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27 October 2016

Science goes darknet?

Why do many scientists publish their revolutionary ideas under a cryptical pseudonym on open access platforms? Sönke Bartling, associated researcher at HIIG, is analysing what is behind this trend. 

Scientists started publishing revolutionary ideas with cryptic pseudonyms on open access publishing platforms [1]. They publish “under a ‘nom de plume’ in order to minimize the risk of adverse effects (e.g., unfavourable editorial decisions, or stern letters to employers)” [1]. These ‘nom de plume’ are cryptographic codes that are based on public key cryptographic signatures and that can be used to prove the authorship later – but from the published code alone nobody can conclude to the true name of the author. Scientists do so, because they are afraid of adverse consequences from the publishing industry and their scientific environment [1]. Interestingly, they are publishing about blockchain technology that – in their opinion – if correctly employed, may make large parts of the current scientific culture and publishing system obsolete [1] and that is why they are afraid.

I started to think a bit more about that, because I am also doing research on what the blockchain (r)evolution would mean for science. Blockchain could open up much larger parts of the research cycle to scientific self-control than in the current culture by providing a decentralized, transparent and immutable database for authorship attribution, data, data postprocessing, publication, research evaluation, incentivisation, and research fund distribution [2].

Many scientists are frustrated about the scientific culture that prevails, and, there are serious and high-ranked publications out claiming a `reproducibility crisis in science`. With other words, some scientist assume, that many published results are fraudulent, results of scientific storytelling and deemed wish-full thinking or just a part of the truth [3–12].

I assume that many scientists would like to speak up, but they are trapped in a current system of complex stakeholders, career-building paths, etc. so they stay put and do what is expected from them, even if they think that this is wrong.

blog_soenke_2Imagine, that publishing under a pseudonym set a precedent and scientists just publish or whistle-blow honestly and truthfully, without potential consequences to their career paths. Currently, there is no incentive to do so. There would just be a pseudonymous publication out and, well, they would have to carry on as nothing has happened. But, imagine this: Imagine, that there would be a reputation system that would work outside the current system and pseudonymous scientists could collect scientific reputation from their whistle-blowing or too epoch-making pseudonymous publications. And imagine further so, that there would be a benevolent fund provider giving money for those publications! Blockchain technology could make all that possible (*). Incentives would be there to publish just the truth and to ‘blow the whistle’.

All these ideas and cryptographic signatures reminded me of the a part of the internet that is called the darknet. Underground, decentralized, anonymous non-traceable marketplaces for illegal goods, drugs and so on that just became possible through blockchain-based Bitcoin that can transfer monetary value without a central, trusted entity. Before Bitcoin there might have been drug trades online, but just not at significant scale. Just like up to today only few scientists have ‘blown the whistle’ on anonymous paper commenting platforms such as Pubpeer.

Having a blockchain-based science reputation and funding system might therefore create a `Bitcoin momentum` for science. Suddenly, everybody could share inconvenient comments, results, publications and ideas, and still get credited and money for it, regardless in which current system he or she is stucked in.

To compare illegal drug markets and scientific funding is certainly far out – but, it would not be the first time in history, that at the grey borders of an established system novel ideas and concepts arise. Those things might turn out to be very good in the end (People claim that drugs from darknet markets are of higher quality because of a seller reputation system like in ebay or Amazon).

However, thinking of such a system as a ‘whistle-blowing’ platform alone might be a bit too negative. This assumes that there are many, unreasonable and otherwise unstoppable evil-doers all over and the current science system and that it is completely broken and without control – which is certainly not the case.

Let´s go back one step and picture for a moment the overall nature of science, that blog_soenke_3is like:

Isn´t “really good science not always a break with orthodoxy – and how could the orthodox than fairly assess it?” (Michael Polanyi)

This would give enough reason to establish such a system by itself!

Wouldn´t it be great, to have a system for uprising, ‘unorthodox’ scientists to share their momentarily revolutionary and potentially offensive results, ideas and concepts safely and unstoppable without being at risk of losing their career in the ‘orthodox’, prevailing science environment? And still get them reputation and money for it? It bears the potential to significantly accelerate the scientific progress! It could break with Planck´s: “Science advances one funeral at a time”. The currently in charge lose control to suppress oppressive views.

So as a conclusion, already the most noble and fundamental nature of scientific endeavors gives a good reason for such a decentralized, immutable and objective reputation and funding system (as suggested [1])!

And to be honest, just like bitcoin will not destroy our current banking and financial system in the short or mid-term (people claim that – and it sounds like a libertarian fever dream – it is not how our society works – luckily!), such a system will not destroy our current scientific culture and publishing system, but it could certainly add a little and very interesting tweak to it…

(*) (well, some very relevant issues need work here ! How to prevent system-gamers in this new system ? What assures that greedy people do not publish even worse results under the protection of pseudonymity ? and many more… Prediction markets, future markets and many more concepts might provide novel solutions here that are currently not explored… For the sake of this thought experiment, I assume that these points will be solvable in the future)

1. b8d5ad9d974a44e7e2882f986467f4d (2016) Towards Open Science: The Case for a Decentralized Autonomous Academic Endorsement System. doi: 10.5281/zenodo.60054

2. Bartling S, Fecher B (2016) Blockchain for science and knowledge creation. doi: 10.5281/zenodo.60223

3. Ioannidis JPA, Greenland S, Hlatky MA, et al (2014) Increasing value and reducing waste in research design, conduct, and analysis. Lancet 383:166–175.

4. Ioannidis JPA (2014) How to make more published research true. PLoS Med 11:e1001747.

5. Ioannidis JPA (2005) Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Med 2:e124.

6. Young NS, Ioannidis JPA, Al-Ubaydli O (Oktober 7, 2008) Why Current Publication Practices May Distort Science. PLoS Med 5:e201.

7. Goldacre B (2013) Are clinical trial data shared sufficiently today? No. BMJ 347:f1880.

8. Engber D (2016) Think Psychology’s Replication Crisis Is Bad? Welcome to the One in Medicine. In: Slate Magazine. Accessed 25 Jun 2016

9. Freedman LP, Cockburn IM, Simcoe TS (2015) The Economics of Reproducibility in Preclinical Research. PLoS Biol 13:e1002165.

10. Angell M (2009) Drug companies & doctors: A story of corruption. New York Rev Books 56:8–12.

11. Schneider L (2016) Voinnet aftermath: ethical bankruptcy of academic elites. In: For Better Science. Accessed 7 Jul 2016

12. pubpeer A crisis of trust | PubPeer. Accessed 7 Jul 2016

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Sönke Bartling, PD Dr. med.

Former Associated Researcher: Knowledge & Society

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