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Blockchain for research: hype or opportunity - session notes
2017-10-29 11:00:00 +0100

Blockchain for research: hype or opportunity?

Session lead: Naomi Penfold, eLife, @npscience Co-facilitator: Kade Morton, DeLoitte and Aletheia, @cypath


Number of people in the room: 16 initally, then increased

How many are interested in:

  • blockchain? 9
  • research communication? 7
  • both? 7
  • neither? 0

Some hopes/expectations from today’s session:

  1. Potentially marrying blockchain with academic publishing
  2. What is the ecosystem we want?
  3. Is blockchain the technology we are looking for?
  4. What is blockchain?
  5. Can blockchain we applied to different industries?

Vote at start: Blockchain for research: is it …?

  • opportunity: 8
  • hype: 6
  • don’t know/not sure: 4
  • both 1
  • inappropriate 1

Participants are invited to document contact details in issue #2 if you are keen to share with the participants / contribute in the future.

What is vision for research communication?

What is academic publishing? Some key points:

  • Sharing the work of science, this also has a preservation aspect
  • Ideas need to be judged so they can become something greater
  • Visibility and credit is also important
  • Findability, efficient to find

*Exercise to identify key points for discussion:

  • What are key features or requirements?
  • What is lacking or problematic in current system?*

Discussion points:

  • Funding of publishing, perverse incentives.
  • Misaligned incentives for academic research - number of papers over quality of work.
  • Need to be sharing data, code, method with the publication. Open data is important.
  • The publication is a static article that does not reflect ongoing knowledge generation and interaction.
  • Research outputs need cross-linking.
  • Findability - research needs to be discoverable and visible.
  • Accessibility - access to journals and papers is limited right now, we need policies to be enforced.
  • Distribution - we need a method to share knowledge more freely.
  • Publishing is centralised, with problem of restricted access and enforced scarcity.
  • Publishing is a lengthy process, inefficient.
  • Diversity - publishing is not an inclusive process in the current system.
  • Peer review perceived to have problems with speed, integrity; a method of judgement or evaluation is needed.
  • Intellectual property issues conflict with collaborative and open principle of science.
  • Integrity of academic content or output needs to be ensured.
  • The idea that a group of 'elders' (or 'experts') challenge ideas is exclusionary and western-centric. This does not take into account citizen science, and gives gatekeeping power to old white men.

What is opportunity for blockchain?

What is blockchain?

  • A distributed ledger
  • A sequence of timestamped events that everyone agrees on
  • e.g. in finance: transparency of balance before and after a transaction, see the transfer of money, agree that it has happened
  • Immutable - stored cryptographically and unable to be forge, so it's a system of truth
  • Multiple things could be stored: decisions, hashes: referencing other things (docs, etc), money

*Exercise to identify key points for discussion:

  • What are key features?
  • How could these features be applied to academic publishing?*

Discussion points:

  • Enables consensus without relying on a central party. Is this what is wanted for academic publishing? Value of expert versus distributed democracy.
  • Provides resilient mechanism for storing metadata and transactions, but not the actual data itself.
  • Immutability - the record cannot be changed. Helps keep the ground truth.
  • Method of sharing can be resistant to censorship, and verifiable.
  • Offers alternative incentives, different roles have different incentives, to make the system work overall.
  • Could be a mechanism for machine-verifiable research (computational reviews).
  • Offers traceability (who discovered what and when). Contributes to requirement for attribution and primacy in research (who came up with this first).
  • Finding new threads - a means to discover gaps in knowledge, understand what is being worked on.
  • Progress in research could become more incremental, if findings were added to a chain incrementally.
  • It could empower more collaborative research.
  • Problems: maximum blocksize; currently inefficient in energy use, takes a lot of computing power.
  • Privacy/anonymity - enables contributors to be anonymous but verifiable.
  • Timestamping - is this really critical for application to academic publishing?

Is blockchain for research an opportunity?

Exercise to map corresponding discussion points from above and discuss

Discussion points:

  • Distribution is common theme, as is open data, but here they have separate meanings. The blockchain holds a record of metadata on transactions, whilst academic publishing is for sharing actual content (papers, data, etc).
  • Peer review and judgement requirement of research could benefit from the alternative incentives and attribution mechanisms provided by blockchain applications: give credit to reviewers more fairly, ensure reviews are verifiable.
  • Blockchain or decentralised systems are more resistant to censorship, so this could open up the quality gatekeeping barrier beyond the group of people currently with the power (old white western men in the Global North system)


Some learnings and reflections from today’s session:

  1. Finding the opportunities - collaborative, diverse, inclusive
  2. We're still thinking in journals, that needs to change when we consider fundamental problems
  3. Would adoption change HOW we do research?
  4. Is applying a technology going to change a process? Or should it be the other way round?
  5. How to scale? The cost of the system? We need to consider this

Vote to finish: blockchain for research: is it …?

  • opportunity: 14
  • hype: 3
  • don’t know/not sure: 2

Some changed minds:

  • From hype --> opportunity, realisation that this is not just for fintech
  • Feeling more confused now, and want to know what are the alternative technologies to blockchain that have similar benefits?

Thank you to all who participated!