Will Blockchain revolutionize the publication of academic publications?

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The peer review will no longer be anonymous according to the blockchain-based publication model that intends to use the European Orvium start-up.

Starting in the 1990s, some citizens of the academic network have predicted that open access will lighten the publication of scientific journals, yet an oligopoly still dominates the $ 25 billion industry.

Orvium, a European start-up, has recently joined those who have conquered the giant players. Offers a publication and business plan based on blockchain, a coding structure that incorporates origins and changes within a file. The format will allow the definition of open access templates or other licensing models by each client's publishers. The ultimate goal of the company is "to be the leading publishing platform for the research community, while restoring the benefits of science to society".

Manuel Martin, 38, CEO and co-founder of Orvium, said in a telephone interview from Geneva that the company is in a beta test period and is expected to be operational in 2019. A data scientist who he worked with CERN and NASA, Martin, who was born in Spain, said that he and his fellow cofounders, Antonio Romero and Roberto Rabasco, started the company to make the publication of cheaper, faster and more transparent magazines .

Skeptics recognize the potential for blockchain for greater transparency, but they doubt it will be faster or cheaper than other platforms that include article preprints. They question the intent of Orvium to raise anonymity from article reviewers. They are also debatable on the elements of the business plan and point to a history of potential editorial destroyers bought by the same companies with whom they intended to compete.

The Behemoths

Critics have long complained that key players – Elsevier, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis and Wiley – are making huge profits from public research investment and from unpaid efforts by anonymous peer reviewers. So, in what Orvium calls "an outrageous economic model", publishers sell research results to governmental and academic institutions with profits "that exceed those of companies like Google, Amazon and Apple."

Far from destroying that model, the Internet has enabled it, critics say, bringing production and distribution costs for online publications down and further increasing profit margins, nearly 40%, according to Forbes. In a February article in the Canadian trade journal University business, Adriane MacDonald and Nicole Eva, an assistant professor of politics and a research librarian, respectively, at the University of Lethbridge, Canada, write that "the possibility of avoiding printing costs and packaging electronic journals in packages "Big deal" allowed publishers to put in more registration fees that load directly into their pockets ". These taxes, depending on the size of the institution, are from $ 350,000 to $ 9 million a year, they write.

The great publishers reply that their critics constitute a small minority of academics. The infrastructure that allows publishers to publish and distribute millions of articles annually to millions of scholars – much of this material now freely accessible – is sophisticated, takes time and effort, is reliable and of high quality. The idea that the academy is able to manage this work belies the realities of financing, the complexity of the enterprise, the academic policy and the demands of the time of the scholars. In short, publishers maintain, the current model persists and expands because it works.

Elsevier, for example, claims to have published 284,000 documents a decade ago with a quality (measured by the impact factor) of 10% above the market average. In 2017 it published over 430,000 articles (about 17% of the total production of the sector) with a quality of 30% higher than the market average. Furthermore, the content is increasingly interactive, allowing users to publish and compare data, manipulate charts and collaborate. The company's network includes 20,000 publishers and 80,000 members of the editorial board. "The growth of quality, communications and the network", said Elsevier, "would indicate that the research communities of all disciplines believe that we add value".

A search for transparency

Enter blockchain, which is perhaps best known as the foundation of the Bitcoin digital currency but has been discussed as a potentially revolutionary force in applications ranging from entertainment products to institutional and government bureaucracies. The key advantage of blockchain is that they bring their stories with them.

By analogy, he thinks how precious it would be for a painting to have a codified provenance that demonstrates that it was created by Botticelli; modified and restored by a particular succession of conservatives; belonged to an exact sequence of owners; evaluated in a clear price history by a specific group of connoisseurs; most recently bought from a specific gallery; then I lent for a special exhibition at a particular museum. That would be a painting to which a collector would be very interested in investing.

Orvium tries to give a similar responsibility to the publication in magazines, with each article that codifies its origins, revisions, peer reviews and details on data and methodology. It aims to make publication cheap and fast. Delivery times for traditional publications sometimes exceed two years. In light of the recent incidents of research fraud, replication crises and academic buffaloes, the open source encoding of Orvium and the self-explanatory "smart contracts", says drqsdyqdcyzvwwzruyursz, will also ensure that publishers' proverbial sleeves no longer exist.

Manuel Martin

A breakthrough to the Orvium model, related but independent of the blockchain platform, is that peer review will no longer be anonymous. Martin said that the reviewers have inevitable prejudices and perhaps conscious or unconscious competitive reasons for having launched a roadblock in front of someone else's search or having advanced it. Revealing who reviewed an article and what he wrote exposes potential biases to interpretation and consideration. On the downside, the ungrateful task of revision can be recognized and potentially rewarded.

The business model of the company is based on Orvium token, a new cryptocurrency supported by Bitcoin. The presentation of manuscripts, peer review, payments of copyright licenses, data sharing and management of periodicals will be paid with tokens. Magazine owners, in collaboration with Orvium, will determine how commissions and payments will be managed among publishers, authors, reviewers, readers and institutions involved. Martin would not disclose the details of Orvium's private capital, but he said he aspires to a Token Generation Event (or TGE), somewhat as an initial public offering of cryptocurrency, of $ 20 million. Martin said that Orvium will also increase advertising revenue and compile data sets and analyzes that it can sell.

The company was incorporated in Estonia to allow the decentralized organization of seven scientific advisors, seven business and eleven technical consultants, most of whom live in Switzerland, Spain, Germany and England.

Although it offers licensing options, Martin has stated that open access is a business thrust and that it is clearly a political question while the European Union works on all scientific publications in the Member States, by 2020, immediately accessible after publication. The company is in the middle of a five-step implementation, with full publishing options available next year and fine-tuning and integration of big data analytics at the start of 2020 .

