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Building a Scientific Community on the Blockchain

Reproducibility in experimental methods, questions of intellectual property, and bias in publications continue to plague scientific researchers. Could tokenizing research products provide a solution to these problems?
Published onApr 28, 2022
Building a Scientific Community on the Blockchain

Scientific exploration is not for the faint of heart, it’s not for those who wish to have fame, riches, etc. It’s a noble endeavor ridden in failure, and just when a scientist triumphs over the challenge in front of them, the current publication system strips them of their intellectual rights. In order to secure grants, scientists must constantly publish their work; in doing so, they hand over the rights to all their work to a private publishing company. In recent years, open access journals have attempted to shift the costs over to the authors, who are responsible for paying Article Processing Charges (APCs). The advantage of OA is that it is free to read, which may result in more readership, however the lack of quality control has allowed space for some publishers to fake the entire editorial process.1,2 The pressure of securing future funds not only forces scientists to relinquish their rights, but in some cases, can lead to publishing tweaked data, data that is sometimes missing crucial information for the purpose of reproducibility or processed so that it fits the author’s bias. These issues, combined with the arising complexities of IP and ownership, are exactly why we need to re-think our current publication system and blockchain technology might be the answer.

The Problem

In most publishing models, authors need to give up rights and, in some cases, pay a fee in order to publish their work; and the publishing journal typically charges a considerable fee for accessing what is generally publicly funded research. There is pressure to publish often for exposure and in prestigious journals for impact factor (IF), all of which are important to attract funding. One of the biggest challenges of maintaining any lab is securing funding and this can sometimes become the principle investigator’s main activity. The problem is, like most things, grant committees can sometimes unknowingly or knowingly be biased. A few of the things that grant committees consider are demand or popularity of topic, research progress, number of publications and their IF; and because they make decisions based on the data in front of them it’s important that their data is as unbiased as can be and reflects the scientific communities’ sentiments.3,4 To get an idea of how large these disparities are, in 2017 the NIH distributed 90% of the available grant budget to 10% of the wealthiest institutions.5,6

However, private publishing journals can be subject to further bias as the editorial committees are made up of select individuals in the community who have their own personal interests, interests that sometimes make it difficult for other authors to publish their work. Personal relationships and interests can make it difficult to be impartial when reviewing colleague’s or a competitor’s work. The effects of any bias on behalf of the journals can have rippling effects that result in discriminatory distribution of funds that often leave important yet mundane research poorly funded for years. The influence that these prestigious journals have has rendered the playing field uneven, and the IF scores have become simply indicators for grabbing attention and bestowing future funding. As journals recycle their relationships with authors and publishers in the same universities with the same groups, publishing in prestigious journals can become a bit easier for the aforementioned groups than for groups that might have no preexisting relationship with the journal. In some cases, these prejudices have allowed for poor science or methodologies to be published with great IF and no reproducibility.7,8,9 Unfortunately, everyone is subject to some form of bias or favoritism. As new systems are developed, it is important to make them equitable for everyone, and blockchain might be able to help build a new scientific ecosystem.

In 2019, the National Academies in Focus published an article which recommended that there needed to be more transparency with data, and recommended that journals and funders of research consider replicability and reproducibility in the application and submission processes10. Ideally the tokenomics I am proposing would work loosely hand in hand with a voting or ranking system; that way, papers or methods with high reproducibility or dependable research will be ranked on an ongoing basis as the community works its way through the newly published methodologies.

A Solution

Blockchain has the potential to revolutionize how we publish and share data in the scientific community. The ledger, traditionally a physical book in which financial records or other transaction records are typically kept, is open and accessible to anyone on the internet and provides proof of ownership over any IP, as well as tracking the transfer of ownership. Leveraging this technology would allow scientists to publish and share their work while retaining their rights. Work in this case can mean several things, and this could be a huge advantage. There are times when the supplemental figures or data doesn’t go far enough, and so providing a space where readers can interact with publishers, allowing them to share raw data and how they process it to obtain certain figures could shine light on how some data is acquired. A topic not often discussed is the distaste of acknowledging and sharing failed experiments. Ideally an open and transparent community would offer a place where scientists can collaborate, find resources and post data or experiments that did not work alongside the ones that did, which can save other like-minded groups the pain of going down the same failed path. Providing a space to share data openly could help improve issues around reproducibility and intellectual honesty.

