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07.11 Decentralized Science (DeSci): Promises and Limitations of Blockchain Based Initiatives for Sustainable Value Creation in Academia

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Project 7.11 SCOOP Project Cluster - New Organizational Forms and Blockchain Governance

Decentralized Science (DeSci): Promises and Limitations of Blockchain Based Initiatives for Sustainable Value Creation in Academia?

“New” collaborative organizational forms (Kolbjørnsrud, 2018; Kruse et al., 2022) are often hailed as arrangements that might be better able to solve complex societal challenges and their “wicked” problems (Termeer et al, 2015) than their "traditional”, more hierarchically organized counterparts (Billinger & Workiewicz, 2019). New Organizational Forms solve at least one of the fundamental problems of organizing (task division and allocation, reward distribution, and information provision) in a novel way when compared to other organizations that share similar goals (Puranam et al., 2014). A key element of such arrangements, which often are referred to as “new hybrids” because they combine elements of communities, markets, and hierarchies (Kolbjørnsrud, 2018) is a strong reliance on cooperative selfgovernance and mutual adjustment rather than on formal authority and bureaucractic rules procedures. The alleged advantage of such forms over the classical bureaucracy is not only their assumed superiority in terms of operational flexibility and ability to adapt to complex and fast changing environments. They also are appreciated for their value based ambitions: to create work environments and organizational processes that avoid the dysfunctions of “traditional” forms of organizing by fostering participatory, more democratic practices of governance, fairer allocation of rewards, more transparent decision procedures, or a better alignment between individual talents and ambitions and organizational roles. Technological innovations often have played a major role in boosting the invention of new organizational forms. For example, railways and telegraph were an important enabler of the modern corporation, and the current proliferation of platform organizations would not have been possible without the manifold communication and transaction opportunities provided by the World Wide Web. More recently, Blockchains have entered the scene. Blockchains are the general purpose technology behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. Many regard it as a revolutionary innovation that sooner or later will fundamentally transform not only work and organizations but the whole economic system as we know it (Berg et al., 2020; Fenton, 2021). blockchains allow potentially radically new solutions to the fundamental problems of organizing and therefore to making cooperative endeavors far more sustainable. The two projects in this cluster therefore investigate to what degree and under which conditions Blockchain Governance (Fisher & Valiente, 2021) succeeds or fails in sustaining cooperation within and between (new) organizational arrangements.

State of the Art

Blockchains represent a digital technology that uses encrypted peer-to-peer network computing to enable the creation and maintenance of tamper-resistant decentralized public ledgers. Ledgers are databases that record any kind of information, ranging from financial transactions to property certificates or individual identities. A distributed ledger differs from a centralized one in that the information is not stored by one single individual or organization, like a bank or a state bureaucracy, but that it is distributed decentrally across many different entities: every participating node in the network has a copy of the ledger.

               Whereas blockchains are the technology underlying cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, their potential uses by far exceed applications in the financial sector. In fact, there seems to be hardly any societal domain in which the opportunities and limitations of blockchains have not been discussed since the introduction of the technology in the year 2008. For example, blockchains are used in the humanitarian sector, in supply chain management, in healthcare and in public administration reforms (Bustamante et al., 2022). The reason for this fascination lies in what can be considered one of blockchain technology’s institutional core implications: minimizing the amount of trust that is required from actors in a system of exchange or joint production. Since at any point in time consensus about the “true” state of the ledger is ensured through a cryptographic mechanism, participants do not need to trust a centralized record keeper or authority. Users do, however, need to trust in technology.

               Claims about the “trustless” nature of blockchain governance are less straightforward than they seem at first sight. Trust in authorities is still of the essence in blockchain systems (Lehdonvirta, 2022; Vergne, 2021). Crucially: it is only administration that is decentralized, not legislation. This means that blockchain developers can send out updates to the underlying code that changes the rules of the game. In the case of The DAO, which was the first Decentralized Autonomous Organization based on the then new Ethereum blockchain, a hacker used a flaw in the system to transfer 50 million dollars to their own account arguing that no rule was broken and they were completely in their right to do so. In the end, developer and Ethereum co-founder Buterin updated the system to return these funds back to their original owners (Dupont 2018). However, doing so also fundamentally disproved that blockchain is a trustless system without central authorities. Instead, participants still need to have some confidence in the blockchain system itself, which, as some scholars have argued, critically depends on the governance structure of the blockchain system (De Filippi et al., 2020). While the original Bitcoin blockchain has never been hacked like The DAO, the wider governance of the ecosystem surrounding it and other cryptocurrency experiments has been prone to governance failures, most recently exhibited with the FTX exchange collapse. Despite these and other concerns particularly related to energy usage, experiments with blockchain persist and raise concerns about sustainability.

