Talk of web 3.0 and blockchain are commonly associated with Bitcoin and NFTs in the popular press. However there are more interesting potentials for this emerging technology – its applications in academia and epistemology being one of many. In science, many problems are attributed to centralisation and gate-keeping institutions or companies: decentralisation via a distributed ledger may be what’s required to address some of the most pressing issues in the way research is conducted and shared.
The Art of DAO
DeSci applies blockchain technology to the pre-existing open science and open software movements. Leveraging decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) to self-fund and self-organise, communities are pooling resources in the form of capital and skills to coalesce around the projects that matter to them in the emerging web 3.0 ecosystem.
The prevailing issues these groups aim to tackle include: a) making scientific knowledge more accessible to everyone instead of being hidden behind paywalls, b) leveraging technology to enhance collaboration and transparency, ensuring that work is more appropriately credited and incentivised, c) enabling consumers to have better autonomy and control over the ownership and distribution of their own data.
These are some of the most promising early applications of blockchain technology, although as with the early internet, the space is constantly evolving. While many corners of the field are purely speculative, the execution of applications with tangible use-cases will be those that last.
The traditional scientific publishing industry is fraught with misaligned incentives that drive profits for self-interested conglomerates, and there is a need for better quality peer review systems when it comes to publishing and drug development. Aspects of web 3.0 such as tokenisation may pave the way for improved systems of funding and distribution – generating progress, not just change.
Programming Peer Review
The current state of peer review is archaic and outdated. A given journal requests other domain academics to voluntarily take hours out of their busy schedule in order to review new submissions before notifying the editor if a work is fit for publication.
As a result, the rejection rate is often high, inconsistent, and results in significant errors of judgement. It is also highly restrictive when it comes to considering alternative epistemological paradigms. A former editor of the Lancet joked that the journal “had a system of throwing a pile of papers down the stairs and publishing those that reached the bottom.”
Appropriately applied web 3.0 technology could allow reviewers to be paid for their time, or to facilitate identifying the right people. For example a privacy-oriented protocol of smart contracts allows authors to issue a bounty for open anonymous peer reviews on Ethereum.
If requirements are met, peer reviews will be accepted and paid by the approver proportionally to their assessed quality. To promote ethical behaviour and inclusiveness the system implements a gamified mechanism that allows the whole community to evaluate the peer reviews and vote for the best ones.
The Biotech industry is highly centralised in a similar way to institutions such as banking. This creates problems including poor accessibility and transparency, alongside lengthy and costly timelines, and a narrow focus on profit that removes incentives for development in areas that don’t promise high enough margins (e.g. rare diseases).
The move towards decentralisation: of institutions, knowledge and resources not only promises to diversify industries, but also to place greater autonomy back in the hands of the recipient community. DAOs raise capital via a token launch, manage assets as a communal group, and govern decisions via token-based voting mechanisms. How beneficial and far reaching these applications will truly span remains to be seen.
Centralised, institution-led systems are arguably hierarchical and designed to create outputs that fulfil a particular mould. DeSci promises alternative approaches to the process. Ideally this aims to produce results that are less top-down, more innovative, distributed and diverse – some of the main barriers that exist are UX, wider frameworks for truly informed decisions and accessibility.
Collaboration and Co-Creation
Beyond science, web 3.0 is blurring the ever finer lines between community and creator, re-writing how fan labour is funded and rewarded. For example in the media space, fans are exerting significant influence or even co-creating the original work (calling into question what ‘original’ even means).
Fans are also employing new business models and funding sources to create derivative projects that had previously been non-existent. The desired end result is an expansion of what creativity on the internet can look like: with greater access, financial upside, collaboration and fulfilment.
The community economy aims to drive co-creation through shared ownership. Shibuya is an animated film that was funded through a sale of NFT Producer Passes. NFT holders get to vote on and influence the plot of each subsequent chapter of the film, earning tokens that represent a share in the final feature. This tight coupling of fan feedback creates a community produced work of art – and can apply to more industries than one.
In web 3.0 creative projects, underlying ownership of tokens gives fans a built-in business model and incentivises this derivative creation. In contrast to the current internet where fans contribute to passion projects for free, web 3.0 token-owners and producers have exposure to the success of their labour: and as the digitally scarce entity they hold becomes more well-known, its value increases.
This could be likened to an early J. K. Rowling investing a portion of her earnings to fund fan-fiction authors that want to use her characters to create new projects – something unheard of amidst the stringent legalities of the traditional media world. The mutually beneficial aspect of the theory is that underlying scarcity of the original token collection can allow it to capture value with growing recognition and popularity of the character universe.
In this sense, many web 3.0 creative projects seek to invert the traditional review and creation model: communities of owners form around nascent projects and industries, writing their own stories into existence with skin in the game, and distributing them to communities with shared upside, before broadcasting to broader audiences.
Individuals become creators and their own fans become creators too, resulting in a prismatic assemblage of creation, all powered by a native business model and new funding mechanisms. The end result ideally being the democratisation of storytelling and creativity for everyone?