Current state of affairs
Academic and scientific publishing has a very specific set of requirements and a peculiar editing process. The latter can be summarised as follows:
- Authors submit their works (generally an abstract and subsequently, if the abstract is accepted, a full paper) for review;
- Reviewers receive an anonymised version and submit their evaluations;
- Editors manage the whole process and forward the various versions to authors and reviewers. Editors are actually the only ones with knowledge of the identities of all parties;
- Finally, once achieved a satisfactory final version of the works, editors collate them in the final issue and distribute the issue in the relevant channels, using the standard systems of identification (DOI), indexing and reference to citations.
Although it is quite effective in ensuring that the process of review is carried on according to the best established practices, this system has much room for improvement:
- Editors are burdened by a large activity of message management and scheduling;
- Reviewers are usually recruited among the contacts of the editors, which often leads to a scarcity of available reviewers and, thus, prolong the whole process;
- Authors are forced to meet tight deadlines for their part of the reviewing process and have no means of receiving feedback from the reviewers except when they send updated versions of their whole work;
- Current systems of indexation are costly and uninformative and the referencing system is very generic (i. e. it is known that A cites a B, but not where it does, nor what specific part of B is quoted, in what context and on what terms).
Furthermore, the integrity of the process is guaranteed solely by the fairness of the editors. Therefore, it is possible that, in some cases, they can press for the acceptance or rejection of some works by reviewers.
Using blockchain based-solutions
The introduction of blockchain-based solutions can enact momentous changes in this process.
- the work submitted by the author receives a blockchain-based ID, with all the information pertaining to their identity stored as metadata, along with a blockchain-generated proof of ownership, while information about the work (area of relevance, language and so on) is stored as other metadata;
- reviewers can register into a global pool of reviewers, with their specialisation and qualification (areas of expertise, working languages and so on) registered in metadata separated from their personal information;
- when they receive the contributions by the authors, editors should just timestamp them (versioning) and simply (and truly blindly) match them against the global pool of relevant reviewers;
- each review creates a new version of the document, with the remarks stored as a new layer of metadata; upon completion of the process, the author is notified and allowed to reopen the document, edit it and resubmit it directly to the reviewers, notifying the editors. This enables a more thorough, participated and time-efficient review system, where authors can receive multiple feedback from the reviewers. Editors can always step in and reject the paper, to prevent improper behaviour or nagging;
- the reviewing process is recorded into the reviewers metadata (number of reviewed papers, revisions made and so on) to create a scoring system that reviewers can attach to their academic resumés;
- once the paper is approved and before publication, citations pointing to other blockchain-indexed works are automatically indexed and submitted to the authors of the quoted works, so they can provide their feedback, to be recorded in separate metadata;
- when published, each work retains all information generated during the process and the relevant metadata become wholly public, allowing an efficient and machine-friendly indexation of the published work and its references.
This system would provide a number of improvements, as it would:
- relieve the editors of many burdensome tasks and speed up the whole process;
- improve the reviewing process, streamlining its activities and strongly increasing feedback and collaboration;
- make reviewers available throughout the whole global community of researchers and anonymously matched against relevant works (possibly via a fully automated process) and keep track of their activities with a scoring system able to keep record of their activity and give visibility to their contribution to the advancement of research;
- ensure a higher degree of reliability and provide much higher hurdles to frauds, manipulations and undue pressures;
- allow for a more precise and complete indexation of published works, while greatly reducing its costs;
- introduce a whole new system for citations, allowing the original authors to have a say when their works are quoted and effectively transforming the citation mechanism in an opportunity for networking.