Sustainability Threat

As with all impactful new general purpose technologies, also the invention of blockchains was received with opposing reactions, some of which are reminiscent of the debates sparked in the early days of the introduction of the World Wide Web (Hütten, 2019). Zealots point to blockchains’ potential to literally revolutionize not only market interactions, but society at large. Blockchains would not only minimize the need for trust, they also increase visibility, traceability and security of transactions. In contrast, critics emphasize, among others, high implementation costs, limitations to data modification (which is problematic when programming errors have to be corrected), energy use and the fact that the related computations are time consuming. More recent criticism even raises serious doubts about Blockchain Governance’s alleged potential for disintermediation (Bernards et al., 2022). These factors also lead to high levels of power concentration in the hands of the administrators, thereby undermining the argument that blockchains can decentralize enforcement of rules. Anyone who controls more than half of the mining power could stop any and all transactions they don’t like. When one of Bitcoin’s developers proposed to increase the block size on which transactions are recorded, to speed up the system, Chinese mining companies opposed this change because it would increase their operating costs. So in fact there are two authorities on which blockchain systems depend: developers (legislation) and miners (administration).

With the technology being relatively recent, so far not much is known about the inner workings of blockchain based cooperative arrangements, particularly outside of alt-finance experiments with cryptocurrencies (Dallyn and Frenzel 2021). However, a quite bleak picture emerges from the little systematic evidence that is available. For example, one survey found that of the more than 80.000 blockchain based projects that have emerged after Bitcoin entered the scene (and the cryptocurrency Bitcoin would count as such a project), only about 8% were still active in 2017. Moreover, the average lifespan of such projects was 1.22 years (Kelso, 2017). Nevertheless, interest in Blockchain projects keeps growing. An analysis of the evolution of Blockchain related projects on the open source developers platform GitHub shows a rise from 9000 of such projects a year in 2009 to 26000 in 2016 (Trujillo, Fromhart & Srinivas, 2017).

Main Proposition

Whereas much of the discourse on blockchains considers them as just another new general purpose technology, some scholars emphasize that they represent a new type of economic institution, in fact providing an unprecedented form of institutional technology (Davidson, De Filippi & Potts, 2018). Blockchain Governance constitutes a new and unique arrangement that significantly differs from common contractual and relational forms in at least four major ways (Lumineau, Wang & Schilke, 2020; Murray et al., 2021). First, the defining features of Blockchain Governance are self-contained and autonomous systems of rules. In contrast, contractual governance is based on enforceable promises, rights and obligations, whereas relational governance is about conformity to expectations. Second, where BG’s regulatory principle are protocols and code-based rules, contractual governance builds on the law, and relational governance on social norms (Galloway 2004). Third, enforcement in BG “smart contracts” is automatic, whereas contractual governance invokes third parties and in relational governance it is the involved parties themselves who enforce the norm. Finally, BG is enacted through code and programming languages, whereas relational governance is informal and contractual governance uses legal prose. A key claim following from this institutional approach is that under specific circumstances, blockchain governance may outperform the other two forms of governance. A core proposition explored by the two projects of this cluster is that, though providing an unprecedented new institutional technology for sustaining cooperation, that Blockchain Governance will be as vulnerable to cooperation decay as this is the case for relational and contractual forms of governance. In fact, rather than resolving problems of “traditional” forms of governance, it may exacerbate them (Bernards et al., 2022). For Blockchain Governance to be effective in the middle and long run, additional safeguards to improve its institutional strength need to be in place. These safeguards involve practices sustaining joint production motivation, countering institutional corrosion, increasing ambiguity tolerance, and fostering relational embeddedness.

