyrights, academic degrees, and certificates. A non-fungible token is a special type of cryptographic token that represents a unique and non-interchangeable asset. Unlike cryptocurrencies or utility tokens that are tradable between users, non-interchangeable assets are used to represent copyrights or licenses owned by the authors of the research or the license acquirers.
Think of these tokens as digital versions of cloakroom tickets. Each is issued by a cloakroom clerk and redeemable only for your coat. The underlying item is an agreement, product, or service.
These changes will take time, but they’ve already begun. Orvium is in the process of building a blockchain-based scientific publishing platform. We aren’t alone. Others like Pluto Network, Scienceroot, Code for Science, and Open Science Organization are helping create decentralized ecosystems that will revolutionize access to scientific knowledge. By leveraging and integrating cutting-edge technologies, these companies are working to create platforms to process, validate, and disseminate research data and results.
We all share the goal of challenging the status quo of elite publishers, establishing a transparent, comprehensive, and competitive business model to earn modest revenues while supporting global research, and putting power firmly back in the hands of researchers.
Blockchain-based publishers can’t revolutionize the system alone. That will require a more concerted effort among the academic publishing sector as a whole. Researchers, funding agencies, academic institutions, publishers, corporations, and governments working together will be needed to deliver a fairer, more transparent, and competitive market controlled by the entire community, free of biased oligopolies and hidden interests.
Blockchain-based publishing, once little more than a lofty ambition, can level the playing field in scientific publishing and give researchers and research institutions full control over the life cycle of scholarly publications. I envision a future where researchers are free to establish the terms and prices for the rights to print, redistribute, download, translate, and re-use their work. With blockchain enabling more efficient and groundbreaking scientific research, we are on the cusp of a new, dynamic, and transparent academic publishing landscape.
Exciting times lie ahead.
Manuel Martin is CEO and co-founder of Orvium.