SCRF Interviews | Decentralized Science - ResearchHub (Ep. 9)

This episode features a conversation between Research Hub’s co-founder and Head of Operations Patrick Joyce and Research Hub Community Lead Anton Lebed, moderated by SCRF’s Head of Operations, Eugene Leventhal.

Links:

Video

Audio (Apple, Spreaker)

Transcript

At issue:

  • How can web3 technologies help incentivize healthy research behaviors and enable decentralized science?

Takeaways from the discussion:

  • Traditional scientific publication has serious problems. The industry survives by charging subscribers and content creators for reviewing the work that they do. Useful data goes unpublished and therefore unused, research is often siloed, controversial results can be stifled, and too often fraud or majors errors often go unnoticed.
  • Research Hub uses a tokenized economy to incentivize “healthy” research practices like open peer review, sharing data sets, and pre-printing journal papers. Tokenization can also reward creators of “hidden” value, like peer reviewers or idea generators.
  • Growing a community of researchers is difficult and takes time. Many researchers are cautious about web3 and worried about straying away from traditional publication routes, given how competitive academic research is. Others are unfamiliar with IP, which can be difficult for open science platforms like Research Hub.

“We’ve been on the Ethereum mainnet since August 2020,” says Patrick Joyce, co-founder of Research Hub. “The main point of our token is to incentivize open access publishing and healthy research behavior in general.”

Joyce had started a PhD in molecular biology and was a year into medical school when he realized there were serious problems with the way that research was funded and how fruits of that research were distributed to the public. “It was a really crazy model. Scientific publishers charge content creators for the content they produce and they make subscribers pay on the backend.”

Using the Research Hub and its token, Joyce hopes to create a better, healthier research community by incentivizing pre-print sharing, open-access publishing, and proper accreditation for work done. Eventually, he hopes to break down the silos that exist between the different scientific disciplines. So far it’s been a difficult but rewarding journey.

“Luckily, in science there’s a mindset that you have to be an early adopter,” Anton Lebed, Research Hub’s community lead explains. “The early days were all about getting in touch with researchers. It’s not enough for something like this to be just good enough, for it to be useful it also has to be popular.”

Lebed, who is a Ph.D. student on the cusp of defending his thesis, was new to web3 when he started collaborating with Research Hub. “It took me a while to realize the benefits of web3,” he says. “But I came to realize that there are so many activities in science that aren’t traditionally rewarded: for example, peer review is rarely credited, generating ideas is not always credited and tends to happen behind the scenes. It would be nice to reward people in a systematic way for doing these things, and that’s exactly what web3 is so good at.”

Growing the community has been a slow process, although momentum is building after years of effort. One hurdle they’ve encountered is the research community’s lack of knowledge about intellectual property. Another is the perception of risk. Scientific research in academia is ruthlessly competitive, which discourages junior scientists–their target demographic–from experimenting with new publishing platforms.

“One of the biggest issues we’ve come across is convincing early career scientists this is worth their time,” says Joyce. “That it’s not a career risk. That they won’t get scooped. A lot of people are hesitant to [share their work as pre-prints]. So there’s a reasonable hesitance towards tokens and web3, and then taking a nontraditional path outside of academia.”

There remains a bit of a gulf between open science advocates within academia and decentralized scientific solutions like what Research Hub is offering. This gap is beginning to close, however, and as a new generation of researchers look for publishing venues, and Research Hub’s community continues to grow, DeSci will look ever more appealing.

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For those of you who saw Patrick’s fantastic presentation during our Community Call, what do you think of their model? Are there any congruences with what SCRF is hoping to do with blockchain research and open peer review?

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I have a friend who’s received tenure at two of the best schools in her field. We were talking the other day about the disappointments of working in the academic world, and she said, “There should be nothing more rewarding than finding out new things via your work and sharing that excitement with students. But academia is set up to trivialize the whole experience for everyone. They literally depress professors with their relentless caste system.”

She was carrying coals to Newcastle for me. As she knew, I had resigned my first (and last) tenure-track position after my first year, following encounters with colleagues and the administration that left me feeling like a netted dolphin on its way to the cat food factory. I remember thinking at the time: “Why not just go corporate and make 5x the money?” My suspicions went so deep, in fact, that a couple of years later when I was offered a tenure-track job in the ivy league—with my tenure a done deal, according to the chair—I turned it down.

Today we have web3, which aims—among other things—to reduce pointless, fearful competitiveness in academe, foster collaboration, and prevent the powers-that-be from ripping off everyone below them. I’m all for it. Bring on the algorithms and the tokens! Let decentralized governance and prosperity reign!

But web3 is also strongly driven by the idea of incentives, and I’m not sure that this notion has been developed enough in decentralized science so far—at least as revealed in this interview. I heard mention of getting “a few bucks an hour” for peer-reviewing a paper (a few bucks an hour!), “hoping to get to the point where it’s a viable option to publish a paper in Research Hub,” and breaking down the silos in science “over time.”

That doesn’t sound like a revolution in the making to me. Joining with other righteous people to do what you believe is the right thing: That should be powerful action. But if I were a member of the powers-that-be, I wouldn’t feel threatened by DeSci at all. And I think that’s something worth considering.

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I wonder if they’re hoping to capture a large audience of graduate students and researchers outside of the US before scooping up the big tenured fish. During the presentation he gave during the community call, he talked about the 99% of first-year graduate students who don’t end up as research scientists and the thought of using their community as a forum for them to publish their work and remain integrated with the research community.

I do worry that DeSci and the like underestimate the hierarchical and prestige-hungry nature of academia. Previous attempts at democratizing access to university education like the SAT and Common Application just ended up making the system more opaque and ruthlessly competitive. And, given that they’re creating an economy, there’s the idea that bad money pushes out the good --if nothing else, they’ll have to have serious professional moderation (which is part of SCRF’s approach to forum building too)

James, thanks for the reminder that there may be a deeper strategy at work here. I hope so.

Still, what you later correctly call “the hierarchical and prestige-hungry nature of academia” seems much more powerful (to me, anyway) than any possibility that the 99% of first-year graduate students who drop out of the system will still want to publish their work and become a power within the community—for that “few bucks an hour,” to boot. If that’s the strategy, the pace will literally be glacial.

In my view, the academy needs a cultural sea-change commensurate with the radical transformation we all envision—going from the monopolies of web2 to the bottom-up democratization of web3.

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How might compensation work for established researchers? I like what VitaDAO is doing with intellectual property NFTs, but I’m not sure it would work for something that didn’t have an obvious and immediate market value.

VitaDAO looks interesting, but I note (with a cursory look at their site) that interested users are invited to buy tokens to fund their research into longevity.

If you’re really asking “Where would a DAO get the funds to fairly compensate its formerly exploited researchers?” … well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? Where does anybody get money to do income redistribution of any kind? I think it has to come from a revolution of some sort, doesn’t it?

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