Blockchain could lend security measures to the scientific process, but the approach has its own risks.
The much-hyped technology behind Bitcoin, known as blockchain, has intoxicated investors around the world and is now making tentative inroads into science, spurred by broad promises that it can transform key elements of the research enterprise. Supporters say that it could enhance reproducibility and the peer review process by creating incorruptible data trails and securely recording publication decisions. But some also argue that the buzz surrounding blockchain often exceeds reality and that introducing the approach into science could prove expensive and introduce ethical problems.
A few collaborations, including Scienceroot and Pluto, are already developing pilot projects for science. Scienceroot aims to raise US$20 million, which will help pay both peer reviewers and authors within its electronic journal and collaboration platform. It plans to raise the funds in early 2018 by exchanging some of the science tokens it uses for payment for another digital currency known as ether. And the Wolfram Mathematica algebra program — which is widely used by researchers — is currently working towards offering support for an open-source blockchain platform called Multichain. Scientists could use this, for example, to upload data to a shared, open workspace that isn’t controlled by any specific party, according to Multichain.
Blockchain, a technology that creates an immutable public record of transactions, has a “Wild West, boom or bust culture”, says Martin Hamilton, a London-based resident futurist at Jisc, which supports digital services in UK education. He warns that academics and entrepreneurs might be tempted to add the technology solely to make their projects seem “magical and sparkly”. As one sign of this trend, consulting firm Deloitte has identified more than 24,000 aborted, largely financial, blockchain projects on the GitHub software-development platform in 2016 alone. Yet Hamilton still says blockchain has incredible potential. “There will be things that we try which simply blow up in our faces,” he says. “But the rewards can be huge, if you’re willing to take a calibrated risk.”
Blockchain underlies cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which is traded as units called bitcoins, with a lowercase ‘b’. It is created by a community of ‘miners’, who run Bitcoin software on their hardware and compete to discover a hard-to-find number by trial and error. The victor of this contest adds an encrypted block of transactions to the chain and earns a financial reward. They communicate the extended blockchain to all the other miners, and the process starts again.