(See part 1 here)
Universities are unfortunately built on a foundation that incentivizes mediocre publishing and even re-publishing of academic content through a process some have called “publish or perish”. This process incentives academics to give away the products of their work for free, including copy rights, to the most popular academic publishers in order to compete for tenure. This leads towards the centralization of academic publishing, you know ‘the means of production’.

This environment allows traditionally print academic publishers to harness the power of the digital age whilst maintaining their monopoly over the content and distribution. The results are outrageous costs of accessing new knowledge with a common price tag of 30 dollars per academic article and in some cases a limit of 24 hours access to the content. At this rate, it can cost thousands of dollars to access academic journals that contain sometimes confusing and questionable quality of work. This may have worked up til now both for academics and publishers, but the digital age has begun and disruption is near.

In a world that is consistently adjusting to quick and easy access to quality information, sites like Wikipedia and Reddit are becoming hubs of news and education. Meanwhile western economies are slowing down, feeding a growing frustration that roars louder and louder and is being expressed through many forms of activism and entrepreneurial endeavors. Some impactful examples are Massive open online courses (MOOCS), the un-college movement, Khan Academy, and the many organizations providing cheaper and more decentralized, open access post publication peer review and education solutions such as Science Open and Arxiv.

However, universities and academic publishing giants such as Elsevier continue to have a large share of the pie and continue to exert great control over distribution and innovation in scientific knowledge. In the race to change the world through ideas, localized and centralized universities have been winning for hundreds of years and have the momentum of history, political influence and popular recognition. Yet the internet has opened up the market and broken print publishing’s monopoly over information.

Many of the once considered gold standards of education and scientific advancement institutions are being questioned more critically than ever, revealing some of these traditions as a fool’s gold that is open for technological disruption.

To better understand why there are problems with the current system and how this is likely to change in the upcoming years, we need to take a closer look at the environment of the creators of science and ideas: academia.

Universities: Another government program.

Universities generate revenue mainly through student loans. Governments’ forced backing of student loans is a wide spread phenomenon in the west. It shields investors, be it banks or governments themselves, from being subject to the will of the people. Student loans in the united states are now the second largest type of debt at $1.2 triiiiiiiiiillion dollars.

Why all this debt?

If a particular intellectual pursuit does not provide a return on investment (in other words, does not turn into a decent paying job or solve somebody’s problem) then the money is essentially wasted. A hilarious example of such a course is DavidBeckham’s hair style and personal life, a course offered at Staffordshire University. If such a course is interesting to enough students than clearly some universities will provide it. There is nothing wrong with perusing intellectual interests… on you own dime. To force taxpayers to cover the costs of what might as well be intellectual foreplay is both kinky -not that there’s anything wrong with that- and ethically questionable.

The consequences of this type of government intervention are massive. By guaranteeing student loans, governments separate the holy union of self interest between investors, students, educators, and end consumers. The satisfaction of which would be a successful career for the student, good ROI for investors, solid pay and reputation for professors and useful products and services for consumers.

The moment that governments force taxpayers to take the risk, is the moment that price discovery vanishes, allowing investors to hand out loans indiscriminately and carelessly since their costumer is not longer the student but the government who pays up front. Universities in turn can be much less attentive to the concerns of students, and don’t have a price mechanism to reflect the perceived value of the education they offer. As a result they must speculate on and standardize the value of each course. Education services are thus no longer tied to end consumers or investors, but rather to how much governments decide to tax and pay, as well as how much students are willing to be indebted with.

Without such intervention, if a student wanted to spend 6 months studying Beckham’s abs.They would need to find someone willing to lend them the money for such course (assuming it wasn’t free online), or pay out of pocket. In the case of a loan, the interest rate would be very high and some assets might be asked of as collateral, before handing out such a risky loan. Who would lend out their savings for such a passion without some reasonable guarantee of return? This is how price is affected and shaped within a free market, this is price discovery.

For example $12k per year for Engineering tuition, with a 15% increase in price per year, and no variation of main price regardless of the wide variety in electives and specialization. It becomes a 1 size fits all package resulting in the failed investments of many and massive national debts. The winners of-course are universities with big reliable government paychecks and publishers whom get to sell academic content to university libraries at overpriced premiums.

This market situation is changing with a roaring initial demand for MOOCS, which are not only cheaper or free but provide real time price discovery and feedback to educators. See this and this!

But what does all of this have to do with academic publishing? The answer is…

Tenure

Tenure is, ideologically speaking, a guarantee of reevaluation process before dismissal or firing of a faculty member. Supporters argue that it protects the intellectual integrity of professors and academics, and who can disagree with that goal? The intellectual integrity of the top educational leaders, communicators and thinkers has timeless implications. To this day the ideas of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle among many others haunt the minds of many without them even knowing it and shape our societies for better or for worse. Whether tenure supports or harms that Intellectual integrity is the question at hand, and is one with titanic ramifications.

Without government backed student loans it would be impossible to support the current tenure pay, averaging at over $100k per year, with a seemingly average cost of over $200k on lawyer fees to get fired. This serves as incredible job security. All of this as a reward for teaching, writing and gathering research funding for what ever topic you find most interesting. Can you think of a better gig?

