I first heard of blockchain technology at a conference in 2017 when Christopher Wilmer, Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and Managing Editor of Ledger,  gave a presentation on the technology. While he did mention Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies with which the technology was originally associated, Wilmer’s talk explained how his journal uses blockchain for proof-of-publication. He commented that as a data-storage mechanism, “blockchains are well-suited to be used in scholarly publishing because they are extremely resilient, tamper-proof, practically indestructible databases; there is no single point of failure or cost of operation; and there is an incontrovertible proof-of-publication date, even across countries and institutions whose incentives are not aligned (which is sometimes a point of contention for scientists racing to discover cure/new theorem/etc.)” .
Fast forward a year later and the momentum of blockchain’s adoption was beginning to become apparent. At the 2018 NFAIS Annual Conference it was announced that a pilot project was soon to be initiated for the development of a protocol where information about peer review activities (submitted by publishers) would be stored on a blockchain. This would allow the review process to be independently validated, and data to be fed to relevant vehicles to ensure recognition and validation for reviewers—more about this later.
By that time I had become totally fascinated by the technology and the fact that it was being used outside of the financial realm—and equally curious to learn more about the technology—what it was and how it could be used as part of the process of scientific research and communication. So what is Blockchain Technology?
What is Blockchain Technology?
According to a recent report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), “Blockchains are immutable digital ledger systems implemented in a distributed fashion (i.e., without a central repository) and usually without a central authority. At its most basic level, they enable a community of users to record transactions in a ledger public to that community such that no transaction can be changed once published.” That same publication concluded that “The use of blockchains is still in its early stages, but it is built on widely-understood and sound cryptographic principles. Moving forward, it is likely that blockchains will be another tool that can be used to solve newer sets of problems… ”.
The technology has the potential to dramatically improve the storage and tracking of such things as intellectual property/patents, health records, social security information, land titles, international borders, stocks/bonds/debts, and money (i.e., Bitcoin). Blockchain technology is a bit of a dichotomy. On the one hand it is not a new technology; rather it is an innovative way of using existing technologies such as asymmetric key encryption, hash values, Merkle trees , and peer-to-peer networks . But on the other hand, it can be perceived as an emerging technology as its uses are just beginning to be tested worldwide across diverse industries (life sciences, food safety, entertainment, healthcare, government, ethical trading, etc.) with some successes and some failures.
Why has this technology gained momentum in its adoption? According to an article in a recent issue of MIT Technology Review, it is because the technology itself “…is all about creating one priceless asset: Trust ". The article talks about the history of the double-entry book-keeping method that dates back to the fourteenth century. It was established as a reliable record-keeping tool and became an integral part of the business culture. The downside was that it also allowed financial institutions to become powerful middlemen in global finances—something that continues to this day.
The fact is that “trust” is needed in all fields that are “controlled” by middlemen, including scientific communication. And blockchain technology—basically a list of transactions—is believed to hold the promise of trust even for non-financial “transactions.” The following will give you a taste of some current blockchain applications in the area of scientific research.
Blockchain and the Researcher’s Workflow
My initial curiosity about the technology drove me to attend a conference on blockchain for scholarly publishing in 2018 . One of the presentations was on using the technology to manage the first step in the research process—funding. Knowbella Tech (see: www.knowbella.tech), is an organization that has a patented system and methodology for providing a decentralized platform for connecting scientific researchers with funding sources via blockchain technology (see U.S. patent filing number 62/555,989). This platform was described as one that: 1) focuses on connecting members of an open-science community; 2) connects researchers with collaborators and/or funders; 3) generates decentralized electronic contracts; and 4) tracks the progress of research projects and directs payment of funds in awarded tranches.
They use “smart contracts” to manage grants. “Smart contracts” were defined as a computer program that is stored and runs on the blockchain. The contract defines a set of rules and procedures that relate to a binding agreement between parties just like a traditional contract, but unlike its paper counterpart, it can automatically enforce these obligations. An example of one of the smart contract rules with regards to a grant can be when the grant starts, ends, etc., and it was noted that smart contracts can improve grant funding by changing the funding model for Open Science. As researchers are well aware, there are many steps in the grant process, including application submission and review, the selection step, background checks, and ongoing management of the grants that are awarded. KnowbellaTech believes that the use of blockchain both simplifies and speeds-up the process. It also enables scientific collaboration around the globe, allows researchers to share their research immediately, and gives grant funders and applicants direct access to one another.
