An overview of the NFAIS conference: Blockchain for scholarly publishing

Bonnie Lawlor, Bonnie Lawlor
2018 Information Services and Use  
This paper offers an overview of the highlights of the NFAIS Conference, Blockchain for Scholarly Publishing, that was held in Alexandria, VA from May 15-16, 2018. The goal of the conference was to take a close look at the initiatives that have emerged as a result of the increasing global acceptance of blockchain technology. This technology, chiefly known as the foundation of Bitcoin and originally introduced as a means of securely managing cryptocurrency, has proven to have practical
more » ... ns beyond finance. The basic technology is that of a distributed ledger and it is being broadly-adopted by multiple industries, including the scholarly publishing community. The capabilities of this new technology are prompting a direct exchange among stakeholders, as blockchain promises a more structured, decentralized, and immutably secure approach that has the potential to significantly impact researcher workflows -from data collection to peer review to access and published work. The technology inspires passion -there are those who believe that it will ultimately transform our lives while others are completely skeptical. The NFAIS conference provided a look at both sides of the coin (no pun intended). Why is this technology gaining momentum in its adoption? According to an article in a recent issue of MIT Technology Review, it is because the technology itself "... is all about creating one priceless asset: Trust [2]". The article talks about the history of the double-entry book-keeping method that dates back to the fourteenth century. It was established as a reliable record-keeping tool and became an integral part of the business culture, but it also allowed financial institutions to become powerful middlemen in global finances -something that continues to this day. But the article also talks about the need to trust such intermediaries and the fact that recent fraudulent activities on Wall Street have significantly reduced society's willingness to trust such middlemen. The fact is that "trust" is needed in all fields that are "controlled" by middlemen, including publishing. Today peer review has come under attack because of its lack of transparency along with the inability to reproduce the majority of published scientific research results (note: a recent study has showed that only about one-third of research results could be duplicated and that more than fifty-percent of researchers today say that we have a crisis on our hands.) [3] . But blockchain technology -basically a list of transactionsis believed to hold the promise of trust even for non-financial "transactions". According to a recent report from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), "Blockchains are immutable digital ledger systems implemented in a distributed fashion (i.e., without a central repository) and usually without a central authority. At its most basic level, they enable a community of users to record transactions in a ledger public to that community such that no transaction can be changed once published". That same publication concluded that "The use of blockchains is still in its early stages, but it is built on widely understood and sound cryptographic principles. Moving forward, it is likely that blockchains will be another tool that can be used to solve newer sets of problems... Blockchain technologies have the power to disrupt many industries. To avoid missed opportunities and undesirable surprises, organizations should start investigating whether or not a blockchain can help them [4]". After attending this conference, I agree wholeheartedly with the NIST report and strongly suggest that you read the 2017 Digital Science report on the use of this technology in scientific research along with the references contained therein [5]. Setting the stage The opening keynote presentation was given by Christopher Wilmer, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Managing Editor of Ledger, University of Pittsburgh. The focus of his talk was the use of blockchains for record keeping and he gave a compelling case, tracing the history of record keeping from 6000 BC. He said that if you ask people to list the most important inventions of human civilization starting from the pre-historical period, most people would probably say fire, the wheel, something about bronze or pottery, then perhaps the steam engine, electricity, and then the Internet. He noted that he believes that more than a few people would leave out writing, and probably more than that would leave out proto-writing (the writing of pictures and symbols that are not quite language). He went on to say that proto-writing was extremely transformative, because it was the earliest form of
doi:10.3233/isu-180015 fatcat:2x3i433zwzbarfrlr7pfac7t5e