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26: A blockchain-based model of peer review

This is adapted from our “recent” paper in F1000 Research, entitled “A multi-disciplinary perspective on emergent and future innovations in peer review.” Due to its rather monstrous length, I’ll be posting chunks of the text here in sequence over the next few weeks/months to help disseminate it in more easily digestible bites. Enjoy!

This section outlines what would a model of blockchain-based peer review system of annotation could look like. Note that since originally publishing this paper, a number of new blockchain-based ventures have emerged within the scholarly communication system. Exciting!

Previous parts in this series:

  1. An Introduction.
  2. An Early History
  3. The Modern Revolution
  4. Recent Studies
  5. Modern Role and Purpose
  6. Criticisms of the Conventional System
  7. Modern Trends and Traits
  8. Development of Open Peer Review
  9. Giving Credit to Referees
  10. Publishing Review Reports
  11. Anonymity Versus Identification
  12. Anonymity Versus Identification (II)
  13. Anonymity Versus Identification (III)
  14. Decoupling Peer Review from Publishing
  15. Preprints and Overlay Journals
  16. Two-stage peer review and Registered Reports
  17. Peer review by endorsement
  18. Limitations of decoupled Peer Review
  19. Potential future models of Peer Review
  20. A Reddit-based model
  21. An Amazon-based model
  22. A Stack Exchange/Overflow-style model
  23. A GitHub-style model
  24. A Wikipedia-style model
  25. A Hypothesis-style model

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Peer review has the potential to be reinvented as a more efficient, fair, and otherwise attribute-enabled process through blockchains, a computer data structure that operates a distributed public ledger (wikipedia.org/wiki/Blockchain). A blockchain connects a row of data blocks through a cryptographic function, with each block containing a time stamp and a link to the previous block in the chain. This system is decentralized, distributed, immutable, and transparent (Antonopoulos, 2014; Nakamoto, 2008; Yli-Huumo et al., 2016). Perhaps most importantly, individual chains are managed by peer-to-peer networks that collectively adhere to specific validation protocols. Blockchain became widely known as the data structure in Bitcoin due to its ability to efficiently record transactions between parties in a verifiable and permanent manner. It has also been applied to other uses including sharing verified business transactions, proof of ownership of legal documents, and distributed cloud storage.

The blockchain technology could be leveraged to create a tokenized peer review system involving penalties for members who do no uphold the adopted standards and vice versa. A blockchain-powered peer-reviewed journal could be issued as a token system to reward contributors, reviewers, editors, commentators, forum participants, advisors, staff, consultants, and indirect service providers involved in scientific publishing (Swan, 2015). Such rewards could be in the form of reputation and/or remuneration, potentially through a form of digital currency (say Science Coins). Through a system of community trust, blockchains could be used to handle the following tasks:

  • Authenticating scientific papers (using time stamps and checksums), combating fraudulent science;

  • Allowing and encouraging reviewers to actively engage in the scientific community;

  • Rewarding reviewers for peer reviews with Science Coins;

  • Allowing authors to contribute by giving Science Coins;

  • Supporting verification and replicability of research.

  • Keeping reviewers and authors anonymous, while providing a validated certification of their identity as researchers, and rewarding them.

This could help to improve the quality and responsiveness of peer reviews, as these are published publicly and the different participants are rewarded for their contributions. For instance, reviewers for a blockchain-powered peer-reviewed journal could invest tokens in their comments and get rewarded if the comment is upvoted by other reviewers and the authors. All tokens need to be spent in making comments or upvoting other comments. When the peer review is completed, reviewers get rewarded according to the quality of their remarks. In addition, the rewards can be attributed even if reviewer and author identity is kept secret; such a system can decouple the quality assessment of the reviews from the reviews themselves, such that reviewers get credited while their reviews are kept anonymous. Moreover, increased transparency and interaction is facilitated between authors, reviewers, the scientific community, and the public. The journal Ledger, launched in 2015, is the first academic journal that makes use of a system of digital signatures and time stamps based on blockchain technology (ledgerjournal.org). The aim is to generate irrevocable proof that a given manuscript existed on the date of publication. Another publishing platform being developed that leverages blockchain is Aletheia, which uses the technology to “achieve a distributed and tamper proof database of information, storing document metadata, vote topics, vote results and information specific to users such as reputation and certifications” (github.com/aletheia-foundation/aletheia-whitepaper/blob/master/WHITE-PAPER.md#a-blockchain-journal).

Furthermore, blockchain-based models offer the potential to go well beyond peer review, possibly integrating all functions of publication in general. They could be used to support data publication, research evaluation, incentivization, and research fund distribution. A relevant example is a proposed decentralized peer review group as a way of managing quality control in peer review via blockchain through a system of cohort-based training (Dhillon, 2016). This has also been leveraged as a “proof of existence” platform for scientific research (Torpey, 2015) and medical trials (Carlisle, 2014). However, the uptake from the academic community remains low thus far, despite claims that it could be a potential technical fix to the reproducibility crisis in research (Bartling & Fecher, 2016). As with other novel processes, this is likely due to broad-scale unfamiliarity with blockchain, and perhaps even discomfort due to its financial association with Bitcoin.

Reference

Tennant JP, Dugan JM, Graziotin D et al. A multi-disciplinary perspective on emergent and future innovations in peer review [version 3; referees: 2 approved]. F1000Research 2017, 6:1151 (doi: 10.12688/f1000research.12037.3)

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