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Blockchain technology and NFTs – The next big thing in scholarly publishing?

Who would have thought that the digital rendition of a 2011 cat meme would be sold as an asset worth several thousands of dollars? An emerging platform for buying digital assets or tokens, Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) have begun to take over the market. But what do NFTs mean for the scientific society and scholarly publishing?

An introduction to Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)

NFTs, a type of blockchain technology, are digital tokens or cryptographic assets. They come with a unique identifier and metadata that sets one NFT apart from another. Unlike fungible tokens like money, cryptocurrencies, or gold that are identical across the unit and can be divided or exchanged, NFTs are unique and cannot be exchanged or modified.

NFTs are used as digital tokens for physical or digital assets like books, videos, music, documents, artworks, and more. The market capitalization value of NFTs has seen explosive growth and is worth over $7 billion

Before diving into how NFTs work, it is essential to understand blockchain technology. Blockchain is a distributed or decentralized digital ledger where transactions occur in “blocks”. Each block records transactions with a cryptographic signature and a timestamp that make them immutable or irreversible. All participants in the distributed ledger have a copy of the transaction. Any attempt to change a transaction in a block by one user is immediately made visible to others, creating a highly transparent and traceable system.

The role of NFTs and blockchain in scientific research

NFTs have made their way to the scientific research community and are changing how scholarly publishing works. Here are some of the ways in which NFTs impact research and publishing:

Creating an immutable permanent record of research data

Genomics Core, a genome sequencing research organization at NYU, suggests that NFTs can be an alternative to traditional scholarly publishing. In their quest for an immutable way to publish their work of genome sequence data from genetically modified organisms, they zeroed in on NFTs. They minted an NFT for their research to retain ownership, establish a permanent record of their work, and make it available publicly.

Generating new opportunities around genomics

When Professor George Church advertised to sell his genome sequence as an NFT, it raised a slew of speculations in the scientific community. As of 2020, the rapidly growing genomics industry had a market value of over $20 billion. Unlike existing genomics companies that do not share their gains with the people whose DNA is used, the NFT method for genome sequencing enables the sharing of profits with the people who contribute valuable personal data.

Fundraising

The University of California, Berkeley offered people the chance to own the patent disclosures of the Nobel prize-winning inventions on immunotherapy in cancer treatment through an NFT called The Fourth Pillar. The proceeds from the winning bid—amounting to over $54,000—went towards funding scientific research.

Collective participation and inclusivity in research

NFTs with permanent records and other blockchain technologies can bring a great deal of transparency into the scientific research system. These technologies can enable efficient incentivization and collective intelligence from crowdsourced ideas, infrastructure, data, assessment, and funding, encouraging wider participation and inclusivity in research. 

Optimized publishing workflows

Blockchain, a decentralized or distributed digital ledger technology, aims to address the gaps and problems in traditional publishing processes. Companies like ARTiFACTS, Science Matters, and Pluto are experimenting with blockchain-based solutions to optimize publishing workflows to bring openness to scientific research.

By proposing a governance framework controlled by a Democratic Autonomous Organization (DAO) composed of members from all scientific fields, the terms and regulations pertaining to the use of this technology in publishing can be laid out.

Why do critics argue against the use of NFTs?

Although NFTs have caught people’s attention from varying fields across the world, this technology is criticized for several reasons. Some of these criticisms are:

  • The enormous carbon footprint and significant computing power required to run blockchain technology cannot be overlooked. Blockchain technology is believed to consume more energy than what is needed for entire cities or nations, adding to climate crisis woes
  • The rise of individual genome sequence auctioning through NFTs has raised concerns over ethical issues. Considering the fact that a person shares their gene sequence with their family, questions are raised about the consent of and compensation for the family when a person wishes to sell their sequence.
  • The use of NFTs is questionable due to pitfalls like scalability, privacy concerns, accessibility, and legal acceptance and regulations of these tokens in several nations.

The blockchain technology based on which NFTs function is still in the nascent stage and needs further research and improvements. Although NFTs have not addressed many persisting questions and challenges, they continue to break barriers in the existing scientific landscape. With better awareness and regulated implementation, NFTs may potentially resolve many of the challenges the publishing industry faces today. Only the future holds the answer to whether the NFT bubble will burst or grow into a mainstream entity in publishing.

References

Ducrée, J. (2020). Research – A blockchain of knowledge? Blockchain: Research and Applications, 1(1–2), 100005. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bcra.2020.100005 

Regner, Ferdinand & Schweizer, André & Urbach, Nils. (2019). NFTs in practice – Non-Fungible Tokens as core component of a blockchain-based event ticketing application.

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