Why the Blockchain is Highly Relevant for Scholarly Communication

Frankfurt School Blockchain Center
13 min readSep 24, 2018

Blockchain allows for decentralised, self-regulating data, creating a shared infrastructure where all transactions are saved and stored. Scientific information in its essence is a large, dynamic body of information and data that is collaboratively created, altered, used and shared. It lends itself well to the blockchain technology. — Author: Dr. Joris van Rossum

Current challenges in scholarly communication

When researchers want to communicate their findings, they usually use different — and to a large extent disconnected — systems in their research workflow. For example, spreadsheets or lab software are used to capture the results of an experiment. When results are collected, an article is written using a local writing application or on a cloud-based collaborative writing tool. The article is then submitted to a publisher through a submission system. After review and acceptance the manuscript is converted to PDF and HTML, and hosted on a publisher platform, where it can be downloaded. Access to this publisher platform is often facilitated by librarians. Citations are collected in citation databases which are distributed through librarians or via freely accessible databases.

This is problematic for several reasons. First of all, research only becomes accessible at the point of publication. Everything that took place before — such as collecting and analysing data, peer review — is not transparent. This leads to problems around reproducibility, i.e. the inability of researchers to reproduce experiments and thereby validating the conclusions made in research papers, which is a cornerstone of the scientific method. In a 2016 poll on Nature.com, two-thirds of respondents indicated that current levels of reproducibility are a major problem, with 52% saying that there is a ‘significant crisis’.[1]

Similarly, with peer review — the process whereby research papers are evaluated by peers in the same field before a paper is published in a journal, remains opaque. There is also a lack of visibility and recognition for reviewers, with their review work remaining largely unnoticed.
Scientific results are primarily published in academic journals, which have a strong tendency to publish positive and novel results. Moreover, scientists themselves are more inclined to report on their successful outcomes than on failed experiments. A lot of research that did not lead to positive results, therefore, remains unpublished, and unknown.

Moreover, as the productivity of researchers is predominantly measured in terms of journal article output, scientific effort leading to negative results and non-research activities (e.g. reviewing articles and grants, sitting on scientific committees, or even micro-contributions such as participation in brainstorms, informal comments) are undervalued.

Additionally, there are challenges in research and scholarly communication that have to do with commercial interests. Research is essentially a non-commercial activity, but ironically the business of scholarly communication is one of the most lucrative industries in the world, dominated by a few large publishing giants[2]. This causes several issues. High prices charged by commercial publishers for subscriptions challenges library budgets, and implies that not all content is made accessible to scientists at institutions. Partly as a reaction to the problems associated with the subscription model, Open Access, the model whereby payment is shifted from the reader or library to the author granting universal access to the article, has been introduced. But several decades after its introduction, still only a minority of articles are open access. Moreover, open access has introduced its own set of problems, such as the incentive of publishers to accept articles potentially leading to less rigorous quality norms, and the appearance of so-called predatory publishers, exploitative publishers that charge publication fees to authors without providing the editorial and publishing services that are associated with legitimate journals.

How could the blockchain help scholarly communication?

The introduction of blockchain technology to scholarly communication could mean that many of these challenges are eliminated. Working on a blockchain would mean that whenever scientists create or interact with content in whatever way and at whatever stage, their interaction will be stored in a single platform. A big advantage that the blockchain brings is that the platform is decentralised, which means that there is no single owner, although everyone has access to the same information. Moreover, in a science blockchain, critical aspects of scholarly communication such as trust, credit, universal access and — where required — anonymity, can be realised and safeguarded. Its potential relates to almost all stages in the researcher’s workflow.

Research & Data

Dr. Soenke Bartling is a German radiologist and founder of Blockchain for Science, a think tank based in Berlin. Launched in 2016, its aim is to ‘open up science and knowledge creation by means of the blockchain (r)evolution’. Besides meetings, hackathons and stimulating knowledge sharing through its online platform, the organisation also launched and maintains a living document on blockchain and science, collecting ideas on how blockchain could open up science and knowledge creation.

According to Soenke and his group, an open, permissioned blockchain instead of separate, disconnected systems would bring significant advantages to researchers on various levels. It would make larger parts of the research cycle open to self-correction, and could, therefore, be a new potential to addressing the reproducibility and credibility crisis as well as reducing overhead thereby accelerating the scientific process. The team has collected, and proposes, an impressive number of applications of a blockchain for science:

  • A blockchain could provide a notarisation function by allowing scientists to post a text or file with ideas, results or simply data. These time-stamped records would allow scientists to claim information or ideas, if needed anonymised. This could potentially replace the function of patent offices.
  • Study designs could be registered using the blockchain, which would prevent the arbitrary suppression of research studies in case results do not meet expectations or the retrospective alteration of study designs. Moreover, smart contracts could be used so that research protocols are set in ‘blockchain stone’ before the data is collected, and the processing and analysis would be automated. This ‘smart evidence’ would prevent ex-post facto hypothesising and could be especially relevant to the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry. Moreover, this could be done while maintaining data autonomy and subject privacy through cryptographic protection.
  • Research data could be automatically uploaded, time-stamped and where necessary, encrypted by devices (the intersection of the blockchain with the internet-of-things), which would speed up the research workflow and make it less prone to error. Another advantage of having research data available on the blockchain is that computational power available within the network could be used for processing, statistical analysis and calculations. Having information shared on the blockchain provides the opportunity for a marketplace for science where labs or groups specialise in specific aspects of the research workflow. Some labs will collect the data, others will carry out the statistical analysis etc. It could also accelerate the potential for collaboration.
  • The peer review process could greatly improve through the blockchain. Data underlying the published results could be made available. This would not only improve reproducibility in general, but also allow reviewers to do their work more thoroughly. Encryption allows reviews to be validated but remain anonymous and stored permanently. Moreover, post-publication review in various forms could be integrated easily.
  • Ideas and hypotheses can be submitted anonymously using the blockchain fostering more innovation. With the lack of peer pressure, researchers are encouraged to think more freely and share ideas that cannot immediately be placed in contemporary paradigms.
Figure 1: How blockchain could open the scientific process. Traditional science only becomes open at the point of publication. Although the pre-registration of studies and the publication of data opens up research at multiple stages, a blockchained science would do that in the most comprehensive way.

A “blockchained” science would make the research process up to publication significantly more open and transparent, argues Dr Bartling.

“Blockchain in science bears the unique chance to realign science’s incentive structures with honesty, effectiveness, collaboration and true inventiveness”.

Disseminating Content

One of the main roles of a publisher is the dissemination of content. After manuscripts are reviewed and accepted by an editorial board, publishers distribute the content to the academic community. Today, this happens largely through online platforms with subscriptions or open access fees as underlying business models. Blockchain holds the promise to change how publishers serve as middlemen in the dissemination process. The role of blockchain has been researched predominantly in general (i.e. non-academic) publishing, where the move to online has led to a shift in revenue allocation from content creators and publishing companies to hosting companies, social media giants, and advertising intermediates. To some extent, this is caused by an inherent characteristic of the World Wide Web, namely the use of hyperlinks. Hyperlinks are one-way pointers to content but do not point back to the users that click on them. Hence, there is no mechanism for allowing small automatic payments for usage. Given this, the only choice for publishers is to open up content and base a business model on advertising, or impose unfriendly paywalls with expensive credit card payments.

An interesting potential dimension of the blockchain is digital rights management. The coupling of usage to micropayments already makes rights management more straightforward, but digital rights can also relate to more complex aspects like reuse, permissions and royalties that are currently intermediated through large institutions and complex products. The combination of a central database with smart contracts could bring huge advantages. Through the blockchain, ownership of content is automatically established, and the use of content and the payment of royalties are executed through smart contracts in which the rights are stored.

An additional advantage of content being disseminated via the blockchain is that usage can be accurately counted. Currently, content is downloaded and shared via different platforms (e.g. publisher platforms, ResearchGate, PubMed Central), which makes the tracking of usage difficult. This is problematic not only for publishers, but also for researchers and institutions for whom readership and usage is an important metric. A blockchain would make usage counting and reporting both accurate and simple at the same time.

A blockchain publishing system could potentially disintermediate the publisher itself. It allows authors to upload content, set the prices, after which the content is distributed and, if required, paid for without the need of a publisher. Or it could simply mean that the role of publishers shifts, focusing on providing services like copying editing and peer review (which ensures quality but of also serves as an important filtering mechanism through which content is brought to the most relevant academic community) instead of providing a platform for disseminating content, which would be established through the blockchain.

New Metrics & Alternative Economic Models

Research on the blockchain could have a huge impact on the way researchers build their reputation and become recognised. The big advantage of a blockchain for research is that all activities of scientists can be automatically stored. Whenever a researcher uploads data, performs statistical analysis, writes and submits an article or reviews a manuscript, this is automatically tracked and recorded. By working on a blockchain, the risk of fraud is significantly reduced making it significantly easier to collect reliable and complete data on the performance of researchers, research groups and universities. This would allow for more sophisticated as well as reliable metrics to be built on top of that. Moreover, it will allow metrics to be based on activities that are currently not well not well recognised (e.g., peer review).

A science blockchain could accompany the introduction of a cryptocurrency, which would add an economic layer to the blockchain. This ‘bitcoin for science’ could be used to make micro payments to publishers for consuming content, and could also introduce a monetary reward scheme to researchers themselves. For example, the blockchain could disintermediate publishers and reward authors directly with cryptocurrencies that can be used to purchase other content or services. It could also introduce rewards for scientific activities, such as peer review, statistical support, exchange of lab equipment, outsourcing specific research, or the hosting of data. Eventually, initial coin offerings (ICOs), a form of crowdfunding using cryptocurrencies, could be used to fund entire research projects. In this way, a crypto economy could evolve in science reflecting the value merits of a number of activities.

