Decentralized science is modernizing outdated systems | Opinion

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The scientific method has been our guiding light for centuries, illuminating the path to countless theoretical breakthroughs and practical innovations. However, while the core principles of the scientific method remain true, the structures supporting this discovery process—particularly today’s academic publication models and research funding mechanisms—are increasingly seen as relics of a bygone era.

The rise of decentralized science, or DeSci, offers a promising avenue to modernize these systems, providing new solutions for a wide range of scientific stakeholders. By providing new ways to connect, share, and discover the next frontiers of scientific knowledge, web3-enabled DeSci projects are working to fix today’s flawed incentive structures and foster more effective forms of scientific discovery that meet the demands of our time.

Take, for example, today’s academic funding process. Traditional funding mechanisms often reward researchers for securing grants rather than producing impactful research. This has disproportionately impacted fields such as drug development, which has traditionally been an incredibly costly and risk-laden endeavor—often monopolized by large corporations with the financial muscle to navigate the lengthy process.

To offset this funding imbalance, a new wave of DeSci crowdfunding platforms and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) has emerged, unlocking a broader base of financial support. In many cases, these community backers are also able to contribute additional expertise and resources to the projects they support, in addition to helping reduce researchers’ reliance on traditional government grants and large institutional backers. On top of that, funding models that deploy smart contracts and tokenized incentives can directly tie funding to specific milestones and outcomes. This ensures that researchers are incentivized to deliver meaningful results rather than merely securing the next round of funding.

One such project is Molecule, which has a decentralized funding model that allows researchers to tokenize their projects, attracting investment from a global pool of stakeholders. This diversification can help mitigate the biases and power imbalances inherent in the current system, enabling new ideas to flourish based on their merits rather than the financial clout of their backers.

However, research funding is not the only area DeSci aims to improve. Traditional publication models have long been critiqued for their inefficiencies and gatekeeping, with researchers often faced with lengthy delays between submitting a paper and seeing it published,  peer reviews that take months or even years, and limited access to the knowledge contained within paywalled journals. Additionally, subject matter experts are oftentimes not directly compensated for sharing their knowledge with other researchers, which discourages engagement. This system not only limits the reach and impact of new discoveries but also places undue pressure on researchers to prioritize quantity over quality, driven by a “publish or perish” culture.

Fortunately, one of the most exciting aspects of DeSci is its ability to foster new forms of knowledge-sharing and collaboration. The next stage of scientific publishing is one in which research data, methodologies, and results are immediately and openly accessible to everyone, enabling real-time peer review and collaboration. And the best part is there are already multiple DeSci projects offering live solutions on this front.

Projects like ResearchHub and DeSci Labs embody this collaborative approach, facilitating open publishing, interactive peer reviews, and community-driven funding. Researchers who publish high quality studies or provide expert feedback on others’ work are rewarded through community-driven funding mechanisms, as they contribute to each platform’s public knowledge repository. This model not only eliminates many of the bottlenecks associated with traditional scientific research but also preserves science as a public good, making it more inclusive and actionable.

DeSci isn’t a theoretical concept—it’s a movement that is already yielding myriad real-world benefits, driven by a diverse constellation of decentralized data networks, publishing platforms, and research DAOs. And while blockchain-enabled projects are spearheading the DeSci movement, there are also other promising projects at the cross-section of traditional science and DeSci that are experimenting with new ways to accelerate and improve scientific research.

Examples of this hybrid approach include the citation-based literature mapping tool Research Rabbit and the Open Science Framework (OSF), an open-source platform that supports the full research lifecycle, from project planning to publication and preservation. Unlike the previously mentioned web3 projects, Research Rabbit and OSF provide a suite of tools for researchers to collaborate, document, and share their work in a centralized but open environment. Yet these projects are working towards many of the same goals of enabling new forms of scientific discovery through data transparency and collaborative insights.

All of this is to say that moving away from traditional systems is an iterative, open endeavor that is not wholly owned by any individual project category—a true reflection of the historically grassroots ethos of scientific discovery. Critics may argue that embracing DeSci requires abandoning the tried-and-true methods that have served us well for centuries. However, the goal of DeSci is not to discard traditional practices but rather to enhance and complement them with more efficient, additive models, thus providing scientists and researchers with more opportunities for exploration and connection.

The scientific method thrives on challenging assumptions, reframing questions, and relentlessly seeking better ways to understand and navigate the world. It’s a dynamic process that continuously pressure-tests what we know and how we know it, pushing the boundaries of possibility. Yet, paradoxically, the very process of scientific research and discovery is often bound by outdated models for funding, publishing, and peer review. Just as we innovate to overcome scientific challenges, we must also reimagine and refine the mechanisms that govern scientific inquiry.

Within this backdrop, the transformative potential of decentralized science resides in its ability to realign incentives and democratize access to funding and knowledge. The age-old adage, “what got us here won’t get us there,” rings especially true in today’s scientific ecosystem. But by embracing new DeSci models, academic institutions and independent researchers alike can help foster more inclusive, transparent, and effective forms of scientific discovery. As we stand on the cusp of this new era, it’s crucial for the scientific community to open itself to the possibilities DeSci offers, ensuring that the pursuit of knowledge keeps pace with the needs and challenges of today.

Patrick Joyce

Patrick Joyce

Patrick Joyce is the co-founder and COO of ResearchHub. He is a double dropout who left a PhD program in molecular biology to attend medical school and then subsequently dropped out of medical school to build ResearchHub. During his time in academia, he came to understand the true extent of how broken incentives in academic publishing hold back human knowledge creation. He co-founded ResearchHub to help accelerate science by aligning incentives within the academic marketplace.

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