Biology, Blockchains and the Science Paper of the Future

By Dick Bourgeois-Doyle


Like a skinny kid in a Superman costume, I lacked substance, but still beamed with pride when granted the opportunity to associate with Canadian Science Publishing (CSP) as a blog columnist.

I couldn't claim intimacy with CSP publication policies or with any field touched by its science journals. But I admired the organization's persistence in the face of constant change, and I loved its online presence: light on self-promotion and focused on science communications.

So, even though my pride and desire to help rested on unsophisticated reasons, I was surprised this spring when my UofT biologist daughter Rebecca told me about her friend Chris. She said he had an ambition that would, in effect, put CSP out of business.

Later when I met Chris in a Kensington Market café, I learned that he had just turned thirty and that we had something in common.

He, like sixty-five-year-old me, had retired this year.

"Bitcoins," he said. "Kind of like winning the lottery."

Though a little envious and defensive, I tried to sound cool.

"I'm impressed more by your decision to sell than to buy," I told him, acting like I knew something.

Chris and his flexible funds had my attention though, and this led to a conversation about our intertwining post-retirement plans: mine with CSP, his trying to disrupt its paradigm.

Chris may find his way back into the paid-work world someday. But he quit his web analytics job this spring to direct the bitcoin bootie toward the application of technology for social good, specifically the creation of what he and Rebecca see as "the science journal of the future."

Even before our conversation, I had heard that science journals might someday be managed in the bitcoin-inspired blockchain. As anyone who has bought or earned a bitcoin knows, a block in a chain contains timestamped records that are imbued with hash functions linked to other blocks and drenched in cryptography. This combination makes blockchain information (at least for now) tamper-proof and amenable to authentication via peer-to-peer networks.

To the Millennial minds of Chris, my daughter, and their friends, this offers a great format for posting scientific papers that would in turn be recorded, shared, and reviewed, but not altered.

"I want to build a decentralized platform where researchers can publish their work for free and participate in crowd-sourced peer review," Chris explained. "Papers will be given a score based on factors such as status of the review, reproducibility, and quality of cited papers, and again, of course, all content will be open access."

"Who will give papers this score?" I asked.

"Well, basically, anyone."

"Oh," I said.

Sensing skepticism, Chris described how coded weighting would filter out the ill-intentioned and how embedded incentives would attract constructive reviews all the while modernizing the research communication infrastructure and making "the process more efficient, transparent, and accessible."

I thanked him, paid for my beer, and met up with Rebecca to immediately confess that I really didn't get what her friend had been talking about. Later she conveyed this information to Chris who duly emailed me PDFs and web links with commentary on what is seen as flaws in paywall journal publishing and on the super powers of blockchain technologies.

Much of this stuff reads like computer code in prose, particularly on how proponents would ensure the integrity of the review process and secure needed resources.

Visioning the Future of Science Publishing

I remained confused, set the papers aside, and might never have read it all or at least not with determination to understand if it were not for the advent of my first CSP assignment: moderating a workshop at the University of Manitoba for the CSP's Canadian Journal of Microbiology (CJM). The 19 June 2018 event, entitled Visioning the Future of Microbiology Publishing, proposed a review of the same issues preoccupying Chris and company: the rise in open-access, problems with paywalls, the impact of predatory publishing and pirating, accessibility, reproducibility of science, and the erosion of public confidence in all forms of knowledge and information.

This prompted me to take another look at the links and papers that Chris sent, and as preparation and an inducement to envision the future science "paper", those documents served me well. Not only did the enthusiasts talk in detail of blockchain applications and decentralized authentication, some fantasized a day when artificial intelligence (AI) systems would do the reviewing, would pronounce on the quality of the science, and would attest to the novelty of papers all without human involvement.

I wanted to ask, "and who will write these papers?" but feared the answer as the question recalled the autoworkers who, with futility, challenged GM to sell cars to robots in the 1960s. Still, the trends and big issues inviting technology-based, democratized review processes seemed real and, as it turns out, were well known to my friends at CSP and the participants in the CSM gathering.

At the workshop, the microbiologists explored other questions, but came back again and again to those related to peer review, accusations of "gate keeping," economic sustainability, the trend toward preprint, and other challenges that those seemingly far-fetched blockchain applications might address.

As I listened, talked to others, and tried to learn more, two thoughts wrestled in my mind:

  1. again, that there is an undeniable reality to the pressures and technologies that could overturn the journal publishing system as Chris and Rebecca contemplate; and
  2. again, perhaps surprisingly, how fortunate I feel to be involved with Canadian Science Publishing.

A Multidimensional, Hybrid Open-Science Model

I think Chris and his cohort are onto something, have noble intentions, and are likely right about the need for change - to a degree.

But when the advocates of technology-controlled reviews assail publishers for suppressing information for financial gain, I don't see CSP fitting in. It is a non-profit motivated and supported by communities like the microbiologists with the solitary goal of sharing and encouraging quality Canadian science.

To my mind, it is an enterprise in which all of Canada has a stake. It and its portfolio of journals constitute an arena to pull together and innovate for Canadian science.

Preparing for my assignment and absorbing the concerns, I learned how hard CSP is working not only to sustain itself economically, but to meet the new challenges with a hybrid open access model and a portfolio of flexible publishing options. The list impressed me.