Concrete Initiatives

In recent years, several applications have been developed that allow for content distribution coupled with micropayments that flow directly to the producers of content. DECENT is a Swiss-based organisation that has built a blockchain driven content distribution platform. Through this platform, which was launched in June 2017, digital media content including audio, video, text, software and video games can be distributed in a decentralised network of individuals and organisations. Content can be paid for with micropayments at prices set by the content owners.

Similar platforms have been developed by Boston-based LBRY and Amsterdam-based Katalysis. Although these platforms were developed to remove middlemen that do not play a large role in scholarly communication, they could be applied to change the commercial landscape in scholarly communication. For example, the platforms allow micropayments to be made for individual content items in a simple way. The Open Access and subscription based models both come with disadvantages, and the use of micropayments could form the basis of a reasonable and sustainable business model whereby content is paid according to usage.

More recently, initiatives were launched that aim to apply the blockchain technology on all of its potential levels as described in this report. Scienceroot, based in Romania, aims to build a complete blockchain-based scientific ecosystem including a collaboration and funding platform, as well as a journal. Pluto, a South-Korean initiative, equally ambitious aims to become decentralized scholarly communication platform powered by ethereum blockchain. All actions and transactions on the platform are planned to be transparently open to the public and manipulation-free, and tokens are used to reward scientists for activities such as peer review. Both initiatives touch all aspect of the potential for blockchain that were highlighted: storing and sharing research and data, the dissemination of content, and the introduction of new metrics & alternative economic models.

So will scholarly communication take place on the blockchain?

In light of its obvious advantages over the current ecosystem, it is tempting to predict that scholarly communication and other research activities will eventually take place on the blockchain. Its potential impact touches many, if not all, challenges around scholarly communication, especially those to do with trust, reproducibility, transparency, and access. However, there are also reasons to be cautious.

Science has evolved over hundreds of years, and with its history comes a significant amount of legacy in technology, systems, organisation as well culture. This legacy makes any change difficult, despite the challenges associated with the current system. As already mentioned, the adoption of online publishing has been swift in the academic world, but this transition has predominantly impacted the mode of dissemination of content and has left other fundamental aspects such as business models, credit systems and peer review untouched.

Moreover, there is an aspect of blockchain that makes a transition to this technology even more challenging. Adopting a blockchain for research successfully implies that it is adopted widely, and this requires a fundamental transformation on the level of funders, institutions, publishers, as well as scientists themselves, which increases the level of change required.

The likelihood and success of a blockchain for scholarly communication would also depend on its level of implementation. For example, information stored on the blockchain could be restricted to traditional researcher roles, publications and use of content (e.g. authorship of scientific articles, usage and citations). But it could also reward unconventional roles and affect wider aspects of the research workflow including peer review, publication of datasets, hypotheses, etc., which would increase the level of complexity. The blockchain, however, could have an even broader scope, transcending scholarly communication. As we have already seen, lab equipment and resources could be shared amongst research groups using the blockchain, with aspects such as credit or financial compensation being managed through the platform. Funding could also take place using a blockchain, and spending could be tracked and made transparent. Distribution of funds amongst scientists could be managed and supported by smart contracts, and a money-back functionality built in dealing with irreproducible results or fraud. The more fundamental the application of the blockchain, the higher the level of complexity will become. In connection to this, an essential question is whether the blockchain will be embraced by existing players (e.g. publishers), or whether it will be successfully introduced by external parties, such as Scienceroot and Pluto, and potentially disrupt the current ecosystem.

Whether scholarly communication takes place on a blockchain will also depend on developments in adjacent fields. In education, for example, blockchain developments are moving at a faster pace. Blockcerts, developed by MIT’s Media Lab and Learning Machine, is an open initiative that has introduced verifiable blockchain-based certificates for academic credentials (amongst others). Another example is Sony, who announced in the summer of 2017 that it has finished developing a digital system for storing and managing educational records on the blockchain (that such no such system currently exists undoubtedly increases the speed of adoption in this area). Obviously there is an overlap between an educational record and the academic record of a scientist, so it is possible that developments in education may speed up the development of a blockchain in research as well (for example, a framework or protocol used for a blockchain for education could be reused for a more general protocol or framework for science).


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About the Author

Dr. Joris van Rossum is currently leading the recently launched Blockchain for Peer Review initiative. You can contact him via Twitter (@JorisRossum) or connect with him on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/jorisvanrossum/).


[1] http://www.nature.com/news/reality-check-on-reproducibility-1.19961