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Blockchain-Based Solutions for Scientific Research

Science has come a long way since the days when heliocentrism was controversial and most people believed in spontaneous generation. Yet when it comes to sharing and verifying scientific work, the systems that researchers still rely upon today date back to an era of premodern science.

This is a challenge that blockchain technology can help to solve. By providing new ways to share academic research and verify the origin of information, blockchains could introduce significant new efficiencies and transparency to the world of research. 

Here’s a look at how blockchain-based solutions are driving innovation in the world of academic research.

The State of Academic Research

The U.S. federal government spends more than $150 billion per year to fund scientific research, and that is just one of several major sources of research funding. Meanwhile, academic researchers publish millions of scholarly papers every year, in addition to other types of publications. 

Yet despite the huge amount of money and time that the academic community spends on research, the ability of scholars to find and track the resulting information is surprisingly limited, for several reasons.

Lack of Universal Research Registers 

You might think that there is a central database where you could easily look up all of the journal articles published on a given topic or in a given academic discipline. But there’s not. 

When researchers want to find out what other researchers have already discovered about a certain subject, they typically take an approach that can be described as “ad hoc” at best. A researcher can search through a variety of library catalogs and journal databases. But because there is no single database that registers all published material in any field, there is no guarantee that this type of search will be comprehensive. Plus, because academic publishing tends to move slowly and research databases are not always updated frequently, a catalog-based search for a certain topic might yield results that no longer reflect the latest insight on a topic. 

A researcher could also ask colleagues for tips about where to find existing information on a given subject. This strategy is also unlikely to lead them to all relevant material, however. Worse, relying on colleagues can lead to a sort of research bias. People tend to recommend work that they like or to which they have contributed to, which reduces objectivity. 

Unreliable Citations

The citation systems used by academic researchers vary between disciplines. Some involve footnotes. Some involve parenthetical citations. And, as more and more academic work is created digitally, hyperlinks are becoming a citation solution. 

However, no matter which academic citation system you use, it will almost certainly have several limitations. One is that citations are often ambiguous because researchers tend to group multiple references into a single citation.  As a result, it is difficult to know exactly which claim within an academic article or book corresponds to which source in a citation.

There is also no guarantee that citations are accurate in a world where there is little to stop researchers from making up reference data entirely. And because there is no automatic way to verify citation information, checking for fraud is difficult. Even the most prestigious academic journals, which strive to prevent fraud through rigorous peer-review processes, sometimes publish work that turns out to be based on utterly fraudulent data

Meanwhile, honest mistakes by researchers can lead to inaccurate citations. For example, a typo within a citation could cause the wrong page number of an external work to be cited, making it difficult for a scholar to track down the exact source of a claim. Even the most diligent scholars make mistakes like these and the best copy editors rarely find them. Doing so would require a huge amount of tedious cross-referencing between citations and external sources that are often not readily available. 

Crediting Contributors 

It is common in many academic disciplines for journal articles to be published under the names of multiple authors. This is a crude and ambiguous way of assigning credit to researchers who contribute to a publication. While the names of the most significant contributors are usually listed first, it is usually impossible to identify exactly who contributed what to a given article.

This is bad for authors, who may not receive as much credit as they deserve for their work on a publication. It is also bad for other researchers who want to expand on their work, because it makes it more difficult for them to determine who can help them. 

The problem with receiving credit for academic work can run deeper in some cases. Claims that one researcher has “stolen” the work of another by publishing it without giving due credit to the original researcher are not uncommon.

Moving Research to the Blockchain

The problems described above result from the fact that, traditionally, the technology required to build better solutions did not exist. Writing and verifying citations manually was the best that scholars could do.

And while the advent of digital technology has led to platforms like Google Scholar and Worldcat, which vie to create searchable, universal databases of certain types of academic work, they are far from perfect. They are not totally comprehensive in their coverage, and they don’t address issues like fraudulent data sets or inappropriate reuse of another scholar’s work.

Blockchain technology, however, has made it possible for a new generation of solutions to address the key challenges in academic research and publishing. To date, at least two platforms or projects have emerged in this vein:

  • ARTiFACTS, which debuted in March 2018. The ARTiFACTS platform includes an attribution engine that allows researchers to register findings on the Ethereum blockchain, providing an immutable record of their work. In addition, ARTiFACTS aims to build a community-maintained index of research findings in order to simplify accessibility to research.
  • Project Aiur. Aiur, which is still in development and has not yet set a platform release date, plans to combine artificial intelligence with a blockchain. The platform will first perform automated analysis of a scientific text to assess its usefulness and validity and then record that information on a blockchain. In this way, Aiur aims to improve access to credible scientific research, reduce fraudulent research and make it easier for scientists to disseminate their findings without having to rely on traditional publication channels.

Beyond these platforms, which target academic research specifically, other types of blockchain-based solutions could also conceivably help to improve the reliability and distribution of academic work. Proof-of-existence and timestamping solutions, such as OpenTimestamps and Po.et, could be used to register the existence of research on a blockchain.

Thinking further into the future, it may someday be possible to integrate blockchain-based research databases with digital documents so that claims within an article or other publication could be linked automatically and immutably to the specific external reference that supports them. That type of solution is not yet on the horizon, but if open-access, blockchain-based research databases come into existence, it should not be too difficult from a programming standpoint to integrate them directly into texts. 

On balance, it’s worth noting that platforms like ARTiFACTS and Project Aiur have their limitations. Unless they achieve adoption by all researchers in all disciplines across the planet, they won’t be able to build universal research databases that cover all publications. And while using artificial intelligence to evaluate research in order to reduce fraud and improve credibility will no doubt help to root out inaccurate publications, it seems unlikely to deliver perfect results. 

Yet even if blockchain-based solutions can’t fully address all of the shortcomings of the current means of registering, distributing and sharing academic research, they represent a significant step forward. They might finally bring research and publication processes into the 21st century, a feat that earlier digital technologies have not achieved.

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