The impact of blockchain tech on academic publishing

As blockchain technology continues to branch out well beyond the cryptocurrency world that initially brought it into being, it’s becoming clear it has many potential applications in education. In all likelihood we’re still in the early stages of the technology’s emergence in this field, and the applications will only continue to expand. Even now though, there are some interesting examples.

Perhaps most notable is that student records are becoming easier to keep track of and maintain securely because of blockchain technology. From basic information, to academic transcripts, to notes on course and extracurricular activity participation, there is a lot of information that educational institutions need to maintain and monitor. This can all be made a great deal easier if the information is entered into an incorruptible digital ledger — particularly when the time comes that the information needs to be transferred from one administrator or school to another.

Another important use is in the distribution of degrees. This is a process pioneered via digital diplomas from multiple universities, and has clear benefits for graduates, recruiters, and prospective employers alike. Turning a degree into a digital document turns it into a component of what we might almost refer to as an electronic résumé, making it easier for recruiters and employers to access and verify. The same practice may also become particularly useful with regard to online degrees where there is no in-person component to education. Business education in particular has developed very quickly online, with both online bachelors in business administration and MBAs leading candidates into fields growing far more quickly than other job markets.

These examples — keeping student records and turning degrees into digital documents — cover much of blockchain’s expansion into the realm of academia. Our primary focus here, however, is on another application that tends not to generate as much attention – or at least hasn’t yet. It has become clear that there are also various ways in which blockchain tech can significantly impact the world of academic publishing:

Mitigating Market Issues

While most people probably see academic publishing as a straightforward business or a by-the-book process, there are certain issues and inefficiencies that can come into play. These might include plagiarized materials, predatory journals, or any number of other problems. But in a world in which academic publishing occurs via the blockchain it could become easier for the agencies involved to ensure document integrity and spot these kinds of inefficiencies.

Storing Research Data

There’s a great deal of talk in general about data storage on the blockchain. To sum it up, the idea is essentially that blockchain solutions may rapidly supplant both in-house data storage and cloud storage options. It can make data harder to hack yet faster to access, and in theory it can provide virtually limitless storage. This is typically discussed with regard to healthcare and larger industries, but it could affect academic publishing as well.

Enhancing Effectiveness & Quality

The perks just described ultimately amount to a more accountable and higher-quality academic publishing environment. By extension, it could well be that in time, academic journals and other resources that are not published within a blockchain environment are representative of lower quality or less official status. This may not happen in the short term, however, a degree of exclusivity based on practices that could gradually become an industry standard can be a positive step. The blockchain would begin to serve almost as a filter for quality academic practices and publications.

Peer Review Application

Some academic publishers are already experimenting with the idea of utilizing blockchain technology to help peer review processes. Two of the problems of peer review are the sharing of multiple versions of documents to different people and the security required for double blind peer review. Blockchain systems could enable secure sharing with the benefit of certifying the results of peer review for all those involved.

Leveraging Blockchain for Distribution

Finally, academic journal authors may also find that the blockchain can be useful as a means of controlling distribution. Particularly in the modern world where people find so many ways of bypassing paywalls, downloading material freely and so on, it’s easy enough for valuable research and published material to essentially lose its value. Blockchain distribution for published material has the potential to swiftly address this problem, in that said material has to be obtained as the author and/or publisher determine it should be.

In all of these ways and more, blockchain technology is poised to be every bit as important in academic publishing as in other aspects of academia. And it’s likely that the full range of benefits still has yet to be determined.

The fake factor

On the day that the US says goodbye to its controversial President, we cannot bid farewell to one of his lasting achievements, which is to highlight issues of fake news and misinformation. Simon Linacre looks at how putting the issue in the spotlight could at least increase people’s awareness… and asks for readers’ help to do so.

Cabells completed around a dozen webinars with Indian universities towards the end of 2020 in order to share some of our knowledge of predatory publishing, and also learn from librarians, faculty members and students what their experiences were. Studies have shown that India has both the highest number of predatory journals based there and most authors publishing in them, as well as a government as committed as any to dealing with the problem, so any insight from the region is extremely valuable.