  • CSP has very liberal policies on authors' rights and provides the option of automatic placement in the TSpace and other free repositories.
  • It also publishes three fully open access journals:Arctic Science, Anthropocene Coasts, and the multidisciplinary, "living journal" FACETS.
  • Select CSP journals make articles accessible after a twelve (12)-month embargo. These include respected publications like the Canadian Journal of Animal Science, Canadian Journal of Plant Science and theCanadian Journal of Soil Science.
  • All authors who publish in CSP journals can, any time in the process, self-archive their submitted and/or accepted manuscript on personal or home institution Web sites or a repository of their choice such as PubMedCentral.
  • CSP also offers an open access option on an individual article basis for a fee. This means that when an article is accepted and approved as part of a paywall Journal, it can be made open access at the time of publication or any time after.
  • And as far as I know, there is nothing stopping scientists from printing, copying, and mailing their articles to colleagues anywhere in the world just as they have done for many years in "old-school open access." In fact, authors are given 50 free tokens of their article allowing them to send copies to interested colleagues or other scientists.
  • CSP also can, with author approval, make rejected articles available for public comment.
  • Finally, this effort to disseminate science is magnified by that lively online presence: a neat blog, story boards, video diaries, animations, and descriptions of science written by PhD-trained journalists and professionals skilled in non-traditional forms of "publishing." This approach was clearly evident at the Winnipeg workshop where an artist created infographic recordings (shown in this blog) onsite to facilitate social network sharing.

It would thus be hard to suggest that CSP is working to control and suppress the flow of scientific information or is part of the problem.

Nevertheless, the organization still wants to sell journal subscriptions, pay the bills, keep the lights on, bundle information in different formats, and maintain appropriately compensated staff to do all this with skill.

Back to the Blockchain

So, I went to Winnipeg wondering, "What role could the blockchain and other emerging technologies play in this mix?"

Certainly, the security of the blockchain could protect vetted science, thereby packaging information, datasets, and tools GitHub-style to make research more reproducible and to instill trust in a world where fake news, pirating, and predatory publishing flourish. I could also see it helping those who want to credibly track and measure influence in ways other than the maligned "journal impact factor (JIF)" used in tenure and academic promotion processes. Lots of ideas seemed promising, but my mind still held that combination of sixty-five-year-old-retiree skepticism and technological confusion.

As these thoughts and forces wrestled toward a deadlock, an epiphany of sorts came to me while listening to the discussions at the CJM workshop.

I struck me that one easy hit that could link today's reality with the disruptive vision might be to use the blockchain as a platform for preprint papers, thereby registering them and making them available as immutable artifacts of a specific stage in the review process. I thought that this could, in turn, facilitate public understanding of the tentative preprint status. If it worked, the blockchain could do the same for the publication of non-confirmatory results, qualified machine-translations, and versions for lay audiences. Searching online, it looked to me that ready options for implementation would include Ethereum, the Canadian blockchain apps.

With this "insight" and forming technical understandings, I again beamed with pride anxious to float the idea by my Millennial advisors upon returning from Winnipeg.

But I was told there would be a problem.

"It's definitely a possibility – you could create a secure record and embed a verification of the content in the blockchain - the pointer would be a fingerprint kind of hash, which could be used to both access the content and to verify that the PDF you have in hand is a correct version," Chris said. "But right now, it would be too expensive to store the actual PDF papers on the blockchain."

He said instead of stuff like this his near-term priority now was to build on an existing distributed web system (like the popular IPFS) or services that could be employed without having to build custom solutions for every purpose.

"For now, I think the technology and user experience just aren't where they need to be for mass adoption," he added in respect to the visionary stuff. "So, while we have a vision, we are focusing on using proven technology to facilitate peer review and just decentralize the process for now."

A bit chastened, I wondered if I had really learned anything about the issues or technologies.

Then, I realized that the essence of Chris's comments and his new plan mirrored that steady step-by-step progress, the hybrid open-access system, and thoughtful innovation I see underway at Canadian Science Publishing and that there was no real conflict in our post-retirement plans after all.

It boils down to a simple idea: all we can do facing the inevitability of constant change is to work hard to be prepared and try to learn from each other.

So, now a month and a half after having met my new friend and fellow retiree in Kensington Market, I still sense disruption coming.

But I have absorbed a hopeful vision for the science journal of the future and feel even prouder to be associated with CSP, maybe having filled out the Superman costume with just a bit more sophistication and knowledge.

Figure 1

Figure 1: What Does the Microbiology Paper of the Future Look Like?
Image: Liisa Sorsa, Think Link Graphics

Peer Reviews

  • Educate your reviewers
  • More standardized input for the reviewer
  • Ability to compare reviews

Interactive papers

  • Online interactive figures
  • Embed raw data
  • The ability to zoom in to the data

Integration

  • Integrated data sources

Live docs

  • Real time
  • Everyone from all over the world can update the data!

Visual

  • Make our papers more like visual stories

Inclusive

  • Make it more creative
  • Accessible to more people!
  • Not behind the paywall - doesn't make sense today
  • Making our research and science in general more accessible and engaging for everyone

Figure 2

Figure 2: Discussing the Future of Microbiology Research Publishing
Image: Liisa Sorsa, Think Link Graphics

Sustainable publishing

  • Publishing today has systemic challenges
  • Open access is not affordable as it is today
  • Subscription fees are unaffordable

There could be a hybrid model

  • Open access
  • Subscription

Impact factor

  • Change granting agency level
  • How do you evaluate?
  • Reasons for publishing
  • BioArchive education of policies
  • Editorial reviews

Social media

  • We often highlight papers using social media
  • Access to info that is relevant
  • Curate the information
  • More visibility with lower impact journals
  • Opens up to new papers!
  • Fast way to keep very current

Peer review

  • Empathy for reviews
  • There should be guidelines for peer reviews
  • There's someone at the other end of that paper!
  • How do we incentivize and compensate for your time
  • Open review, single blind (may not be as open), double blind (issues with having to redact some info), post publication peer review, ad hoc peer reviews
  • CJM: We are starting an editorial board - looking at getting good, intact reviews

Pre print servers

  • Solicit feedback
  • Peer reviews
  • Tied to social media
  • BIORXIV, PeerJ
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