What do DAOs (like BitDAO) mean for the future of science?


Academic databases need to update —paywalling is dead.

Academia has been hacked. Nearly every published research paper is freely available, and easily accessible on the web — right now. This means scientific journals are being forced to restructure, but what replaces the legacy system?

Truth is, the coding world has already cracked this nut. Emerging technologies like distributed autonomous organizations (DAOs) can bridge the gap between traditional academic publishing, and the hacktivists (who are winning by the way).

BitDAO Æmbassy: BitDAO Community Ambassador Program

I’m a die-hard open science enthusiast and I can’t help but observe that the ideals of the open-code movement are very similar to the ideals of open science.

Many technologists know about Aaron Swartz. He was the American hactivist idealist that founded Reddit and died by suicide after being persecuted by MIT for trying to release the JSTOR academic database on the web in 2010.

Lesser known, but more impactful, is Alexandra Elbakyan, the Kazakhstani hactivist who actually did hack every academic database and release it on the web in 2011 in the many-headed hydra that is Sci-Hub. She also took early donations for the project in the form of bitcoin. (Yeah she’s my hero.)

So why did they do it?

Why researchers think journal articles should be open-access

One of the reasons Alexandra made nearly every paywalled scientific paper open to the public on the web (making Sci-Hub ironically the best academic journal in the world) was because paywalled papers were prohibitively expensive for international researchers.

A neuroscientist and computer programmer Alexandra has been dubbed Science’s Pirate Queen (although I prefer Robin Hood) and in 2016, listed as one of Nature’s top ten people who mattered in science. She hacked her first paper at 15, and studied computer science, worked for a time in neural-computer interfaces… now she’s reputedly studying philosophy.

“…an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask…” — John Bohannon, Science

Elbakyan pragmatically pointed out, and rightly so, that the cost of published research makes no sense. A grad student has to read thousands of papers in the course of writing a thesis, many of which they do not use, and most journals charge nearly $32 per article. Playing with the numbers, a PhD reading a reported 975 papers would pay an out-of-pocket cost of $31k to access their educational material which is roughly 64% of the salary of a lecturer in Khazakstan. It’s just not fair or functional for a student of science to pay that much to learn.

Some journals offload the fees of open science on the authors — calling it progress. Nature allowed authors to pay an additional $9,935 per paper in 2020 to make their work freely available to the public. But that money has to come out of precious research funds. Because free articles are cited more often, academics often feel compelled to pay the fees out-of-pocket to share their own work. Products that took years of dedicated, underpaid, and specialized labor, which they have an ethical mandate to communicate.

Most of this research was paid for with public funds, so it’s profoundly illogical that even if the science doesn’t actively communicate it, the public wouldn’t be able to access the findings. For many studies, it’s also unethical to obscure research that has already been done — especially if it was an invasive medical study that found negative results.

Yet today three-quarters of research in academic journals remains paywalled, accessible only to those with current Western academic affiliations — whose institutions can afford to pay for it.

The government funds all stages of research production, but must then pay again to have access to the research results. — Martin Hagve, The money behind academic publishing

Researchers are also required to discuss results with other academics after publication, and many post pre-prints in open-source databases like ResearchGate or answer direct emails with copies of their work if requested.

In other words, there is a code of honor among academics, and paywalls violate it.

Here’s the thing, Alexandra is unquestionably a brilliant woman and a fearless leader. But Sci-Hub is not just one person. Sci-Hub uses institutional logins. That makes Sci-Hub a collective, anonymous revolt by researchers all over the world who have access to scientific databases, on behalf of those who do not. (Sound familiar?)

That’s right, researchers around the world at institutions wealthy enough to pay the fees for academic access have willingly donated their login credentials to a Kazakhstani hacker. Enough researchers to download nearly every paywalled paper in the world.

Certainly, anonymity has its critiques, but when anonymized groups are allowed to express themselves free of criticism, it is not always internet trolling that emerges. Sometimes anonymity leads to art, self-expression, and social critique.

In this pooled anonymous dataset of scientists it has led to a silent vote. The haves, have undeniably ruled in favor of the have-nots.

So? What’s the big deal about making research papers free

History will likely rule in Alexandra’s favor, but although there are calls for it, she will probably not be getting any Nobel prizes. Elsevier sued her for $15 million which merely forced her to periodically change the domain name and avoid travel to the US. But it begs the question, why did MIT pursue Aaron Schwarz so ruthlessly, and why are journals still trying to keep Shroedinger’s cat in the bag?

Journals claim that it’s expensive to curate research. We’ve already discussed why; most published research is false, the incentives of science reward fraud, and scientific reviewers are hard to come by. Certainly, it’s reasonable that an independent body would be employed to give emerging science a thorough sniff-test. But is it really that expensive? Most peer-reviewers are unpaid, and publication costs have been significantly reduced with electronic print media.

