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Blockchain Could Solve Science’s Replication Crisis, but It’s an Uphill Battle

Last Updated December 1, 2023 4:59 PM
Josh Adams
Last Updated December 1, 2023 4:59 PM
Key Takeaways
  • Blockchain has many uses and not all of them are related to cryptocurrency.
  • Some in the Open Science movement see blockchain as a solution.
  • CCN spoke to Philipp Koellinger to discover why that is.

Science has a transparency problem. Many published studies in fields like biology and psychology fail to fully disclose research details or share the raw data behind findings. This “replication crisis”  has sparked the Open Science movement  demanding more open and transparent research and processes. However, ingrained incentives still push academics to prioritize novel results over transparency. 

For blockchain fans, there already exists a way to track research artifacts, verify credentials, incentivize best practices, and transform the sharing of discoveries. But not everyone is on board.

Solving the Replication Crisis

“There has been a growing realization over the last 10-20 years that a lot of the empirical research that is getting published…does not hold up [to] independent replication attempts,” explains Dr. Philipp Koellinger, President of the DeSci Foundation  and co-founder of software company DeSci Labs . With particularly dismal statistics in biological and medical trials. When third parties try replicating mainstream studies’ results, often “the core findings…do not hold up.”

Koellinger traces Open Science’s origins to scientists’ frustrations accessing journals hidden behind paywalls. Later came alarming data on replication failure rates. “One of the major reasons why many of these studies don’t replicate is because the original authors hadn’t really shared much other than the manuscripts,” Koellinger says. “In most cases, there was a lack of access to the data…[and] transparency around the types of analysis.”

Without raw inputs and documentation of analysis pathways, findings risk reflecting unconscious bias instead of objective inquiry. Koellinger argues today’s dominant “incentives are completely skewed towards trying to find and report novel and surprising results” rather than incremental, verifiable truths. “Top [publications]…want something that is basically scientific clickbait,” he laments.

“An Incentive Revolution”

But blockchain architectures allowing transparent, immutable data sharing may spark an incentives revolution, he says. DeSci Labs use Filecoin  as their blockchain of choice.

Beyond infrastructure assisting transparency, DeSci’s in-development annotation system would verify badges for sharing data, code, analysis plans or enabling reproducibility checks. “These badges…would be automatically pinned on the profiles of scientists who actually earned these patches,” describes Koellinger. Public credentials could drive competition to adopt Open Science habits. Further tokenized incentives might directly compensate for activities like peer review. In essence, you would be rewarding good scientific behavior.

Beyond driving transparency, Koellinger sees promise in blockchain-based science funding experiments already underway. Cryptographic verification could reduce resource misallocation. “There is an enormous amount of waste in that system at the moment,” Koellinger argues.

Still the greatest untapped potential may lie in making science “findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable” (FAIR). Koellinger references principles advanced by the FAIR data movement . But persistent linking remains a barrier. “For FAIR to work, you actually need persistent identifiers,” he explains, noting “the current Internet just doesn’t really give you a good solution.” Again blockchain’s ability to assign tamper-proof identifiers to data offers “a lot of potential…to really empower not only open science, but also the fair availability of all scientific artifacts.”

People Are Put Off By The Term ‘Blockchain’

But there’s a catch to Dr. Koellinger’s dream of a scientific community tied together by blockchain—the term “blockchain” itself. For most people who are familiar with the term, blockchain simply means cryptocurrency (or “crypto”). And crypto is currently having an something of an image crisis, with three-quarters of Americans who have heard of it saying they are not confident that they are reliable or safe, according to Pew Research .

“So we’re literally not using the term blockchain anymore when we talk about this,” he says. “Our approach to trying to solve that is by building basically tools and an application that people can use where all the blockchain and crypto stuff is actually just happening in the background and they don’t even feel it. They don’t need to know it. They don’t need to understand it. It just works.”

Dr. Koellinger concedes that they’re still trying to find the language to best express the benefits of what they do. But with crypto’s biggest players falling like dominoes (first Sam Bankman-Fried, now Changpeng Zhao), it’s a PR nightmare to say the least. Instead DeSci Labs emphasizes benefits: “We’re talking about peer-to-peer data storage and content-addressed data storage…things that some people are actually very interested in.”

If blockchain tools realign academic priorities – through carrots rather than sticks – replicability may rise without aggressive policing. “It will not be possible for us to literally try to replicate every single study,” Koellinger concedes. Instead, we should fix the process of how people are doing science. Whether or not fellow scientists and researchers will adopt blockchain solutions is another question entirely.

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