DeSci is disrupting the traditional scientific research life cycle by combining the fundamental principles of open science with novel coordination mechanisms and incentive programs.
Scientific knowledge is a public product that supports technological development and economic growth. However, the current scientific system is riddled with inefficiencies, rent-seeking activities, and low transparency that hinder innovation.
To this end, the Decentralized Science (DeSci) movement is rolling out new systems to sustain, implement, and disseminate open science. Nearly 50 DeSci projects started in the last year alone, and early-stage capital is starting to take notice. Pfizer is backing longevity research by participating in VitaDAO’s latest funding round, and Balaji was an early backer of Scholar and DBDAO, among others. These projects provide builders, investors, researchers, and community members with the opportunity to participate in the development of the economy and the further development of public goods.
Why choose DeSci?Breaking the Science Life Cycle
The current scientific research economy incentivizes prestige acquisition at the expense of transparency and innovation. Researchers must contend with rent-seeking overlords (research institutions), misplaced reviewers, and double gatekeepers (publishers).
The system is plagued by different issues, which can be broadly grouped into three main categories:
1. Centralize decision-making and funding
Research is often funded by government grants or by small, business-driven groups of policymakers. Both show an inherent bias against who they fund. It’s a negative feedback loop, with researchers adjusting laborious funding applications based on the hypotheses they think are most likely to be selected, at the expense of the hypotheses they’re likely to be most passionate about. As a result, the study variance was greatly reduced. For example, billions of dollars go to fund a single theory of Alzheimer’s disease research, while promising new ideas continue to be denied funding.
2. Poor methodology and data transparency
Bad science can perpetuate as researchers “publish or perish” to secure jobs and funding. Furthermore, the lack of transparency of data and methods makes it difficult, if not impossible, for others to verify or build upon existing results. This has led to a “replication crisis,” where it is estimated that more than 50% of research papers cannot be reproduced and 85% of biomedical research spending is wasted on poorly designed and redundant studies.
3. Unincentivized censorship and tightly controlled publication
Manuscripts must pass review by a small panel of unpaid peers before being considered for publication. This can lead to significant publication delays, bias against competing ideas, and insufficient attention to detail. Numerous scandals involving false reporting, doctored and reused images, and manipulation of Impact Factor scores have led to a tenfold increase in the number of retracted articles over the past decade.
Traditional science publishers then go on to bash scientists with thousands of dollars in article processing fees and high reader subscription fees. The most troubling thing about this system is that the public has to pay for scientific research twice: first through taxes that fund the research, and then through subscriptions to publishers to get the results. At the end of the day, publishers are making between 20% and 50% profit margins.
call for open science
In response to these problems, with the rise of the Internet, the open science movement came into being. It is a commitment to open and fair data, manuscripts, and collaboration. Pioneers like the Open Science Foundation award badges to researchers who publish manuscripts with open data and methods. The campaign uses Web2 coordination tools and relies primarily on volunteers and donations. While many open science organizations still exist today, many have struggled to stay afloat or keep costs low for end users (researchers and readers):
- Sci-Hub: An open access website whose founders publish research from various journals. The platform is considered illegal and is often threatened with being shut down;
- Experiment: Project crowdfunding site for independent researchers. The platform relies on one staff member per project to review submissions and charges an 8% platform fee and about 3% for payment processing;
- PLOS: An open-access publisher inevitably passes the cost of staffing and website maintenance on to applicants. The cost of publishing in PLOS is similar to traditional journals.
Furthermore, the field has difficulties with verifiability because, for well-known reasons, open-access journals accept spurious papers at an alarming rate. Open science is certainly a step in the right direction, but after more than two decades, many builders have realized that additional coordination, incentives, and validation tools are needed to usher in the next wave of open research.
The Rise of DeSci
The DeSci ecosystem has a variety of projects that address some or all of the research economy.
Token-incentivized research ecosystems, such as Brian Armstrong’s research centers, handle multiple eases of the scientific lifecycle. Other DeSci projects are building a core focus area and can be modularly integrated with other projects in the stack.
Whether modular or singular, each DeSci project seeks to contribute to scientific progress by democratizing funding, increasing method and data transparency, incentivizing review, and promoting open access to scientific knowledge.
DeSci primarily facilitates community-based decision-making through the DAO to fund research. Many DAOs have specific areas of focus, such as VitaDAO funding longevity research, and FrontierDAO focusing on space exploration. Others, like LoveDAO and VibeBio, plan to fund a range of medical solutions identified by their communities. Putting funding decisions into the hands of the community can facilitate the development of tailored and targeted solutions that are often overlooked in traditional, profit-oriented environments.
Coordination Mechanism and Value Accumulation
Funding a DAO typically revolves around governance tokens, or NFTs, to induce the creation of treasuries and vote on research initiatives. They can also access funding and donations from outside sources, such as Gitcoin, which held its latest DeSci funding round from July 2022 to September 2022.
To stay afloat, DAOs can monetize the intellectual property (IP) generated by the research they fund.
IP-NFT was first proposed by Molecule in August 2021, which can legally protect the IP generated by research. They are a unique alternative to traditional patents, which are used to hoard and limit data and limit the rate of scientific discovery. IP-NFTs allow DAOs to monetize their work in a number of ways:
- License IP for commercialization by other entities
- Split ownership with partners
- Trade data on an open market and maintain creator royalties
- held as collateral
IP-NFTs also allow for new research coordination mechanisms, such as access control for verified participants to contribute research and receive compensation. Over time, the lines of many funding DAOs may blur, and their communities may fully develop to deal with the rest of the research economy.
