Since the 1990s, some academic netizens have predicted that open access will upend scholarly journal publishing, yet an oligopoly still dominates the USD 25-billion industry.

Orvium, a European start-up, recently joined those taking on the giant players. It offers a publishing and business plan based on blockchain — a coding structure that embeds origins and changes within a file. The format will allow for open-access or other licensing models to be determined by each client journal’s editors. The company’s ultimate objective is "to be the leading publication platform for the research community while returning the benefits of science to society."

Manuel Martin, Orvium’s 38-year-old CEO and cofounder, said in a phone interview from Geneva that the company is in a period of beta testing and should be operational in 2019. A data scientist who has worked with CERN and NASA, Martin, who was born in Spain, said that he and his fellow cofounders, Antonio Romero and Roberto Rabasco, started the company to make journal publishing cheaper, faster, and more transparent.

Skeptics acknowledge blockchain’s potential for greater transparency but doubt that it will be faster or cheaper than other platforms that include article preprints. They question Orvium’s intent to lift anonymity from article reviewers. They are dubious, too, about elements of the business plan and point to a history of would-be publishing disruptors being bought up by the very companies they planned to compete with.

The Behemoths

Critics have long complained that the major players — Elsevier, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley — profit hugely from public research investment and the unpaid efforts of anonymous peer reviewers. Then, in what Orvium calls "an outrageous economic model," the publishers sell the research results back to government and academic institutions at profits "reported to exceed those of companies such as Google, Amazon, and Apple."

Far from destroying that model, the internet has enabled it, critics say, by bringing production and distribution costs for online publications down and increasing profit margins further — close to 40 percent, according to Forbes. In a February essay in the Canadian trade journal University Affairs, Adriane MacDonald and Nicole Eva, an assistant professor of policy and a research librarian, respectively, at the University of Lethbridge, in Canada, write that "the ability to avoid printing costs and to bundle electronic journals into ‘big deal’ packages has allowed publishers to put more of the subscription fees they charge directly into their pockets." Those fees, depending on the size of the institution, are USD 350,000 to USD 9 million annually, they write.

The big publishers counter that their critics constitute a small minority of academics. The infrastructure that enables publishers to annually publish and distribute millions of articles to millions of scholars — much of that material now open access — is sophisticated, time and labor intensive, dependable, and high quality. The notion that academe can handle that job itself belies the realities of funding, the complexity of the enterprise, academic politics, and demands on scholars’ time. In short, the publishers argue, the present model persists and expands because it works.

Elsevier, for instance, says it published 284,000 papers a decade ago at a quality (measured by impact factor) 10 percent above market average. In 2017, it published more than 430,000 articles (roughly 17 percent of total industry output) at a quality 30 percent above market average. Moreover, the content is increasingly interactive, enabling users to post and compare data, manipulate graphs, and collaborate. The company’s network includes 20,000 editors and 80,000 editorial board members. "The growth in quality, submissions, and network," Elsevier said, "would indicate that research communities in all disciplines believe we add value."

A Quest for Transparency

Enter blockchain, which is perhaps best known as the foundation for the digital currency Bitcoin but has been discussed as a potentially revolutionary force in applications ranging from entertainment products to institutional and government bureaucracies. Blockchain files’ fundamental benefit is that they carry their histories within them.

A twist to Orvium’s model, related to but independent of the blockchain platform, is that peer review will no longer be anonymous. Martin said that reviewers have inevitable biases and perhaps conscious or unconscious competitive motives for throwing a roadblock in front of someone else’s research or advancing it. Revealing who reviewed an article and what they wrote about it will expose potential biases to interpretation and consideration. On the flip side, the now thankless task of reviewing can be recognized and potentially rewarded.

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