Q&A sessions following the webinars were especially rich, with a huge range of queries and concerns raised. One specific query raised a number of issues: how can researchers know if the index a journal says it is listed in is legitimate or not? As some people will be aware, one of the tricks of the trade for predatory publishers is to promote indices their journals are listed in, which can come in several types:

  • Pure lies: These are journals that say they have an ‘Impact Factor’, but are not listed by Clarivate Analytics in its Master Journal List of titles indexed on Web of Science (and therefore have an Impact Factor unless only recently accepted)
  • Creative lies: These journals say they are listed by an index, which is true, but the index is little more than a list of journals which say they are listed by the index, with the addition of the words ‘Impact Factor’ to make it sound better (eg. ‘Global Impact Factor’ , ‘Scholarly Article Impact Factor’)
  • Nonsensical lies: These are links (or usually just images) to seemingly random words or universities that try to import some semblance of recognition, but mean nothing. For example, it may be a name of a list, service or institution, but a quick search elicits nothing relating those names with the journal
  • White lies: One of the most common, many predatory journals say they are ‘listed’ or ‘indexed’ by Google Scholar. While it is true to say these journals can be discovered by Google Scholar, they are not listed or indexed for the simple reason that GS is not a list or an index

When Jeffrey Beall was active, he included a list of ‘Misleading Metrics’ on his blog that highlighted some of these issues. A version or versions of this can still be found today, but are not linked to here because (a) they are out of date by at least four years, and (b) the term ‘misleading’ is, well, misleading as few of the indexes include metrics in the first place, and the metrics may not be the major problem with the index. However, this information is very valuable, and as such Cabells has begun its own research program to create an objective, independently verifiable and freely available list of fake indexes in 2021. And, what’s more, we need your help – if anyone would like to suggest we look into a suspicious looking journal index, please write to me at simon.linacre@cabells.com and we will review the site for inclusion.

Back to basics

As we enter what is an uncertain 2021 for many both personally and professionally, it is worth perhaps taking the opportunity to reset and refocus on what matters most to us. In his latest blog post, Simon Linacre reflects on Cabells’ new video and how it endeavors to show what makes us tick.

It is one of the ironies of modern life that we seem to take comfort in ‘doomscrolling’, that addictive pastime of flicking through Twitter on other social media on the hunt for the next scandal to inflame our ire. Whether it is Brexit, the coronavirus epidemic or alleged election shenanigans, we can’t seem to get enough of the tolls of doom ringing out in our collective echo chambers. As the New Year dawns with little good news to cheer us, we may as well go all in as the world goes to hell in a handcart.

Of course, we also like the lighter moments that social media provide, such as cat videos and epic fails. And it is comforting to hear some stories that renew our faith in humanity. One parent on Twitter remarked this week as the UK’s schools closed and reverted to online learning, that she was so proud of her child who, on hearing the news, immediately started blowing up an exercise ball with the resolve not to waste the opportunity lockdown provided of getting fit.

Reminding ourselves that the glass can be at least half full even if it looks completely empty is definitely a worthwhile exercise, even if it feels like the effort of constantly refilling it is totally overwhelming. At Cabells, our source of optimism has recently come from the launch of our new video. The aim of the video is to go back to basics and explain what Cabells does, why it does it, and how it does it through its two main products – Journalytics and Predatory Reports.

Making the video was a lot of fun, on what was a beautiful sunny Spring day in Edinburgh with one of my US colleagues at an academic conference (remember them?). While nerve-shredding and embarrassing, it was also good to go back to basics and underline why Cabells exists and what we hope to achieve through all the work we do auditing thousands of journals every year.

It also acted as a reminder that there is much to look forward to in 2021 that will keep our glasses at least half full for most of the time. Cabells will launch its new Medical journal database early this year, which will see over 5,000 Medical journals indexed alongside the 11,000 journals indexed in Journalytics. And we also have major upgrades and enhancements planned for both Journalytics and Predatory Reports databases that will help researchers, librarians and funders better analyse journal publishing activities. So, let’s raise a (half full) glass to the New Year, and focus on the light at the end of the tunnel and not the darkness that seems to surround us in early January.