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Are you familiar with blockchain? If not, you likely will be soon. Today, it is rapidly extending into many industries, including health care, legal, manufacturing — and even journal publishing. Its potential uses and the problems it could solve make it exciting, but publishers should proceed with caution as it may not live up to the hype and could even create problems of its own.

What is blockchain?

Blockchain is basically a massive decentralized ledger many sources maintain as they securely record and verify all types of transactions. The technology creates a permanent record of every information transaction on every participating node, ensuring neither a single point of failure nor a single central authority controlling the data exists.

But what problems can it solve for journal publishers?

Research depends on collaboration through sharing ideas, data, and results, often across geographical areas and over time. Research builds on the work of others. However, many publishing systems, workflows, and processes are outdated and can’t adequately facilitate this collaboration. Blockchain may be the answer for many aspects of this collaborative process.

  • Peer review — Peer review can be a cumbersome, time-consuming, and expensive process fraught with problems such as bias, lack of transparency, lack of recognition for reviewers, as well as the potential for data manipulation and fraud. Blockchain can be used to create incorruptible, transparent data trails; efficient processes; as well as secure, permanent publication decision records, which can lead to more trust in the process.
  • Reproducibility — The ability to reproduce other researchers’ experiments is vital to scientific advancement. Researchers could use blockchain technology to reproduce experiments for which authors poorly described methods, did not include complete data, or drew incorrect conclusions by revealing additional research steps authors did not cite in articles.
  • Failure to publish failed experiments — Often, researchers and publishers don’t want to publish negative results or those that don’t corroborate hypotheses or result in novel conclusions. But failed research can be quite valuable for other researchers. Blockchain applications can record and make data available to prevent other researchers from wasting time and resources by following the same paths as well as help them avoid mistakes.

Blockchain’s challenges

Despite blockchain’s potential for building trust in and transforming many aspects of scholarly publishing, it is still a new technology that may or may not live up to its hype. It also introduces additional problems surrounding the very tenets it espouses, such as transparency, privacy, digital identity, and permanence. If a digital identity is built on false information, how can researchers or publishers change it? How can they correct or retract false information?

Bitcoin is also expensive. To be effective, it requires overhauling a very entrenched publishing model and its associated processes. Plus, to be successful, researchers and publishers alike must widely adopt it. Before jumping on the blockchain bandwagon, publishers need to ask themselves whether they could solve problems in scholarly publishing through less radical changes to their publishing environments and processes.

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