Transparent research methodology and datasets
DeSci can shed light on how research is structured and conducted. At this point, many funding DAOs utilize outside entities such as contract research organizations (CROs) to fulfill research queries, although there are many emerging DeSci-focused research organizations. For example, members of LabDAO can start and join research projects and share services and tools, while In Real Lab (IRL) is a molecular biology collaboration space focused on DeSci.
Coordination Mechanism and Value Accumulation
IP-NFTs are an example of how contributors can discover and participate in research projects funded by The DAO. The Molecule marketplace matches projects with potential investors and the results can be added as IP-NFT metadata.
OpSci is taking a different approach, tokenizing the identities, certificates and projects of independent researchers or groups as Impact Certificate NFTs.
Impact Certificates will be paired with other protocols such as Holonym for decentralized identity and credential verification, and primitives such as Hypercerts for tracking research methodology and progress. Hypercerts are ERC-1155 tokens representing research methods, datasets and achievements. Researchers can attract funding on open platforms by transparently showing details of their work over time. Ownership of transparent datasets is verified on a public ledger and thus protected.
Incentivizing peer review and open publishing
By now it may be evident how the researchers and project groups and their datasets, methods and results are tokenized. The same goes for manuscripts. In DeSci, the current journal publishing system where users have to pay to upload or access scientific reports is replaced by a permissionless data layer and marketplace platform fees. Fees are extracted to those wishing to buy or sell ownership of research; thus, researchers are free to display their manuscripts, just as NFTs are freely viewable on marketplaces like OpenSea. The review process is also more flexible, as researchers can take advantage of independent peer review protocols.
Coordination Mechanism and Value Accumulation
Projects like Ants-Review propose an incentivized peer review protocol on Ethereum, where community members hold professional paid review committees accountable. Researchers pay for the agreement to have their research reviewed, but payments are released to reviewers only when the community votes that the requirements for a thorough review have been met.
On the publishing side, DeSci Labs’ DeSci Nodes app allows researchers to create and publish FAIR-enabled research objects on open, decentralized repositories. Research objects include manuscripts, codes, datasets, videos, etc., and are interconnected for reproducibility and replicability.
All components of research are citable and credit is accumulated to a single point through linked persistent identifiers and a decentralized resolver system. Developers can build applications on top of this open data layer to implement custom coordination and value accumulation mechanisms. These applications can be modularly integrated with other parts of the DeSci stack; such as using peer review results from Ants-Review and OpSci Impact Certificates to verify identity and work history.
Data, Tools and Infrastructure
DeSci relies on data, and a lot of it. Protocols such as Data Lake, CureDAO, and Fleming Protocol allow individuals to monetize their personal health data and medical records for purchase by researchers. With DB DAO, DAOs can manage the datasets they collect by tokenizing each row in the database as an NFT, and contributors receive query fees when accessing their data.
Further down the research lifecycle, DeSci NFTs (IP-NFTs, Impact Certificates, Hypercerts, Research Objects, etc.) are stored in decentralized solutions, including IPFS and Arweave. Projects like Bacalhau allow users to perform computations directly where datasets are stored (“Compute Over Data”). Each job outputs a unique content identifier (CID) on IPFS, which creates provable links between datasets, enabling reproducibility. Bacalhau also helps streamline researchers’ workflows, as downloading large datasets locally is often impractical.
Finally, DAO tooling services, such as those provided by bio.xyz, a launchpad derived from Molecule, helped DeSci DAO gain a foothold. launchpad provides initial support and grant funding for various biotech-funded DAOs, including VitaDAO, PsyDAO, HairDAO, and ValleyDAO, among others.
Challenges and Risks
DeSci is an emerging ecosystem and not yet battle-tested. The majority of DeSci projects (78%) were started in the past year and a half, from the peak of the last bull market in Q4 2021. The surge in project launches coincides with the first DeSci track at the Ethereum conference during LisCon in October 2021.
Most protocols are not yet fully launched on mainnet. There are various emerging DeSci ecosystem designs, and it remains to be seen which projects will successfully capture value and sustain operations. Future challenges include:
- Intellectual Property: Conducting research does not necessarily guarantee useful results. The IP-NFT community may not be able to monetize the IP, affecting their bottom line. Additionally, negotiating IP may require significant effort through funding DAOs if working with research institutions, as traditional institutions are used to receiving most of the IP produced by their organizations’ researchers.
- Verifiability: Decentralized identity and data verification protocols are in their infancy. Before they reach maturity, there is a risk that researchers will misrepresent their qualifications to attract funding and potentially facilitate illicit results.
- Reproducibility: Open and verifiable methods and datasets may lead to better reproducibility, but replication research has not yet been incentivized. Projects such as Scholar and DeSci Labs are in the early stages of building protocols that incentivize replication of research.
- Regulatory Compliance: Storing data on a decentralized network like IPFS or Arweave may not be considered GDPR or HIPAA compliant. Projects will need to work with regulators to establish legitimacy around DeSci practices.
Addressing these challenges is important to bring legitimacy to the DeSci economy and further attract funding, application development, and research participation.
DeSci is a tall order, and most projects are still in their early stages. However, there are many untapped opportunities for individuals to benefit from contributions to public goods. Communities can fund the research that matters most to them, scientists can more easily monetize their workflows, and entire systems can be made stronger by defaulting to open and verifiable data practices. Transparent datasets and methods improve reproducibility. In turn, scientific discoveries may become more frequent and fruitful, benefiting all participants in the DeSci economy.
By Messari – Stephanie Dunbar, Stephen Basile
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