Q&A: How blockchain can help scientists
Blockchain, as with other sectors, has the potential to transform science, from publishing to seeking research grants. As an example of this potential, DEIP is a new blockchain-based research platform for scientists.
Many areas of science become bogged down with bureaucracy, such as attracting financing for research; or they are unrewarded, such as with the peer review process or with academic journals that charge high fees for publishing.
To discover more, Digital Journal spoke with Artyom Ruseckiy, Chief Operating Officer at DEIP, which is a research platform with digital economy for science.
Digital Journal: How would you define blockchain?
Artyom Ruseckiy: Blockchain is a decentralized digital ledger of transactions that need no central authority to happen. Transactions within blockchain are not necessarily transfer of money – it can be any value. For example, within DEIP a transaction is a write operation, which is adding new information to the platform, for example, publishing research, publishing a peer review etc. Most important feature of blockchain based systems is decentralization. Almost all services that surround us today – banks, social networks, search engines – are owned by some central body that controls your data and sets the rules of the game. Banks charge fees for their services, social networks sell you ads. When using these services, we have to share our information and imply that we trust those who’ll keep it. As opposed to it, blockchains are designed to be decentralized, data within them can be simultaneously stored on thousands of computers around the world, allowing no one in particular to own it. What does it give to the end users? It enables them to interact peer to peer, without relying on a third party and trust. One more important feature can be implemented in blockchain is immutability – once a piece of data got into blockchain, it can’t be erased and will be safely stored there.
DJ: Does blockchain always require a cryptocurrency?
Ruseckiy: In fact it’s vice versa – cryptocurrencies require blockchain and are built using this technology, like some mobile apps are built using Android or iOS. The reason why it seems that blockchains require a cryptocurrency is the following: founders of blockchain apps or platforms often look for a way to incentivize and reward people for using it. So they invent a token, or cryptocurrency, of the same name – say, within the DEIP blockchain we have the DEIP Token. Its role is that of liquid currency: the more members (scientists) contribute to science on the platform, the more DEIP Tokens they earn. Later they can be exchanged to fiat money.
DJ: Which sectors have adopted blockchain?
Ruseckiy: Although application of blockchain is growing in many sectors (government, healthcare, insurance, media, gaming etc.), the ones that can boast the strongest use cases are banking and finance. It’s natural, as even the very first blockchain, Bitcoin, is a financial project – a payment network for secure peer-to-peer transactions without relying on trust. The advantages of blockchain for banking and finance are evident:, low costs of operations, safety in storing and transmitting data, lower risks of frauds and errors, transparency. $20 billion – that’s how world much banking sector will save up by 2022 through implementing blockchain, Accenture consulting says.
DJ: Why has the science sector been slow to consider blockchain?
Ruseckiy: Science is simply not the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of blockchain. Unlike banking and finance, which are all about financial transactions and therefore obvious to benefit from the adoption of blockchain, science is different and more complex. Apart from financial transactions – grants from funding agencies, there are also transfers of another type of value – knowledge produced as a result of research. How blockchain can optimize these processes (and whether it should) requires more effort and expertise to see. Besides, science is government-regulated, which makes it less mobile and innovations slower to be adopted. While some governments like UK, US, Estonia, Switzerland, Georgia and Gibraltar are using blockchain to improve public services, many are still skeptical and resistant to it. This is natural, as the technology is new and hasn’t shown many cases of adoption so far. Finally, there are still negative connotations around blockchain connected with cryptocurrencies, price swings and illegal trading in the dark web.
DJ: How does blockchain help with purchasing science equipment?
Ruseckiy: In fact, there’s no universal answer – all blockchains are different and provide different solutions. On DEIP, blockchain helps in several ways.
First, scientists can earn internal currency that can be used for buying things. Each paper published on DEIP is peer reviewed and evaluated by scientists – members of DEIP. Following their evaluation, a paper is rewarded with internal currency of the platform; the higher is the evaluation by the scientific community, the more currency it earns. Exchanged to real money, it can be later used to buy science equipment, pay rent etc. What does such system signal to scientists? That the more and the higher-quality research they produce and share, the more financial sustainability it will give them to produce even more research results. So we hope that in the long term DEIP will stimulate evolution of science. Second, blockchain facilitates interaction between scientists and funders and allows the former to enjoy more funding opportunities. This point is more traditional – these are traditional grants from funding agencies. However, through the DEIP blockchain their distribution can be optimized and automated. It allows funders to distribute grants easier and at a larger scale, and scientists – to apply for more and to wait less for their proposals to be accepted.
DJ: Can blockchain change science publishing?
Ruseckiy: Yes. Firstly, DEIP enables scientists to publish immediately – all papers are open to public once submitted to the platform. The papers are peer reviewed by other members of DEIP, scientists in the corresponding disciplines, who are incentivized to do it after publishing. Today it takes much time, which slows down the sharing of results and interferes with a researcher’s job, grant and tenure applications. Secondly, DEIP offers publishers a brand new monetization model, enabling them to become fully open access (now only about 25% of the research knowledge is such) and to stop charging any fees – either from researchers, or from their institutions. This model can easily be adopted by the existing, reputable journals.
DJ: How does the DEIP platform work?
Ruseckiy: Papers highly evaluated by scientific community are rewarded in the internal currency. A journal may ask a part of a paper’s reward for publishing it. Thus, a journal is interested to select best papers as viewed by scientists themselves – no matter whether its results are negative results or its author is an early career researcher etc. – as the main thing influencing how much a journal will get ultimately depends on how the paper is evaluated by scientists. All peer reviews of a certain paper influence the ECI – Expertise Contribution Index, major qualitative characteristic of scientific contribution on the platform. And now imagine: usually, to make a decision on distributing a grant, a funder has to evaluate all the projects that applied for it – for this it gathers a panel of scientists, who should be carefully selected to avoid conflicts of interest; the whole procedure can last weeks and months. With DEIP, a funder can use the result of open peer review and ECI. For grant givers, it can significantly simplify and increase the efficiency of distributing money. One more thing how blockchain can make grant system more efficient is smart contract. This is the algorithm that helps automate operations on the platform. Say, a funder wants to distribute a grant to early career researchers in quantum optics from countries A, B and C – this request is put on a smart contract that will automatically and transparently distribute a grant between such platform participants. All these things – ECI and smart contracts – allow granting agencies to work more efficiently and save huge costs on grant administration. On our estimates, each year 30-45% of grants are spent on their administration – with the help of DEIP this sum could be spent on grants instead.
DJ: Which blockchain developers are the most interesting?
Ruseckiy: Certainly, Bitcoin – it’s the very first blockchain, I highly recommend reading its whitepaper. Then there’s Ethereum – it was the first to introduce the notion of smart contracts. Also, Graphene – it’s one of the most advanced blockchain technologies today, that is fats, requires little computing power and enables free transactions. DEIP is built using this technology. Bitshares, Steemit and EOS – they’re all built using Graphene and are interesting too.
DJ: How can blockchain aid collaboration between science researchers at different facilities?
Ruseckiy: Blockchain facilitates collaboration between scientists from different parts of the world. Say, you’re doing research and are looking for a researcher with a certain, very rare expertise. On DEIP you can find a person, see their expertise, background, research projects they participated in, their roles and contribution. What blockchain does is to ensure that all this information is trustworthy, as it is curated by the scientific community, so you can invite the researcher your project needs to join your group.