Main Outcome

The two projects of this cluster address two different levels of analysis. Project 1 focuses on intra-organizational processes. It provides an in-depth ethnographic analysis of cooperation and value creation processes within a small selected set of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs), which are blockchain enabled virtual cooperative entities. The project’s main outcome is a better understanding of the inner workings and cooperation dynamics inside the DAOs and their outcomes (organizational value creation). Project 2 studies the emergence and functioning of a set of DAOs in a specific organizational field, Decentralized Science (DeSci). This project focuses on comparing the institutional grammars of these DAOs, their interplay with established centralized science institutions, and the implications for sustaining cooperation and value creation related to all dimensions of the scientific endeavor.

 

Project 2 Decentralized Science (DeSci): Promises and Limitations of Blockchain Based Initiatives for Sustainable Value Creation in Academia

Aim of the Project

The project has a descriptive and an explanatory aim. The descriptive aim consists in map[1]ping the emerging organizational field of blockchain based Decentralized Science (DeSci) initiatives, in particular DAOs, and their interplay with established or Centralized Science (CeSci) organizations. The second aim is to investigate how variations in the institutional arrangements, including different modes of blockchain governance, of DeSci initiatives affect their capacity to foster sustainable cooperation and value creation within and between the organizations involved.

Background

The institutions governing the academic system are under pressure. Cut-throat competition for dwindling research funds, pervasiveness of precarious short-term contracts, a merciless publish-or-perish culture, and rising student-to-staff ratios causing endemic overwork are only some of the flaws that according to critics characterize modern Academia. These prob[1]lems and the detrimental consequences for all involved stakeholders are well-known. Exam[1]ples are funding institutions being overburdened with an overwhelming number of grant proposals to process; the peer-review system getting clogged; individual scientists entering an increasingly uncertain career path and an ever widening set of performance evaluation criteria.

In The Netherlands during the past decade, calls for reform kept intensifying and were fueled both by grass root initiatives (like Science in Transition, a movement run by scientists) and more organized attempts launched by the leadership of Dutch Universities (like the Recognition and Reward framework for evaluating performance of scientific personnel). Many welcome these efforts as an effective first step towards correcting the excesses of an overheated but otherwise functional system of knowledge production. A small but growing group is more skeptical, considering the current system as such as not sustainable in the long run. For them, current reform initiatives remain futile attempts to treat the symptoms, rather than attacking the root cause of the problem. They claim that as long as the organization of science rests on highly centralized structures – dominated by coalitions of gatekeepers who decide who gets access to research funds, to publishing opportunities and to academic positions – the performance of the academic system as a whole will decline, and with it its valuableness to society. This group of stakeholders therefore advocates a more radical approach towards transformation. The Decentralized Science (DeSci) movement explores how blockchain technology can be used not only to solve some of the pressing issues of the current academic system, but also to fundamentally restructure it (Etzrodt, 2018; Ducrée et al, 2022; Wang et al, 2022).

Blockchains are a relatively recent invention – the idea was proposed only in 2008 and popularized as their initial applications to cryptocurrencies in alt-finance gained momentum. Bitcoin, its competitors and a wide array of financial experiments slowly formed into what has become known as decentralized finance (DeFi), where many consider the related technology as a true game changer. Decentralized Science applications of blockchain technology are even more recent (Kosmarski, 2020). DeSci is part of the widening applications of blockchains, including to the Internet and knowledge governance in digital society as part of “the latest Web3 Movement” (Hamburg, 2022). The ambitions of this movement are high: “DeSci revolutionizes the structure, norms, incentives, and value allocation of centralized scientific systems….It uses digital tools for funding, organizing, training, planning, coordinating, dispatching, collecting, distributing of supply and demand activities, and resources in cyberspace-based communities. DeSci re-incentivizes the scientific ecosystem through token systems and decentralized power, and returning scientific value and ownership to

knowledge producer” (Ding et al., 2022).

More and more DeSci initiatives are now launched (Keck et al, 2020), and Decentral[1]ized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) are a key tool to implement them (see e.g. https://ethereum.org/en/desci/ and here). DeSci advocates embrace this new hybrid organizational form not only because it promises to enable “trustless” cooperation, but also because it may allow wiser evaluations, better incentivation and fairer recognition and reward of individual contributions. DeSci DAOs have been launched for almost all facets of academia, ranging from funding to community building to peer review to reputation systems. However, so far we lack a systematic inventory of the initiatives, their core assumptions, ambitions, strategies and progress as a new element of the current academic system and its organizations. This project therefore heeds the recent call for mapping this emerging organizational field and assess under which conditions and how DeSci DAOs succeed in sustaining value creation in science, and which obstacles they may face: “A thorough review of the DeSci landscape and its implications would promote open discussion on the impact of these new technologies on scientific research.” (Hamburg, 2021).