There are other applications of blockchain science and other blockchains that advertise academic studies such as Project Aiur, initiated by the Norwegian Anita Schjøll Brede, an artificial intelligence entrepreneur.

But Martin thinks that Orvium is riding convergent technological and political waves.

"I'm not saying we'll be the next Netflix," he said, "but I think we're right at the right time with the right tools."

Tech vs. social issues

Martin Paul Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, said that Orvium sounds like "a praiseworthy venture in many ways." The immutable and distributed nature of blockchain technologies, in fact, favors transparency ".

But, he says, there is no evidence that such a system brings cost reductions or speed. Blockchain technologies are also, he said, subject to a hostile takeover. An attacker who controls 51% of computing power on a blockchain can introduce fraudulent data.

Eve said that Orvium's plan seems "a technological solution to a social problem". He does not think that the bad behavior of scholars can be solved by blockchain. "It would be much better to solve social problems by fixing the reward systems of the academic world".

Parts of the Orvium plan – peer review, open data, methodology evaluation – do not require blockchain, Eve said. There are already publishers offering these features.

Beyond all this, Eve said, blockchain is an energy problem. "A recent study in Nature, climate change,"He said, "noted that Bitcoin, the current largest blockchain, for example, produced 69 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2017 – the equivalent of one million transatlantic flights or the total energy consumption of Austria. … The energy per transaction to archive and verify a distributed database with cryptographic workloads is inherently more expensive than a centralized database. "

John Willinsky, a professor of education at Stanford University who studies academic communication, is also fascinated by the Orvium model, but notes some other potential drawbacks.

With a search increasingly open to the public, scholars can not expect readers, he said, to know who they are and which magazines are respectable. Blockchain can offer further information and reassurance on the review process. Today that level of trust is primarily a resource of the oligarchy of business publishing. Blockchain could democratize it.

Willinsky is concerned, however, with Orvium's business plan. In the current system, universities cover the salaries of researchers in their roles as authors and reviewers. To change that work with a symbolic system "could undermine the spirit of contribution to a common cause, namely the progress of knowledge".

A history of disrupted disrupters

Heather Morrison, an associate professor at the School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa, sees Orvium's plan in a harsher light. She thinks it will fail. In fact, he hopes it will fail because he would like the lion's share of academic publishing to be in the hands of scholars.

Despite Orvium's emphasis on open access, Morrison said, is a for-profit company that will sell a variety of licenses. Who knows how much will be open to the public? Its aggregation of data, along with ad sales, not only leads to the potential for profit, but also risks of privacy, control and misuse of other publishers and social media. And regardless of the practices and intentions of Orvium, if purchased from another company, these practices could be changed, raising issues of trust from the beginning.

While the blockchain has interesting publishing possibilities, Morrison said, do readers really want all those embedded details of origin, revision, data and methodology? And while Morrison is for open reviews, if appropriate, reviewers often do not want to be unveiled.

You say you were reviewing a document on climate change and thought that while it was an absolutely certain phenomenon, the particular data of that article was shaky. Imagine how the deniers of climate change could misunderstand and misuse your published scruples. Or to say that you thought the article was completely solid. Then the deniers of climate change would have your name and could come after you to threaten and harass. Transparency has its advantages, Morrison said, but sometimes it also does anonymity.

Orvium is also riding like a white knight to save a beautiful damsel – open access – who is not in trouble, he said. The open access, even if it was not the rapid and orderly revolution that some imagined 20 years ago, is in a period of drastic growth. About ten years ago, he said, there were about 300 open access journals, and now there are around 10,000 journals. And while academics like to stick to the mega-publishers, those colossi provide much of that content with open access.

Orvium urges "interruptions", but open access-oriented interferers in this sector have a history of devourers from those who interrupt. Morrison said. For example, Elsevier has acquired a series of occasional intrusions, including the printing and publishing platforms SSRN and bepress, as well as Plum Analytics, an impact service on "altetrical" research.

In addition to the acquisition, the interruption in the magazine market has been going on for a while, Morrison said. Subscription packages to institutional and academic libraries remain extremely profitable for large publishers. But there have been cancellations, threats of cancellations and harsher negotiation positions. For example, European consortia have played hard with big publishers and are sharing their tactics with Asian counterparts. The scientist reported that the University of Montreal, in 2015, established that only 11.6 percent to 36.9 percent of the securities in its subscription bundles were indispensable, so it renegotiated prices with publishers. Florida State University recently announced that as of January 2019, it would cancel its Elsevier subscription, instead of subscribing to a sub-group of the most needed journals. The university explained that "the exceptionally high and growing cost of Elsevier's" big deal "made it unsustainable: Florida State University currently pays just under $ 2 million a year and the cost increases by at least 4% in the year ".

Official piracy from sites such as Sci-Hub increases pressure on publishers and offers institutions a further leverage in their negotiations.

So far, the damage to the publishers' bottom line has been limited, but Morrison and others think that Elsevier, at least, has read the writing on the wall and is gradually shifting his business interest beyond the publication of the newspaper to aggregation and l & # 39; Data analysis based on magazines. Examples include rankings of the impacts and prestige of particular scholars, departments, programs and institutions.

It could be that a model like that of Orvium takes possession of some disciplines, in particular the technical ones, but not of others. Publication in magazines is a competitive market, said Willinsky, of Stanford, but it is large enough to allow a company to leave an initial footprint with a "demonstration of the concept" that others can follow and experiment with. . It does not foresee the disappearance of the great publishers, but the introduction of innovations that could "further democratize a global system and allow new actors". Blockchain, he said, could become part of that editorial ecosystem.

Alexander C. Kafka is a senior publisher of Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter @AlexanderKafka, or send him an e-mail on [email protected]

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