A Different Approach To Science Using Blockchain
Many argue scientific publishing is broken. Among many ideas to improve it with "traditional" methods, blockchain also has its place.
Scientific research is trending towards web3 and blockchain in the form of decentralised science (or DeSci). It aims to solve some important problems in this field, such as funding, ownership and access.
But let’s not delude ourselves. These are still only ideas that largely remain untested. Who knows what will happen after the hype currently around web3 subsides.
Nevertheless, to understand what DeSci wants to solve, let’s first look at some issues scientific publishing currently has.
Current problems of scientific publishing
Those of you that have published or are setting out to publish in a scientific journal will know that only a few publishers control the majority of this space. They are Reed Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell and the American Chemical Society.
Because of their monopoly, they usually charge exorbitant prices for authors to publish and sell expensive subscriptions to the readers. The accessibility of scientific publishing is thus limited to authors’ funding and readers’ resources.
Richard Smith wrote a very telling paragraph in his blogpost titled The future of predatory publishing:
Where and how will it end—or progress? I don’t know, but some sort of collapse seems likely. An obvious response by the producers of research would be to abandon journals and post their own research on their own websites, something that was predicted at the dawn of the internet. This research could be at full length with the data—and would be searchable. Such self-posting would also save huge costs.
We’ll come back to this quote a little later on.
Before scientists even begin their research, they need to secure funding. It mainly consists of scientists applying for different grants, which has two main problems:
- Applications take a lot of time (about 50%) that could be used for research.
- Scientists are choosing projects that are more likely to be funded, resulting in bias and lack of replication.
In my opinion, the bigger problem is the latter. Is science really on the right path if scientists are producing novel research only because it pays well? Additionally, are they confirming/refuting what others discovered?
More problems occur when a research piece is submitted to (usually) one of the journals owned by the big publishers. Apart from fees, one of them is peer-reviewing.
As much as the peer-review process is absolutely necessary, it’s also a big failure. An article on “The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists” published by Vox argues that it “doesn’t reliably prevent poor-quality science from being published”.
One of the main reasons is that peer-reviewers aren’t paid to make reviews. This causes delays and poorer quality of work. How incentivised would you be if you were peer-reviewing for free?
If we connect the dots explained above, the question that arises is what does today’s scientific publishing value? Does it reward solutions to humanities’ burning problems, or does it encourage researching a tiny area of a sub-speciality that doesn’t make a big difference in general?
A quote from the essay Imitate, then innovate by David Perell, which seemingly has little to do with science, captured it brilliantly:
The second is more subtle: fetishizing originality. I think this part of the disease comes from academia, where people do study those who’ve come before them—but only so they can do something different. Since scholarly journals insist on original contributions, academics are incentivized to study things nobody else is studying. The challenge, though, is that originality and usefulness are not the same thing. I worry that academics are so focused on checking the “nobody’s ever written about this before” box that they sometimes forget to make useful contributions to human knowledge.
I’m not jumping to any conclusions, nor am I advocating there should be less researching in science. I’m just connecting the dots.
The direction in which we should seek solutions
The problems above are some that keep occurring online and some that I experienced myself. The direction in which we could seek potential solutions vary, and some don't even include blockchain. So let’s first explore how we could think scientific publishing can improve, and then attempt to apply how blockchain could do exactly that.
I tweeted this back in October, which is similar to what Richard Smith wrote in the above-mentioned post:
The principle is similar to Medical Notes, which is an independent publication. It has no outside funding, I write whatever I want, it’s accessible to everyone and supported by the readers.
Why wouldn’t a research lab do something similar? An online publication where they would frequently publish their findings and wouldn’t be reliant on big publishers. It seems perfect.
Of course, there are multiple problems. The first one is peer-reviewing. But one potential solution that has already been tested in 2017 is crowd-based peer-reviewing.
In a study, researchers recruited 100 qualified reviewers, connected them on a forum and asked scientists to upload their manuscripts. Then they compared the results to classical peer-reviewing.
So far, we have tried crowd reviewing with ten manuscripts. In all cases, the response was more than enough to enable a fair and rapid editorial decision. Compared with our control experiments, we found that the crowd was much faster (days versus months), and collectively provided more-comprehensive feedback.
But peer-reviewing is only one issue. Some additional thoughts:
- The whole scientific community would have to agree on this model.
- Every research lab would have to build their audience online and perhaps even sell exclusive access to secure some funding.
- How would one track reliable citations and replications?
What is DeSci?
So, where does blockchain come in? On various levels in the form of decentralised science or DeSci.
In general, DeSci has two main practical applications:
- To transform how we fund research.
- To shift ownership and value away from big publishers into the hands of researchers.
The DeSci movement aims to enhance scientific funding; unleash knowledge from silos; eliminate reliance on profit-hungry intermediaries such as publisher conglomerates; and increase collaboration across the field. - A Guide to DeSci, the Latest Web3 Movement
The main problem with funding is that it’s heavily connected to the reputation of a scientist. Those that publish more and publish novel research are more likely to get funded. This de-incentivises research reproducibility, which is the best mechanism we have to confirm (or refute) a certain outcome of a study.
Additionally, a centralised research fund (or whoever provides the funding) has all the power to decide who gets it and who doesn’t. In Slovenia, there was a doctor with impeccable scientific background, who uncovered a corruption case and suddenly wasn’t able to get any funding for his research.
To understand a potential solution, we need to understand the term DAO, or decentralised autonomous organisation. It’s an organisation that’s not controlled by a single entity (state, company) but is divided among multiple computers (users). The aim is to prevent bias in decision-making
An example of how science could be funded through DAOs is VitaDAO. They aim to democratically fund research on longevity. Anyone with a specific token called vita can vote on which project they will fund. Anyone can apply for funding, even students, and the only thing they value are good ideas that solve the problems of longevity.
Ownership and access
One possible problem, however, is that a DAO such as VitaDAO gets the intellectual property on the research it funds. On the one hand, this makes sense. The community behind it would fund the research and also own its rights.
On the other hand, we should ask ourselves, what’s in it for the researchers? Or how can they research and own the rights to what they produce? How can we ensure research is accessible to all and not locked behind a paywall as it oftentimes is today? It seems like this is an area we still need to figure out.
One possible (and easy) solution is definitely what was discussed above - an independent publication of the lab/research team.
The other one are NFTs. A piece was written in Nature (yes, Nature) about NFTs in science, and this is its main point:
The arguments over NFTs in science are similarly heated, with some saying they provide an incentive to showcase science to the public; a new method of fundraising; and even a way for people to earn royalties when pharmaceutical companies buy access to their genomic data. Others say that NFTs — which operate in a similar way to digital cryptocurrencies — are just needless energy pouring into a market bubble that’s sure to burst.
You can read more about DeSci in the article below (which was also used as the main resource for this issue)👇
This all sound pretty cool and an “all-in-one” solution. But the reality is that we’re years away from a fully adopted web3. And when we get there, there’s reason to believe science will be the last one to adopt it. With medicine perhaps being the most rigid.
I also believe that the solutions might not all be in using blockchain because some of these issues could really be solved using existing approaches. Someone just has to start with a successful alternative model.