Managing the Research Process
Another presentation was from ARTiFACTS, a company launched in March of 2018 that is using blockchain technology to build a ledger for research (see: https://artifacts.ai/). They have their own distributed ledger system (blockchain) that individual researchers can use, free of charge, to upload their research findings as they go through the research process from the very beginning all the way through to final publication. By doing so researchers have ultimate proof of their work and when it was done (entries are time-stamped). They can protect and manage their intellectual property while facilitating knowledge sharing, if and when they want to share; and they can get credit at any point for any type of research output—they do not have to wait until their research results are actually published.
ARTiFACTS also provides access and services for the institutions who support and partner with researchers such as universities, funders, publishers, and corporations engaged in research. Importantly for publishers, they make the supplementary research outputs of a paper accessible from the publisher’s platform by delivering the metadata and links connecting these research outcomes to a publishers’ digital production and dissemination systems. The objective is to ultimately create a “deep historical archive of published and discovered findings” that will be accessible to the broader scientific community . It should be noted that in 2019 ARTiFACTS entered into an agreement with the Max Planck Society and the Bloxberg consortium , to create a network infrastructure that is hosted by prominent research institutions spanning multiple countries. The network continues to expand as of this writing as new institutions decide to participate . ARTiFACTS is a growing venture worth following.
There were some interesting and theoretical proposals put forth at the conference regarding both the use of blockchain to allow individuals to “publish” their own research findings as well to participate in the creation of a universal citation index. Jason Griffey, at the time an Affiliate Fellow at Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University, noted that a core attribute of blockchain is the fact that it is a decentralized system and therefore the roles of “middlemen” such as librarians and publishers are at question, for power will no longer reside in traditional places. He noted that currently good provenance is accomplished by the use of metadata that reflects the chain of ownership of files and physical objects. Such use facilitates the tracking of files over time, and it is pretty much under the control of the publishers. But enter blockchain and there now becomes the potential for users to create and control their own identity along with the capability for distributed verification. He described it as a “universal library card” that allows information consumers to own their identity and move between information systems. The “card” would be the means of authentication. Griffey mentioned a year-long project funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) that has the goal of gaining a better understanding of blockchain technology and imagining its potential for small and large, urban and rural libraries and their communities (see: https://ischoolblogs.sjsu.edu/blockchains/). The site has a link to videos that not only explains blockchain technology, but also discusses potential applications—definitely worth a look.
Richard Ford Burley, Deputy Managing Editor, Ledger, spoke on the features and drawbacks of centralized citation indexes (e.g. the Science Citation Index®), ultimately asking whether or not incentives can be leveraged to create a decentralized citation ledger using blockchain technology. He noted that the SCI® is now part of the Web of Science owned by Clarivate Analytics, a large commercial information provider that must be concerned about their bottom line. Therefore, he asserted, economics must come into play when that organization decides what material does or does not get indexed in their services. He said that he understands that journal selectivity is perceived as a necessity for ongoing financial sustainability, but questioned whether it is necessary in light of today’s technology—specifically blockchain. He then went on to describe how a decentralized citation index built on a blockchain might work, with authors themselves inputting the necessary information—not employees of a large organization. He views the potential benefits are that such a system would eliminate the pressure on start-up and smaller journals; create a more accessible ecosystem for data curation businesses; and perhaps offer the potential for more targeted curation for social ends. However, he did say that there are potential issues, for example, dishonest scholars and journals would require mitigation by curators; spam attacks would require “captcha”-like proof-of-humanity or other mitigation techniques; and there would be the need to implement the blockchain and a create a new cryptocurrency or use an existing one such as bitcoin to reward participants. Burley closed by saying that there is a lot of work that would need to be done toward creating a stable, decentralized citation ledger, but such a venture offers very real promise for the future.
