Locked paywalls and high fees are defining characteristics of traditional academic research. DeSci can lower the barriers to access.
Academia and science are both in the throes of a crisis, marked by several inefficiencies directly impacting our scientific prowess and research capabilities. The subject of stagnation within universities and academic institutions is taboo, and there is no place in this system for dissenting intellectuals who challenge the status quo or the quality of scientific research.
Decentralized science (DeSci) aims to disrupt these systems for good reason. DeSci paired with blockchain technology has the potential to upend existing funding schemes and enhance collaboration between stakeholders in scientific endeavors.
Access to scientific reports and research is a highly contentious issue. In the digital age, the scientific publishing industry has created a fortified oligarchy that threatens the integrity of scientific innovation. The sector benefits from publicly funded research to achieve more significant profit margins than Google, Amazon or Apple. Instead of advancing science, these publishers conceal government-funded research behind locked paywalls and charge high subscription fees for access.
Defined by the mantra “publish or perish,” scientists have become entangled in a game where their career prospects depend more on the publication of their work in prestigious journals than the merits of the work itself — a self-referential hierarchy that is carefully maintained by publishers to drive revenue. To gain this acceptance, scientists tend to publish the most eye-catching and unexpected results, feeding into what has been called the “reproducibility crisis in science.”
In a 2016 survey conducted by Nature, 70% of researchers noted that they have tried and failed to reproduce their colleagues’ experiments. This inability to reproduce experiments threatens the foundation and accuracy of scientific literature. This flawed system leads to an environment that fosters exclusivity and discourages data sharing among the scientific community, directly impacting the quality and caliber of the research produced.
From these fragilities came the birth of the open access movement, a campaign to make scientific content freely available to the public. The movement began in the early 2000s and sought to release papers from behind publishers’ paywalls. Over the past two decades, the movement has made steady progress, with a growing amount of academic research now available on an open basis. Nature’s recent announcement that authors from low- and lower-middle-income countries will be able to publish in its pages for free reflected the movement’s positive impact.
Despite these advances, “open science” has inherited many of the same limitations as mainstream science. Scientists may still be afraid to comment on a senior colleague’s research paper under their own name for fear of repercussions. This makes it less likely for scientists from disadvantaged backgrounds to participate in open science and could worsen existing scientific inequities. These issues are further exacerbated by publishers charging article processing charges (APCs) to make an article open access. As publishers raise APCs, institutions face direct financial pressure and must limit the number of grants they award.
Web2 protocols such as Git emerged to counter the restrictions of centralized version control systems and create an open-source alternative that enables software teams to create projects of all sizes with efficiency, speed and asynchronicity. This approach increases transparency and verifiability while also opening up new avenues for collaboration.
Web3 protocols such as the InterPlanetary File System have also emerged in response to the centralized web — the latter of which lacks privacy, sells our data to third parties and is prone to single points of failure. Both of the above inventions arose directly from the limitations of pre-internet scientific research.
Decentralizing science has no inherent economic incentives. It is a restorative mission to increase scientific funding, eliminate reliance on profit-hungry intermediaries and increase collaboration across the field. Decentralized entities and tools such as decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), quadratic funding and crowdsourcing can help scientists unlock alternative ways to fund more diverse scientific ventures. By disseminating scientific discoveries publicly via scalable tokenomics, DeSci can eliminate profiteering middlemen, such as publishers, and reshape the scientific publishing industry for the better.
Most importantly, DeSci harnesses the power of crowdsourcing, which enables scientists to pool their hypotheses and data to solve problems faster and more efficiently. Crowdsourcing platforms, originally designed to help machine learning engineers, are making larger data sets available for scientific studies and increasing the diversity of research projects. Those institutions using Web3 and blockchain tools will flourish, making traditional academic systems less optimal and attractive.
One thing is certain: Blockchain and Web3 are going to reshape academia for the better by providing scientists with the tools they need to efficiently and effectively produce disruptive research.