This golden iceberg sized carrot is a powerful incentive for students interested in a comfy academic career. The problem is the lack of price discovery. Because the pay for tenure is not aligned with the end consumers of academic knowledge, such as patients at a hospital or costumers of electronic products, but instead to government’s taxing capabilities. University administration must find alternative ways to measure the consumer value of particular types of academic work in order to stay relevant to economic trends and thus to students.

One way in which they have attempted to solve this problem is by measuring the content output of academics through published journals as well as the impact factor of the journals such content is published on. However, both of these standards are measured only by the quantity of journals that academics publish and how many times such content is referenced by other authors. But what about the quality?

Academic Peer Review

In order to attempt at ensuring the quality of the academic content, universities and academic publishers have integrated and standardized a process called peer review. Peer review is the evaluation of work by one or more people -usually less than a hand full- of similar competence to the producers of the work. It constitutes a form of self-regulation by qualified members of a profession within the relevant field of study. Its intention is to maintain standards of quality, improve performance, provide credibility and determine the suitability for publication of academic content. This process has come into criticism over the past decade, and the little research that has been done on the efficacy of peer review has been at best conflicting and at worst concerning.

According to Wendy Wagner, writer of RescuingScience from Politics:

“Perhaps the most widely recognized failing of peer review is its inability to ensure the identification of high-quality work. The list of important scientific papers that were initially rejected by peer-reviewed journals goes back at least as far as the editor of Philosophical Transaction’s 1796 rejection of Edward Jenner’s report of the first vaccination against smallpox.”

One study published by the Annals of Emergency Medicine (not specific to proctology) submitted a fictitious manuscript into which deliberate errors were placed in order to develop an approach for the analysis of peer reviewer performance. They found that whether reviewers accepted, rejected or recommended revision, all 262 of them did not catch more than 30% of the intentional major errors included.

Another study measured the reproducibility of clinical peer review in neuroscience and found that the process was hardly better than a roll of dice. Alarming findings in an industry the end result of which may be surgical practices or health and mind altering drugs.

A tangible example about the questionable quality of research is the nutrition industry, be it vegan-ism, vegetarianism, paleo etc. Everyone has a different opinion and almost any opinion can find research that seems to support it.

This research may not be conclusive, but it certainly highlights problems with the peer review process. So how can we ensure the popularity of good science over bad science?

A trend towards decentralization.

Wikipedia, the largest encyclopedia in history and top 10 most visited website on the web has proven an empowering and revolutionary insight. Decentralizing open review and editing of information works and works very well! Surprisingly to some, the wiki has high quality content regularly added to the site by individuals with great specialized knowledge, for free, whom them selves often have little involvement with Wikipedia. This content is then edited and formatted in minor ways by highly active volunteer members of the community, improving its presentation and quality even further.
Aaron Swartz showed this to be the case by running an algorithm on the wiki, counting how many edits each member made as well as how many symbols each added. The results showed that less than 1% of edits were vandalism and these were resolved very quickly. Content authors often had less than 20 total edits yet added most of the content, where as editors had thousands of edits with nearly zero symbols added.

In a very real way, Wikipedia is the largest and most successful form of decentralized peer review, exposing centralized alternatives as outdated and comparatively inefficient.

Wikipedia indeed does not include peer review of academic research and they don’t reproduce scientific experiments. This may only be due to the copy right monopolies of academic publishers, and the high costs of the content they guard.

Science Open, a social network for academics and post publication peer review platform, has integrated a similar structure as the wiki by building a network of specialized academics without an access fee and offering them a place to review, discuss and publish their scientific content. By making the peer review post publication, they ensure that all content considered worthy by authors can be freely uploaded, solving the problem of the gatekeepers even if such gate keepers are only powerful through inefficiency.

These academics must have their identify verified through a third party process in order to add official peer reviews. Other non-verified members can comment on the content but not review it. This whole process is transparent and individual’s identities are visible. This can serve as an incentive for academics to network with each other and build a reputation in their field.

All of this is great! But what does it have to do with crypto currencies and Bitcoin? Well…

In the age of the internet, it is not too hard to imagine a world where high quality education is inexpensive and recognized by business owners. Nor is it all that hard to imagine a world where science is reviewed Wiki style and organized a la Reddit. However, both these solutions rest heavily on volunteer work and given their dependence on central servers are also vulnerable to special interests and government censure-ship attacks.

Crypto currency based decentralized reputation systems on top of platforms like Ethereum or NXT coin can take open access peer review to a whole new level. Servers could be moved to p2p blockchain networks and reviewers and researchers could be rewarded with crypto coins for the review and popularizing of good academic work. How could this work? What may the future of academic publishing look like?

On the next installment of the series, I will be featuring a conversation I had with the core developer of such a solution, which won the silver medal in the Toronto crypto hackathon in march this year, second only to Amir Taki him self and his dark market. Stay tuned!

What do you think? Let me know on the comments! I welcome all feedback. 🙂

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Juan Galt.
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Special thanks to my editor Connor Johnston.