Another speaker, Lambert Heller, Head of Open Science Lab, TIB, German National Library of Science and Technology in Hannover, reinforced Griffey’s and Burley’s vision. He discussed how advanced peer-to-peer (P2P) architectures will set new standards for how scientists support scholarly works and interactions. Heller believes that blockchain offers a route to a true scholarly commons and that use of decentralized networks to share data and publications could make research more open, efficient, and fair. He referred conference attendees to read one of his articles covering some ideas from his presentation, with further links that is available at https://bit.ly/blockchain-commons. Let’s see if anyone follows-up on this vision of the future.
Peer Review—a Blockchain “Failure?”
While on the topic of publishing it is important to note that the recent initiative for the use of blockchain to improve the peer review process that I mentioned earlier suffered a setback. This publishing industry initiative was implemented in mid-2018 to make the peer review process more transparent and trustworthy. The project was led by Digital Science and phase one participants were Cambridge University Press, Springer Nature, Taylor and Francis, Katalysis, ORCID, and Karger, along with the Wellcome Trust who served in an advisory capacity. For fourteen months they piloted the suitability of blockchain technology to solve urgent challenges in the peer review process. A test of a minimal viable product that was developed with Katalysis validated that blockchain could indeed facilitate the safe exchange of peer review data between publishers and other parties in the scholarly ecosystem. However, during that same time period other efforts were being developed and a meeting was held on 5 September 2019 with representatives from more than twelve organizations, including ten publishers. The net outcome of their discussions was the decision that focusing on existing initiatives would be a more efficient and cost-effective path towards making the peer review process more transparent, efficient, and recognizable and that the study of the use of blockchain should be discontinued. I personally was disappointed as I thought the project held promise, but the rationale for aborting the project was convincing (see: https://www.blockchainpeerreview.org/2019/11/determining-the-future-of-the-blockchain-for-peer-review-initiative/ for details).
The Future of Blockchain
When I attended the conference in 2018 Blockchain technology was “at the peak of inflated expectations” since most of the initiatives discussed were very new (see the Gartner Technology Hype Cycle) . By October of 2019 the technology had begun sliding into the “trough of disillusionment,” with predictions that it would be another five to ten years before it would have a transformational impact .
Yet, Blockchain continues to be a buzzword and an area of focus around the globe and my personal opinion is that it should not be ignored—even by IUPAC. Can/should the technology be applied to tracking IUPAC Recommendations or the critical evaluation of data or the changing terminology in the Color Books? What potential value does it hold, if any, for IUPAC and its member organizations? The scientific community is not ignoring blockchain. Take a look at what the Pistoia Alliance is doing in this area to ensure that the pharmaceutical industry takes an informed approach to the technology (see: www.pistoiaalliance.org/tag/blockchain).
I remain both enthusiastic and optimistic about the technology, but I have learned over the past two years that I need to temper my enthusiasm and keep in mind some of the pearls of wisdom that were sprinkled throughout the 2018 blockchain conference:
Blockchain is not a solution in search of a problem; while worth exploring, implementation is not for everyone. Do your homework first!
Blockchain is a potential disruptor for the information economy (indeed for all industries); therefore publishers—the middlemen between authors and information consumers—need to take this technology very seriously and use it to their advantage.
Blockchain has been built on prior technologies, many of which are still essential. It is important to know what has gone before and to continue to build upon the strongest technologies.
When looking at blockchain there are two quotes whose individual messages need to be carefully balanced. These are:
“We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works”.
“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”.
My personal advice: do not under estimate the potential of blockchain technology in the long run! Those of you who know me know are well aware that I love horse racing, and I assure you that if Blockchain Technology were a horse, I would bet on it! In my opinion, it is a technology that should not be ignored (for a primer on blockchain technology see: IBM’s 2nd edition of Blockchain for Dummies that is freely-accessible at: https://www.ibm.com/blockchain/what-is-blockchain.
With their permission, this article is based upon the overview of the 2018 blockchain conference that the author wrote for Information Services and Use. The entire issue is open access and contains many interesting articles written by speakers at the conference.
Über den Autor / die Autorin
Bonnie Lawlor was Chair of IUPAC Committee on Publications and Cheminformatics Data Standards from 2014-2019 and is Secretary of Chemistry International Editorial Board.
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