Theory

Decentralized Science initiatives are relatively recent, and so is theorizing about it. DeSci can be analyzed from a variety of theoretical angles, since it contains aspects of a professional (social) movement, reflects the emergence of a new organizational field (Wooten & Hofmann, 2008; Zietsma & Lawrence, 2010), implies the (de-)institutionalization of deeply engrained established practices (Dacin & Dacin, 2008) and the required processes of frame restructuration (Kim, 2021), and aspires the institutionalization of new forms of governing multi-institutional interdisciplinary research collaborations (Corley et al., 2006) through es[1]tablishing blockchain networks as polycentric orders (Alston et al., 2022).

Though none of these theoretical frameworks so far have touched upon the opportunities and challenges related to blockchain governance, they provide useful pointers to answer the question under which conditions blockchain governance can foster the sustainability of decentralized science organizations and collaborations. For example, Corley et al. (2006) argued that for large-scale, multi-discipline, inter-institutional collaborations to succeed, they need to achieve a high level of refinement either in the epistemic development of the involved disciplines, or of the organizational structure of the collaboration. Drawing on material from two case studies, they propose and show that it is the domain (epistemic vs. organizational) with the highest level of institutionalization that organizes the rules of the cooperation. Studying the development of alternative forms of organization in the face of crises, Kim (2021) makes a strong case for the necessity of developing effective new diagnostic and prognostic cognitive frames replacing established ones that prove increasingly dysfunctional.

More generally, these accounts share a concern for the dynamics affecting multiple dimensions of institutional strength. The Theory of Institutional Strength (Hindriks, 2022) allows to integrate these perspectives and serves as a point of departure for this project. Conceiving institutions as norm governed social practices, this approach argues that the strength of institutions is a function of either the degree of compliance to coordination rules that solve problems of information, or of the weight attributed to the cooperation rules that solve problems of motivation. The project will further elaborate the institutional strength approach and apply it to the new realm of Blockchain Governance of the organizational field of DeSci DAOs and their multi-stakeholder relations.

Research Design

A mixed method approach will be used to empirically investigate the nascent organizational field of Decentralized Science and the organizations involved in it. A first step consists in mapping Blockchain or Web3 Based Decentralized Science Initiatives and eliciting docu[1]ments and communications about their institutional arrangements and governance principles, including how these have changed so far. We then follow the empirical strategy developed by Herzog et al. (2022). This empirical strategy collects two types of data.

First, it identifies the relevant organizational actors that are part of the organizational field. Exploratory interviews with experts will be used for this mapping exercise. In a second step, documents (e.g. white papers, internal memos) and in-depth interviews with representatives of these organizations will be used to reconstruct the institutional grammar underlying the envisioned DeSci arrangements that are supposed to govern scientific prac[1]tice in different domains. Coding will follow the procedure elaborated in the Institutional Gammar Tool (IGT, (Bushouse et al, 2021), which allows a fine grained systematic mapping of (changes in) rule systems, including their implications for prescribed interactions. It identifies six components (ibid): “(1) the Attribute which is the actor who is to carry out the rule; (2) the Deontic which identifies whether the action is required, permitted, or forbid[1]den; (3) the aIm which specifies the action; (4) Conditions which further specify or limit the aim; conditions typically specify how, when, or where the action is to be taken; (5) Or else, which specifies the penalty for not taking the action; and (6) the object which is the receiver of the action”. The second step consists of a sociometric survey mapping de perceived interactions between stakeholders within and between involved organizations in different domains. During this step, perceived collaborative network structures (rules in use, including perceived interactions) will be elicited. A sociometric survey will be sent to key representatives of the identified organizations. This survey will elicit collaborative relations (e.g. for inter-organizational interactions: “with which organizations has your organization been closely collaborating within the domain of [x] during the past six months”. Respondents will also be asked to indicate which policy instruments, in their view, could improve practices in specific science domains. Also their policy core beliefs will be elicited, i.e. “general principles actors want to see implemented” (Herzog et al., 2022:373) regarding a specific domain (e.g. social justice, competition).

Project initiators

Rafael Wittek (UG)

Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn (UG)

Frank Hindriks (UG)

Expertise

Sociology, Philosophy

Location

Sociology, University of Groningen

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