Will Blockchain Revolutionize Scholarly Journal Publishing?

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Peer review will no longer be anonymous under the blockchain-based publishing model that the European start-up Orvium intends to use.

Since the 1990s, some academic netizens have predicted that open access will upend scholarly journal publishing, yet an oligopoly still dominates the $25-billion industry.

Orvium, a European start-up, recently joined those taking on the giant players. It offers a publishing and business plan based on blockchain — a coding structure that embeds origins and changes within a file. The format will allow for open-access or other licensing models to be determined by each client journal’s editors. The company’s ultimate objective is “to be the leading publication platform for the research community while returning the benefits of science to society.”

Manuel Martin, Orvium’s 38-year-old CEO and cofounder, said in a phone interview from Geneva that the company is in a period of beta testing and should be operational in 2019. A data scientist who has 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 journal publishing cheaper, faster, and more transparent.

Skeptics acknowledge blockchain’s potential for greater transparency but doubt that it will be faster or cheaper than other platforms that include article preprints. They question Orvium’s intent to lift anonymity from article reviewers. They are dubious, too, about elements of the business plan and point to a history of would-be publishing disruptors being bought up by the very companies they planned to compete with.

The Behemoths

Critics have long complained that the major players — Elsevier, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley — profit hugely from public research investment and the unpaid efforts of anonymous peer reviewers. Then, in what Orvium calls “an outrageous economic model,” the publishers sell the research results back to government and academic institutions at profits “reported to exceed those of companies such as Google, Amazon, and Apple.”

Far from destroying that model, the internet has enabled it, critics say, by bringing production and distribution costs for online publications down and increasing profit margins further — close to 40 percent, according to Forbes. In a February essay in the Canadian trade journal University Affairs, Adriane MacDonald and Nicole Eva, an assistant professor of policy and a research librarian, respectively, at the University of Lethbridge, in Canada, write that “the ability to avoid printing costs and to bundle electronic journals into ‘big deal’ packages has allowed publishers to put more of the subscription fees they charge directly into their pockets.” Those fees, depending on the size of the institution, are $350,000 to $9 million annually, they write.

The big publishers counter that their critics constitute a small minority of academics. The infrastructure that enables publishers to annually publish and distribute millions of articles to millions of scholars — much of that material now open access — is sophisticated, time and labor intensive, dependable, and high quality. The notion that academe can handle that job itself belies the realities of funding, the complexity of the enterprise, academic politics, and demands on scholars’ time. In short, the publishers argue, the present model persists and expands because it works.

Elsevier, for instance, says it published 284,000 papers a decade ago at a quality (measured by impact factor) 10 percent above market average. In 2017, it published more than 430,000 articles (roughly 17 percent of total industry output) at a quality 30 percent above market average. Moreover, the content is increasingly interactive, enabling users to post and compare data, manipulate graphs, and collaborate. The company’s network includes 20,000 editors and 80,000 editorial board members. “The growth in quality, submissions, and network,” Elsevier said, “would indicate that research communities in all disciplines believe we add value.”

A Quest for Transparency

Enter blockchain, which is perhaps best known as the foundation for the digital currency Bitcoin but has been discussed as a potentially revolutionary force in applications ranging from entertainment products to institutional and government bureaucracies. Blockchain files’ fundamental benefit is that they carry their histories within them.

By analogy, think how valuable it would be for a painting to have an encoded provenance demonstrating that it was created by Botticelli; modified and restored by a particular succession of conservators; belonged to an exact sequence of owners; appraised at a clear history of prices by a precise group of connoisseurs; bought most recently by a specific gallery; then lent for special exhibit to a particular museum. That would be a painting that a collector would be very interested in investing in.

Orvium seeks to bring similar accountability to journal publishing, with each article encoding its own origins, revisions, peer review, and details about data and methodology. It aims to make publishing affordable and fast. Traditional publishing’s turnaround times sometimes exceed two years. In light of recent incidents of research fraud, replication crises, and academic hoaxes, Orvium’s open-source coding and self-enforcing “smart contracts,” the company says, will also ensure that there is nothing up publishers’ proverbial sleeves.

Manuel Martin

A twist to Orvium’s model, related to but independent of the blockchain platform, is that peer review will no longer be anonymous. Martin said that reviewers have inevitable biases and perhaps conscious or unconscious competitive motives for throwing a roadblock in front of someone else’s research or advancing it. Revealing who reviewed an article and what they wrote about it will expose potential biases to interpretation and consideration. On the flip side, the now thankless task of reviewing can be recognized and potentially rewarded.

The company’s business model is based on Orvium tokens, a new Bitcoin-backed cryptocurrency. Manuscript submission, peer review, copyright-license payments, data sharing, and journal management will be paid for with the tokens. The journal owners, in conjunction with Orvium, will determine how fees and payments will be handled among the editors, authors, reviewers, readers, and institutions involved. Martin wouldn’t disclose details of Orvium’s privately raised capital, but he said that it aspires to a Token Generation Event (or TGE), kind of like a cryptocurrency initial public offering, of $20 million. Martin said Orvium will also raise ad revenue and will compile data sets and analysis that it can sell.

The company is incorporated in Estonia to allow for its decentralized teams of seven scientific, seven business, and 11 tech advisers, most of whom live in Switzerland, Spain, Germany, and England.

Although it will offer licensing options, Martin said that open access is a thrust of the enterprise and one that is clearly in political demand as the European Union works toward all of its member states’ scientific publications, by 2020, being immediately accessible upon publication. The company is in the midst of a five-phase rollout, with full publication options available next year, and fine tuning and integration of big-data analytics into early 2020.

