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 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.
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
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:
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
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