“Is the point of research to make other professional academics happy, or is it to learn more about the world?”
—Noah Grand, former lecturer in sociology, UCLA
As the prevalence of harmful misinformation rises, and the need for innovative solutions becomes increasingly clear, there are compelling ethical, economic, and practical reasons to consider scientific knowledge as a public good. The generation of this knowledge is contingent on scientific research. Groups such as the Open Science Movement and Decentralized Science Movement believe the current research infrastructure to be far from efficient. They cite various factors, but they all share a common root: they are emergent outcomes of centralized institutions and structures.
What has become apparent is that there is a lack of critical thinking in DeSci discourse, particularly with very little criticism in the discourse surrounding the orthodoxy of DeSci. As the movement grows, so too does the need for open public discussion. While this article has no scientific goal per se, it will explore the inefficiencies affecting the current scientific research infrastructure and question the legitimacy of the potentially proposed DeSci solutions.
Tomei (2008) defines centralization as the process of concentrating authority and decision-making in the center or top of the hierarchy of an entity. In the context of science, centralized science refers to a system whereby a central authority e.g. academic institution or private organization, has the power to set research priorities, allocate funding, and make decisions about scientific policies and practices.
The growing Open Science movement is designed to make scientific processes more transparent and results more accessible. Its goal is to build a more replicable and robust science; it does so using new technologies, altering incentives, and changing attitudes (Spellman et al., 2017). It has, however, faced significant criticism for promoting the production of lower-quality papers (Lancaster, 2023) and facilitating the commodification of science (Mirowski, 2011). Tenorio-Fornés et al. (2019) argue that the movement has been unable to fulfill all its promises, and middlemen publishers can still impose policies and concentrate profits. While it is acknowledged that the movement has successfully reduced the economic costs of readers accessing knowledge (Evans, 2009), it has not successfully challenged traditional publishers’ business models (Larivière et al., 2015). Critics of the traditional science system cite concerns surrounding fairness, quality, cost, and accuracy of the evaluation processes (Tenorio-Fornés et al., 2019). In this context, it is fair to ask if the growing Decentralized Science movement can further improve the situation.
DeSci (Decentralized Science) is a Web3 movement that aims to decentralize science, that is, “to disperse the administrative powers of a central authority over a less concentrated area,” and to act as a global, open alternative to the current scientific system. It aims to do so by leveraging Web3 tools such as DAOs, smart contracts, and blockchains to help solve major scientific research and publication issues (Medium, 2022). The term ‘DeSci’ originates from the emergence of decentralized finance (DeFi), an innovative concept in the finance industry that has rapidly flourished under the influence of cryptocurrencies and Web3 (Shilina, 2023). Unlike conventional financial services, DeFi projects leverage blockchain technology and smart contracts to facilitate a diverse range of financial activities, significantly disrupting the field. In parallel with DeFi, DeSci is attempting to apply the advances made in blockchain to the contemporary science system.
Still in its infancy, the DeSci stems from the idea that scientific knowledge should be accessible to everyone, disseminating scientific knowledge fairly and equitably, and that the process of research should be transparent. Through a Web3 ecosystem, scientists are incentivized to openly share their research and receive credit for their work by decentralizing access to funding, scientific tools, and communication channels. Ducrée et al., (2022) hypothesize that decentralization through blockchain innovation dovetails with other exponential technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), big data, digital manufacturing, robotics, and the life sciences.