The Blockchain’s Bid to Democratise Scientific Publishing

The Blockchain’s Bid to Democratise Scientific Publishing

Last year, the Guardian newspaper ran a lengthy but engaging article outlining how a small group of powerful publishing companies have been exercising stranglehold over the science community.

The piece explained the contradictions associated with the publication of scientific research today –  scientists perform the research, write up its conclusions, and then engage other scientists in peer review of the content before it is then submitted for publication. In other words, science journals are largely spared the burdens that traditionally come with being a publisher – paying for content and its editing.

The irony is then compounded by the fact that this largely pre-packaged content is then sold back to the scientific community who, collectively, were responsible for producing it in the first place – all largely paid  out of the public purse. It is no surprise, then, that science publishing houses are seen to be raking in huge margins whilst bringing comparatively little value to the overall process. 

At the time of the Guardian article, the major scientific publishing houses appeared to have seen off the latest threat to their monopoly after Alexandra Elbakyan, the founder of Sci-Hub, a kind of science publication version of Napster, was hit with a two multi-million dollar lawsuit.

With the emergence of blockchain technology, however, and its ability to offer up transparency and a token-based incentive mechanism that serves as a new economic model for content publishing, new propositions are emerging which may be set to challenge the current monopoly. 

One such project is Orvium. With a team composition that includes scientists that work and have worked for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) – the most complex experimental facility ever built – a powerful challenger with the right kind of credentials and connections may have just emerged. 

A Different Approach

Whilst Sci-Hub had succeeded somewhat in its objective of making science research available for free – leaving aside its costly court action for copyright violations – the flip-side, according to some, is that it also resulted in a number of documents of dubious quality being pushed onto the Sci-Hub site.

Orvium, on the other hand, are seeking to address the quality issue by incentivising researchers, authors and reviewers by means of a blockchain-based ecosystem, reducing the quantity of sub-standard content submitted for publication and to allow the scientific community itself to decide which projects are worthy of further exploration.

As this will only apply to current and future studies whose work has yet to be published, it eases traditional publishers to one side rather than instigating direct confrontation and avoids any potential copyright issues.

Although it would be naïve to expect traditional scientific publishing powerhouses such as RELX and others to simply wave goodbye to their billion dollar profits without any response, the route taken by the Orvium project appears legally sound and should offer the path of least resistance.

Science for All

Currently, the career of a scientist largely depends on getting their work published in prestigious journals. In turn, universities and institutions rely on that continuous stream of content in order to remain relevant to their audience.

Most would agree that the self-moderating ecosystem proposed by an Orvium-like model, where scientists themselves govern which research to pursue further, is preferable to the oligarchical publishing pyramid that exists now where the publisher influences what is studied.

However, ground-breakers like Alexandra Elbakyan – the woman behind Sci-Hub – stridently believe that science should be for everyone and not just for those deemed worthy by any kind of controlling structure, either external or internal. Scientific breakthroughs have often come from rogue minds going against established thinking and theorising in a non-conformist way – something that traditional science publications are generally thought to discourage.

By disrupting the current system and breaking away from conventional publishers, the Orvium proposition could well find favour within the scientific community with its ready-made network of allies of research facilities and universities that are eager for the kind of change it is proposing.

 With the blockchain providing the means for the creation of a self-guiding, self-regulating and even self-funding science publishing platform, it may just pave the way for the model envisaged by Article 27 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states the right for all “to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”