Probably not. The research publishing industry was worth $19 billion in 2020, with profit margins of 40% — higher than Microsoft, Google, and Coca-Cola and roughly triple that of newspapers. It’s a little hard to believe journals couldn’t be a little more efficient with what amounts to a public exchange. Universities are paying for access with public funds, public funds paid for the research, academics are being shaken down for open-source fees, and providing their work free-of-charge from public salaries.

Additionally, while many researchers don’t mind paying for editorial services, the evidence would suggest that journals aren’t exactly performing the service they are claiming to perform. In an infamous 2013 Science sting, 157/255 journals accepted a nonsense paper written by a computer algorithm with little-to-no feedback.

Journal tech is also outdated. Anyone who’s ever submitted a paper knows that submission portals have archaic web interfaces, databases that do not interconnect, and submission protocols that are agonizingly labor-intensive.

Interfaces to access published papers are equally infuriating. I confess I use Alexandra’s service even though I have full institutional access because it’s simply less of a hassle to get to the text. I figure I’ve paid for them already I might as well get a usable interface to read them in. Instead of clicking through layers and layers of endless institutional library screens and nested logins I can just search for the paper on Google Scholar and type the title or DOI into one search bar and I have my paper with no clicks at all.

That fact, if anything, should tell you that research journals are a $19 billion industry that is begging for disruption. (And ironically one that has already been disrupted although very few seem to have noticed.)

If every Web3 developer reading this article is not screaming DAO by this point then they haven’t been paying attention.

Why DAOs like BitDAO represent a solution to traditional publishing

Blockchain presents the perfect solution to both anarchy and Vogon-like bureaucracy in academic journals. (Let’s call it academic journals 2.0 because I don’t think the field has innovated since the Pleistocene era.)

The reality is, even if science was completely open, there would still be an industry because there are still technical challenges and social reluctance to opening research. Academics are supposed to make deidentified datasets of published research available post-publication but this list of open-data excuses from the tongue-in-cheek Open Data Excuses Bingo Card elucidates the reality.

The truth is just like open code, open data and academic review is a service and it needs an organizational structure. So who maintains the organization? Who bears the cost of data storage? Sets interoperability standards? Curates? Confirms identification? Is it fair to make journals do it and then remove the profits? Is free data ever really free?

Perhaps what academic journals really need is competition.

Most researchers are conformists and even if Alexandra has taken over the world with Sci-Hub they are generally disincentivized from publically using the service in institutional settings (some universities even block the domain on-campus). So there is room for innovation in the space, and Web3 is the perfect structure to innovate with. (Sometimes a good hacktivist is all you need to get the right updates.)

With blockchain, and specifically DAOs, papers can be available for micropayment, access and interoperability are easier to assure, and editors can be paid from smart contracts. There are already DAOs such as GenomeDAO that allow individuals to sell their own genetic data to researchers (in competition to 23andMe). And many biotech DAOs leading the charge collectively known as DeSci which is a loosely grouped and evolving foray into Web3 options.

Most of what I know about DAOs comes from my participation in BitDAO, a ~3,400-person collective of Web3 builders and investors. BitDAO was founded in 2021 and currently manages $638 million in a collective investment fund. Some of the biggest names in the game invested in the ByBit offshoot with the aim of derisking the Web3 landscape by pooling resources to invest in chain-agnostic autonomous child-entities.

(Yeah, to a biologist it sounds a lot like cell replication 🙂

DAOs are fascinating — structured yet tribal, transparent yet anonymous, creative, and calculating. Anonymous individuals analyze complex problems from wildly different perspectives. Yet somehow intelligence shines through language barriers and time zones via wacked-out memes.

The voices are like an orchestra. A growing buzz, weighted silence, sometimes a single voice… sometimes a script. My friend told me once that being an intellectual was like being a jazz musician. And if that’s true then I can’t help but wonder if humans have finally found their smoky club.

BitDAO is a bit unique in that it has funding mechanisms in place, and its parent entity ByBit was originally founded in China and is Singapore-based so the group is highly international. ByBit has allocated roughly $1 billion per year to the distributed funding space under the philosophy that a Daoist-influenced developer-collective may be better equipped to scrutinize novel development projects.

It’s a very public social experiment, and thus far it’s proceeding apace. The reason I’m waxing poetic here because the parallels for research are enormous, as I’ve written elsewhere.

BitDAO represents the perfect marriage of the entities described above. Sci-Hub is an anonymous international collective dedicated to transparency and fairness. Academic databases are structured entities dedicated to precision, fail-safes, profit, and reputation. With BitDAO both of these elements intertwine in surprisingly harmonious ways.

Regardless of whether you are a die-hard fan of open science like me, or invested in the existing architecture and rewards structure of the publishing industry, the fact remains that science is biased by its rewards. The current system rewards poor communication between scientists and that means terrible science. Maybe it’s always been the right people in the wrong structure.

Maybe we could replicate, clone, and scale.

Originally published at https://www.todreamalife.com on May 17, 2022.