Now going into how work, or data, is published and made into an asset on the blockchain. When something is published, minted, on the blockchain it becomes a non-fungible token, an NFT. The nuance in this publication is that the publication itself serves as authentication of rights and ownership over the work. The author/ publishers can choose how many copies are published and if they want to charge an amount of the native token or give free access to their work. Furthermore, more data can be tied to an NFT, ie. Contracts: re-sale of NFTs often goes with a contract in which the original creator receives a percentage of the re-sale value. While this may not be the best use case for this discussion, it offers insight into the potential for publishing and setting contractual agreements between scientific professionals in the educational setting versus their industry counterparts which freely utilize government funded research to profit.

This proposal would allow individuals to share for free or for a commission, giving them the option to capitalize on their work. Moreover, this would give birth to a scientific community in which the relationship between authors and reviewers is open to everyone in the community, allowing for open dialogue after publishing for scientific integrity. In this situation, authors would bear the burden of following up with any readers, and making a case for their data or methodologies if they should be called into question. This system would allow everyone to participate and effectively build a reputation that can translate into a CV, industry reputation and allocation of grant money; if a group is frequently publishing poor or unreproducible work, or if the community shows a lot of interest in an unpopular field of research, the grant committees could use this data when deciding disbursement of funds.

We can pull inspiration from new and old platforms to model this community. The eRA commons is a great database with a structure for interacting with federal and grant providing institutions and can model how credentials and identification of every profile is authenticated. ResearchGate, an online social community for scientists to share their publications and ask any type of STEM associated questions in a forum format, is a great feature for nurturing everyone in our scientific community. Another great model for structuring this community is Reddit, a network of communities where anyone can dive into any topic. There are rating and voting systems for individuals and their commentary, moderators, and open forum discussions; all of which would allow everyone in the community to participate in the review or post review discussion of publications and forum questions. The ranking and voting systems provide a solution that could also be a useful tool, tying researcher’s credibility to their word by holding them accountable in front of their peers. Community members would be able to build their reputation, their resume, and platforms like LinkedIn utilize features such as skill endorsements, which would allow us to build up our community. On the blockchain network, scientists would be able to author, receive feedback, and publish their work all in one place. Keeping ownership over their work and building reputation amongst their peers would empower individuals, while giving everyone an opportunity to participate in growth and moderation, would empower our scientific community.

Another one of blockchain’s features is that entire niche ecosystems can be built, public or private. Within these ecosystems, blockchain technology allows for economic infrastructure to be built as well, commonly referred to as tokenomics. Each ecosystem built on the blockchain can choose to adopt or create its own native token. Like a currency, these tokens represent different – but often monetary – value and are typically used in transactions within the ecosystem, i.e. utilizing USD in the US. The value of tokens can go beyond their monetary value. There are payment tokens, social & utility tokens, equity & security tokens, governance tokens and several others that can help bring forth a dynamic ecosystem that would incentivize the community for being involved.11 Activities surrounding scholarly communications and publishing would earn you native tokens: Being an active reviewer, being active on answering or asking questions, publishing good methods, etc. Along with voting capacities, incentive for accumulating more tokens could be monetary value, prestige and respect amongst peers. This may be a better indicator for grant committees looking to allocate funds within the community. Tokenomics helps to maintain the ecosystem and incentivizes the author, publisher, reviewer, and reader to maintain the integrity of the work being published.

Blockchain can help hard working researchers and Universities to capitalize on their IP without having to spend hundreds of thousands on patent applications, not to mention guiding grant committees to make decisions on how to best disperse funding. Utilizing this technology and giving power to scientists can have several impacts, from how careers develop to reframing IP and patent law. Just recently the US government had to negotiate with private companies—or itself, depending on your perspective—over the purchase of COVID vaccines at a hefty price tag of $19.3B.12 The irony was that the research which led to vaccine production was primarily government funded. Reinventing this space could revolutionize patent law and healthcare forever.

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