It is a pivotal moment in the development of the new digital economy. Interest in all things crypto keeps growing exponentially, and investment follows closely. There has arguably never been so much money poured into a product class that was so poorly understood, both by the wider public and by most investors. In lieu of actual understanding, stakeholders in the crypto space have to operate on reputation and trust instead. This necessity has given rise to a dangerous new con.
Unlike blatant scams like OneCoin or Bitconnect, today’s blockchain opportunists and confidence tricksters often play the faux science card. “Read our white paper here,” “Look at this research report we uploaded to arXiv,” “Download our dataset” — sounds legit, right? There is just one crucial element missing: academic validation.
Not all papers are created equal
Anyone can put together a “white paper” and make it available to download. In 2018, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission taught gullible crypto investors a valuable lesson. It set up a fake initial coin offering for the fictitious “HoweyCoin” that prominently featured a white paper as a token (pun intended) of trustworthiness. By contrast, only a trained researcher, most likely with a Ph.D. and extensive knowledge in the field, can have a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal. This is the gold standard to which the distributed ledger technology, or DLT, space should aspire.
You would not put a vaccine into your arm that was developed by college dropouts who did not let experts in biochemistry and immunology verify their work. So, why should you put your finances, your personal data and your automated devices into DLT solutions that were not rigorously vetted?
Academic validation starts with peer review
Peer review is a key aspect of academic validation. It describes the practice of experts in a scientific field checking each others’ research findings for flaws and inconsistencies, pre- and post-publication. On the one hand, peer review is a crucial step in academic publishing, and it increases transparency, reliability and trust. To allow for independent validation, authors open their data, methods and results to expert scrutiny, first by anonymous reviewers. On the other hand, once it passes initial review and gets published, research can be revisited, revised or even retracted at any point in time, based on new information from the wider scientific community. Academic validation is, thus, a perpetual process.
Working within a system of peer review and academic validation ensures continuity in innovation and knowledge generation. Good scientific publications embed their unique contributions into a rich legacy of previous achievements. They systematically review what has been done before, build upon it and chart the way forward for future innovation. Pseudoscience publications, by contrast, often reinvent the wheel and give it a few sharp corners for good measure.
Last but not least, peer review brings with itself a code of academic integrity and conduct. In popular culture, many supervillains hold advanced degrees. In real life, the vast majority of academics are well-intentioned, highly ethical people whose actions are guided by the pursuit of facts and knowledge. Though not a perfect antidote to human errors or moral slip-ups, we can say the academic validation system has largely succeeded in keeping scientific development on a righteous path. That observation also holds true for many industry spinoffs, such as in the biotech sector.
Biotech as the poster child for peer review in the industry
One industry where peer review has long been successfully integrated and widely accepted is biotechnology. Recent rising stars like BioNTech and Triumvira Immunologics regularly publish in top journals and stand up to painstaking peer review. Nobody would have it otherwise. The field has learned its lesson after several spectacular bouts with…