What is Blockchain?
Blockchain, also known as digital ledger technology (DLT), is a set of digital data blocks connected using cryptographic tools stored on several computers in a network1. In this digital ledger, all recorded transactions are transparent to each network member. Consequently, the blockchain creates blocks of interconnected information, making it impossible to change or delete the content of one block without interfering with all the others once the data has been validated. Distributed ledger technology is actually an umbrella term for all databases that employ independent nodes to record and share data in a decentralized network, with blockchain being just one of them (using cryptographic tools)1.
Through advanced cryptography, blockchain allows data to be shared in a secure and immutable way by ensuring the accuracy of a transaction without needing to trust transacting parties. As such, all transactions are communicated to all network agents (nodes) and can be validated by the various network participants in order to preserve the security of the transactions. This can be of particular use in academic research, where data and results are commonly shared between labs and institutions.
Adoption & Potential Benefits
The appeal of blockchain in academia is in transforming data recording and sharing into a more reliable, transparent, and decentralized process. The very nature of scientific data, which comprises large data sets that are collaboratively created, altered, used, and shared, lends itself perfectly to blockchain technology. This is especially true in the context of modern scientific research, which is international, free of regulation by any one governing body, and depends on the relationships and networks built by various trusted researchers within the academic community.
However, the adoption of blockchain and other crypto projects has been slow due to the reliance of academic research on public funding. Blockchain adoption has been further limited by failed start-ups, projects that have petered out due to lack of funds, and, in some cases, outright scams1. Nevertheless, an extensive network of scholars and information technology (IT) experts have continued to pursue blockchain as a viable resource, and with the help of corporations like IBM, some progress has been made. In the end, blockchain has proven to be more workable as a set of solutions for specific processes (data storage, peer review, funding, etc.) in academic research rather than a one size fits all solution.
Data Sharing & Storage
Scientific research is often hampered by unreliable data collection, which stems from issues of reproducibility, journal bias in publishing positive results only, as well as more serious issues, including p-hacking. Many of these problems result from the need to publish as soon as possible in order to obtain or extend funding. Blockchain can help alleviate this pressure by making the research cycle open and transparent, with data recorded to a registry along with the corresponding date of discovery instead of being contained in one set of lab notebooks. This would mitigate the need for patents to protect ideas while allowing projects to be tracked from initial hypothesis through final data analysis. ARTIFACTS and bloxberg are two examples of blockchain platforms currently being employed for this specific purpose1.
Publishing & Peer Review
The academic publishing cycle can be extremely slow, with writing, submission, final approval, and official publishing often taking months, if not years. With blockchain, a text can be shared more quickly while still preserving intellectual property rights and allowing authors and reviewers to interact directly, with no need for excessive publishing and subscription costs. The idea of bypassing the current journal model has been particularly appealing to scientists, with an open-access platform being included in virtually all start-up blockchain platforms. These platforms offer reputation and incentive systems for performing reviews, as well as mechanisms for research management and collaboration.
Research Funding & Incentives
Funding for basic scientific research continues to shrink, requiring scientists to spend more and more of their time on grant applications and paperwork. Blockchain offers a new way to fund research that can tie funding to a set of conditions (citations, articles, datasets), with funds allocated based on the fulfillment of these conditions. Moreover, a scientist could receive tokens if their research results are cited or validated independently by others1. Thus, blockchain could promote independence from traditional funding sources by opening an alternative channel and providing scientists with an interest in engaging with the crypto economy.
Challenges of DLT Adoption
Some concerns remain regarding the implementation of blockchain in academia. One such concern is that it is not yet user-friendly enough for mass adoption. Any blockchain technology must be easily downloadable and ready to use or users will get discouraged and return to the processes and software they know and trust. This coincides with yet another obstacle: institutional inertia. Most university and academic research facilities already have a system that works for them, and the beneﬁts of blockchain may not be immediately obvious enough to draw these facilities away from their current practices.
Finally, for the blockchain to achieve its goal of full transparency and availability of research, it would require support on masse from scientists around the world. If only a handful of researchers use this new technology, it has no chance of becoming the norm in academia, which would severely limit its data sharing capabilities. This is compounded by the fact that making all research data transparent and veriﬁable would require enormous manpower without providing any immediate beneﬁts to any single scientist1. It doesn’t help that in many countries, cryptocurrencies remain in legal limbo and cannot yet be used as legal tender, blocking the potential implementation of DLT technologies in the public sector. This means that while scientists can upload and register their discoveries or inventions on the blockchain, they cannot trade or receive royalties, which would further limit any incentive to use the platform and spend what limited time they have using the software.
Blockchain and digital ledger technology represent useful tools for scientists in the academic field that may yet be adopted in the future. However, until cryptocurrencies are more generally accepted globally and a plan for mass adoption is implemented, it will remain more of a hypothetical solution than a practical one.
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- Blockchain Adoption in Academia: Promises and Challenges. Artyom Kosmarski. J. Open Innov. Technol. Mark. Complex. 2020, 6, 117.