Everything* You Always Wanted To Know About Blockchain (But Were Afraid To Ask)

Alice Meadows at the Scholarly Kitchen: “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….

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….

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.comPluto.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….(More)”.