There are other blockchain science applications, and other blockchain scholarly-publishing efforts like Project Aiur, begun by Norway’s Anita Schjøll Brede, an artificial-intelligence entrepreneur.

But Martin thinks Orvium is riding converged technological and political waves.

“I’m not saying that we’ll be the next Netflix,” he said, “but I think we are at the right time with the right tools.”

Tech vs. Social Problems

Martin Paul Eve, a professor of literature, technology, and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, said Orvium sounds like “a laudable enterprise in many ways. The immutable, distributed nature of blockchain technologies does, indeed, foster transparency.”

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

Eve said Orvium’s plan sounds like “a technological solution to a social problem.” He doesn’t think that scholars’ bad behavior can be fixed through blockchain. “It would be much better to sort the social problems by fixing the reward systems of academia.”

Parts of the Orvium blueprint — peer review, open data, assessment of methodology — don’t require blockchain, Eve said. There are already publishers offering those characteristics.

Beyond all that, Eve said, blockchain is an energy guzzler. “A recent study in Nature Climate Change,” he said,noted that Bitcoin, the current largest blockchain, for instance, produced 69 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2017 — the equivalent of one million trans-Atlantic flights or the total energy consumption of Austria. … The per-transaction energy of storing and verifying a distributed database with cryptographic proof of work is inherently more expensive than a centralized database.”

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

With research increasingly open to the public, scholars can’t expect readers, he said, to know who everyone is and which journals are reputable. Blockchain can offer additional information and reassurances about the review process. Today that level of trust is primarily an asset of the corporate publishing oligarchy. Blockchain might democratize it.

Willinsky worries, though, about the Orvium business plan. In the current system, universities cover the salaries of researchers in their roles as authors and reviewers. Commodifying that labor with a token system “could undermine the spirit of contribution to a common cause, which is to say the advancement of knowledge.”

A History of Disrupted Disruptors

Heather Morrison, an associate professor in 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, she hopes it will fail because she’d like the lion’s share of scholarly publishing to be in the hands of scholars.

Despite Orvium’s emphasis on open access, Morrison said, it is a for-profit company that will sell a variety of licenses. Who knows how much of it will be open to the public? Its data aggregation, in conjunction with ad sales, carries not just the profit potential but the privacy, control, and misuse hazards of other publishers and social media. And whatever Orvium’s practices and intentions, if it’s bought up by another company, those practices could all be altered, raising issues of trust from the outset.

While blockchain has intriguing possibilities for publishing, Morrison said, do readers really want all those embedded details of origin, revision, data, and methodology? And while Morrison is for open reviews where appropriate, reviewers often don’t want to be revealed.

Say you were reviewing a paper about climate change and thought that while it was an absolutely certain phenomenon, that article’s particular data were shaky. Imagine how climate-change deniers could misinterpret and misuse your published qualms. Or say that you thought the article was completely solid. Then climate-change deniers would have your name and could come after you to threaten and harass. Transparency has its benefits, Morrison said, but sometimes so does anonymity.

Orvium is also riding in as a white knight to save a fair damsel — open access — that is not in distress, she said. Open access, even if it wasn’t the quick, tidy revolution some envisioned 20 years ago, is in a period of drastic growth. A decade ago, she said, there were about 300 open-access journals, and now there are some 10,000. And while academics like to stick their tongues out at the mega-publishers, those behemoths provide much of that open-access content.

Orvium touts “disruption,” but open-access oriented disruptors in this industry have a history of getting gobbled up by those they would disrupt. Morrison said. For example, Elsevier has acquired a number of one-time disruptors, including the preprint and publishing platforms SSRN and bepress, as well as Plum Analytics, an “altmetrics” research-impact service.

Beyond acquisition, disruption in the journal market has been underway for a while, said Morrison. Institutional and academic library subscription packages remain hugely lucrative for the big publishers. But there have been cancellations, threats of cancellations, and tougher negotiating stances. For instance, European consortia have been playing hardball with the big publishers and are sharing their tactics with counterparts in Asia. The Scientist reported that the University of Montreal, in 2015, determined that only 11.6 percent to 36.9 percent of the titles in its subscription bundles were indispensable, so it renegotiated pricing with the publishers. Florida State University recently announced that as of January 2019, it would cancel its bulk Elsevier subscription, instead subscribing to a subset of the most needed journals. The university explained

that “the exceptionally high and ever-increasing cost of the Elsevier ‘big deal’ has made it unsustainable. Florida State University currently pays just under $2 million a year, and the cost increases by at least 4 percent annually.”

Journal piracy by sites like Sci-Hub adds to the pressure on publishers and gives institutions further leverage in their negotiations.

So far the damage to 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 its business focus beyond journal publishing toward data aggregation and analysis based on the journals. Examples include rankings of the impacts and prestige of particular scholars, departments, programs, and institutions.

It could be that a model like Orvium’s will take hold in some disciplines, particularly tech ones, but not others. Journal publishing is a competitive market, said Willinsky, of Stanford, but one that is large enough that a company can leave an initial footprint with a “proof of concept” for others to follow and tinker with. He envisions not the demise of the big publishers but the introduction of innovations that might “further democratize a global system and enable new players.” Blockchain, he said, could become part of that publishing ecosystem.

Alexander C. Kafka is a Chronicle senior editor. Follow him on Twitter @AlexanderKafka, or email him at alexander.kafka@chronicle.com.

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