Blockchain offers a route to a true scholarly commons

“Elsevier’s acquisition of these open services highlights the prospect that companies will come to control the global scientific infrastructure. Even though the openness of the digital services and resources used by research is more and more taken for granted, the traditional web is not a public domain….

But there is another way, in the form of the decentralised web. Here, there are no central repositories; instead infrastructure is decentralised and information is distributed between countless different computers, accessible to all, in what are called peer-to-peer networks.

One example of this technology is BitTorrent. This allows the rapid transmission of large files by dividing them into chunks and allowing clients to load objects piece by piece, while at the same time making the already loaded pieces available to all other clients. Various initiatives, such as decentralised archive transport (DAT) and the interplanetary file system (IPFS), have adapted bit torrent for information sharing, replacing a centralised infrastructure of servers and clients with a decentralised network. In the decentralised web, trust is created not through trade names or URLs, but through cryptography….

Hosting content is no longer a special role that requires trustworthy institutions, service contracts and plausible business models. Rather, the objects are in the public domain, and their dissemination requires only the open protocols of the decentralised web. This paves the way for new business models, by opening up another area of the internet to the “permissionless innovation” that drove its development.

The benefits of such approaches for making digital objects available for research, teaching and digital cultural heritage are obvious. As well as technical improvements in the transmission and storage of information, the current situation of privileged players controlling access to content would be replaced with a true scholarly commons, distributed between many computer systems….

The impetus for the second step—complete disintermediation, doing away with centralised publishers in the same way that bitcoin renders banks unnecessary— is more likely to come from start-ups than incumbents. There are already decentralised peer-to-peer scholarly publishing platforms, for example Aletheia and Pluto. Decentralised social networking platforms, such as the Akasha Project, are also in development….”