Which industry has higher profit margins than Google and saw a growth in revenue last year that was larger than that of the global film industry?
No, not the big banks or smartphone manufacturers, nor any sector whose presence in mainstream society seems ubiquitous.
Instead, in the niche world of scientific publishing, the three biggest companies – which constitute over half the industry – have yet again found themselves near the top of the profit tree.
The New York-based Elsevier, which itself represents 24% of the scientific journal market, announced profits of over $900m, up $60m from 2016 and with a profit margin of 36.8%; and in the past month, shares in Wiley-Blackwell have experienced a 5.2% surge.
The only bad news so far is that Germany’s Springer Nature, which wants to raise a reported $1.2bn from an IPO but has had to postpone its plans following weak investor demand, as reported by Reuters.
Why So Profitable?
“The problem at the moment is that I have to pay for my own research from the publishers”, says Manuel Martin, co-founder and senior project leader of Orvium, a decentralized platform for scientific papers and findings to be managed and published. “At present, the publishing industry actually introduces limitations on the scientific community”.
Unlike other forms of publication, such as newspapers and magazines, which effectively pay for content by employing a full-time team of writers and editors, scientists are often funded by governments or institutions. They give their findings to journals for free – which, in turn, take the copyright – and then they rely on the academic community to peer review content on a voluntary basis.
By then selling the published content back to the institutions and governmental organizations that originally funded the projects in the first place, scientific journals enjoy high-profit margins because costs are so low.
Calling from Geneva, Martin admitted that, “this is something the scientific community has had to deal with for a very long time”.
Founded by a group of scientists with experience in working at some of the world’s largest and most prestigious research institutions, including CERN and NASA, it is clear that Orvium was created to address a clearly-defined issue: fix the systemic problems surrounding academic publishing.
Planning to use blockchain technology to effectively put all academic and scientific publishing in the public domain, Orvium will enable researchers to post findings on the blockchain, making it instantly available to the community to read and assess.
“If it hasn’t been published it effectively doesn’t exist,” says Martin, who knows from firsthand experience as a big data engineer at CERN. “However at present, it normally takes between one to two years for research to find itself in the relevant publications and readily available for the subscriber community. With Orvium this can be immediate”.
Decentralised Blockchain Publishing
Established in the summer of 2017, Orvium will allow contributors to retain ownership of their papers, and gives them the right to determine whether the work and all the associated findings and data will be free at the point of access – or subject to some sort of paywall.
“It’s important for us that the creator can decide what to do with access”, says Martin. “Many scientists know full-well that companies, whether they be pharmaceutical or engineering firms, often profit from their work: they can decide whether private institutions have to pay to use their work, whilst making it freely available to individuals or fellow researchers.”
Although Orvium won’t charge contributors or individuals for using its platform, Martin says that the plan is for Orvium to take a share of the fees charged for content that has to be paid for.
The platform is also holding an ICO for its ORV tokens, either in July or August, with plans to raise $20m for further project development: Crypto Briefing asked Martin why Orvium needed such a large amount of money, especially as the project has yet to release an MVP.
“Our development team has experience in utilizing this type of tech and so we know the full costs of conception and production”, argues Martin. “We spent a lot of time on the proof of concept and ensuring that our MVP will work with our whitepaper: it is currently in the testing phase.”
With tokens valued at $0.10 each, ORVs will not only be used as a means to access pay-for-content, but can also be used to reimburse validators, who assess contributions on the platform and, under the current model, work on a voluntary basis.
“Everything is at the user’s discretion, but Orvium will allow validators to charge for peer reviews”, says Martin. He also mentioned that Orvium would require contributors to upload used data and other resources, in order for reviewers to accurately assess every aspect of the published research: not just the end product.
“Of course collecting data that is used in research papers is often the most costly and time-intensive part, and there’s nothing to stop a scientist also putting a paywall on the raw data as well, should they want to”, Martin added.
The Platform the Sector Deserves.
There are other blockchain platforms out there that also harness blockchain technology with plans to overhaul the publishing status quo.
Chief among them is Po.et, which protects intellectual property by tracking ownership of all digitally created assets across the internet, enabling creators to know how their content is being used.
But Martin sees Orvium as more than just a DLT publishing house. Instead, he sees it more as a framework which can facilitate collaboration and research in the scientific community.
“Using blockchain, we can create a platform that can be used to crowdfund new research lines or highlight contemporary issues which require the community’s urgent attention”, says Martin. “It is already common for institutions to offer prizes to mathematicians say, to solve complex problems: we can do the exact same thing on the blockchain.”
“We can also offer decentralized journals or publications that use the Orvium platform to coordinate research and find reviews for published work”, Martin added.
New projects come along almost every other day which use blockchain technology in ways which seem unfeasible or completely unnecessary: does society really need blockchain to reward people for feeding their cats or to introduce a whole new paradigm of Buddhist economics? Is it little more than a gimmicky attempt to make the most out of crypto-mania?
But Orvium makes sense and not just because it may actually offer the first real opposition to the oligopoly enjoyed by publishing companies.
As well as the perceived injustices of making substantial profits from donated work, by determining what is and isn’t published, companies decide what the scientific community reads and effectively set the research agenda.
In a 2008 paper, one of the heads of the National Institutes of Health, which funds and conducts medical research for the US Government, argued that because of the importance of innovation for society, “there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data are judged and disseminated”.
Elsevier, which is the largest scientific publishing company in the world, had 1.5m articles submitted by 14m contributors to its publications last year, of which 420,000 were published with the help of 800,000 voluntary peer-reviewers.
If ever a sector required overhauling by blockchain it is the world of scientific publishing: disruption is needed here…and needed now.