Blockchain and the Scholarly Publishing Industry: Five Developments to Watch

lilac-hued block network

15 March 2022 | Darrell W. Gunter, Gunter Media Group, USA 
Operating in an era of digital transformation, science publishers must continually apply best practices and incorporate new technologies to optimize workflow tools to maximize the transparency, speed, and quality with which results are published. Based on insights gained in part from my editor’s role for the book Transforming Scholarly Research with Blockchain Technologies and AI [1], this blog post now highlights the potential impact that blockchain technology could have in scholarly publishing.

Highlighting applications of blockchain in the research library environment

by Darrell W. Gunter, Gunter Media Group, USA 

Operating in an era of digital transformation, science publishers must continually apply best practices and incorporate new technologies to optimize workflow tools to maximize the transparency, speed, and quality with which results are published. Based on insights gained in part from my editor’s role for the book Transforming Scholarly Research with Blockchain Technologies and AI [1], this blog post now highlights the potential impact that blockchain technology could have in scholarly publishing.

Blockchain has been with us since 2008 with the launch of Bitcoin and since that time, several other applications have been developed. From smart contracts to managing power usage by electric companies to creating digital IDs for people to assess scientific research claims, blockchain and its distributed ledger system are much more than crypto-currencies. 

Did you know that IBM has about 1,500 employees working on more than 500 blockchain projects? US spending on blockchain-based projects and services is expected to reach US$41 billion by 2025. In addition, the research firm Gartner reported that it is expected that blockchain-based projects will add more than US$360 billion of value to businesses by 2026. 

lilac-hued interconnected blocks


Growth of blockchain’s distributed ledger platform

If you are wondering what blockchain is exactly, see Box 1. The use of blockchain and its distributed ledger platform have increased significantly since their launch in 2008. The financial sector currently accounts for more than 30% of blockchain's worldwide market value (Statista). A total of 86% of tech-savvy executive teams surveyed by Deloitte said they believe there's huge business potential in blockchain technology. Statista reports that 33% of the companies in consumer products and manufacturing have implemented blockchain.

Steemit, a blogging network run on blockchain technology, rewards its users for posting or curating content using a token known as a Steem coin. Reuters reports that some of the world's largest banks are investing US$50 billion to build a blockchain-based digital cash settlement system. BMW uses blockchain to drive further progress in supply chain transparency. A recent article detailed the 17 top blockchain applications and use cases for 2022, which includes investment management (financial services), cross border transactions, trade finance, capital markets, transparent budgeting, and figital voting [3].

Prospects of blockchain and distributed ledger technologies for academic publishing

A distributed ledger is a collaboratively managed database of shared, synchronized, and replicated records that typically does not rely on central governance. The ledger is maintained by a network of nodes that store and verify records, e.g., to prevent double-spending. While the popularity of the block-based Bitcoin often leads to the impression that distributed ledger technologies mainly target the financial market and rely on a (block)chain layout for the ledger, the sector is much more diverse both technically and in terms of the addressed application areas... While distributed ledgers and their underlying technologies are easily confused with what is nowadays called crypto-currencies (or coins), they are not the same. For instance, blockchain describes the data structure by which transactions (i.e., messages that alter the state of the ledger) are bundled into blocks of a certain maximum size (for the sake of performance) and then cryptographically linked to a growing list. Distributed ledger technologies such as blockchains and smart contracts have the potential to transform many sectors, including science and academic publishing.


This is an extract from an article published in Semantic Web [2].


Landscape of blockchain for scholarly publishing

With all of these developments, one might ask what is happening in the field of publishing and blockchain? It is perhaps not surprising that the scholarly publishing industry is behind the financial markets in adopting bitcoin, considering the slow pace it has exhibited for incorporating new digital technologies. The financial industry began digitizing Wall Street as early as the 1970s, whereas the scholarly publishing industry did not launch its first digital-only journal until the 1990s, which is around the time that publishers began offering articles in digital PDF format. The digital transformation of books took even longer, as the industry debated whether books would need to be digitized at the 2001 PSP Annual Conference in Washington DC. 

It is important for industry leaders to take the time to fully understand blockchain technology, its capabilities, and the many use cases. The governing boards and executives must provide their organizations with their leadership and financial support to study this new technology, determine its best use, and to implement it.

The landscape for the use of blockchain in academia is quite vast. In the peer-review process, blockchain can be used to provide transparency about the input of authors, editors, and peer reviewers for any submission. Once the paper has been approved and moves through the publishing process, submitting authors have a clear indication of the status at all steps of the process until publication.

blockchain post-it


Five potential blockchain developments in research libraries

In the edited volume Transforming Scholarly Research with Blockchain Technologies and AI [1], the chapter by Anthony and Andrea Paganelli on research libraries provides several examples of potential uses and applications, a number of which are highlighted below. 


  • Administrative matters

"Identity and student records, new pedagogy, costs (student debt), and the meta-university (new models of universities). There will be several uses for higher education to utilize blockchain that will include the ability for students to verify and control their academic progress and achievements." [1; p. 276]. 


  • Research collaboration, and registration 

The blockchain distributed ledger system would give the research community the confidence to openly work together as the blockchain would provide each researcher with a time and date stamp of their contribution. Researchers would be motivated to help solve challenging research issues, problems, etc., as their contributions would be captured in the blockchain.


  • Digital rights management 

Through blockchain, publishers and authors will have more control of their works. First of all, blockchain can create the verifiable transaction, through which authors and publishers can establish specific licensing fees for the works. Secondly, owners of the works can control how the work is utilized or even reproduced. With the introduction of NFTs (non-fungibile tokens), digital assets can be sold, transferred, and shared as directed by the owner of the digital asset. Blockchain creates a unique, verifiable record that anyone can access to ensure clarity and transparency.


  • Interlibrary loan and other services

Interlibrary loan is a library service provided when patrons request materials that are not in their main library collection. Libraries will then borrow books or other materials from other libraries on behalf of the patron. This service is a centralized system, wherein the patron has to request the service from a specific department or specialist. Through blockchain, libraries can remove the centralized system by authenticating patrons' credentials to borrow books from any library within the consortium blockchain. The concept could also apply to distance education services which may require a centralized entity to provide materials to students at satellite campuses. These entities are third parties that interact as an agent for the library, providing services to students. Basically, if a consortium blockchain of libraries was created, then a student would be issued a library card that would work at any of those libraries through the Distributed Verifiable Sovereign Identity.


  • Smart contracts

Smart contracts are programs stored on a blockchain that run when predetermined conditions are met. They are typically used to automate an agreement's execution so that all participants can be immediately sure of the outcome without any intermediary's involvement or time loss. They can also automate a workflow, triggering the next action when conditions are met. Considering the number of agreements that a university authorizes in any given year, smart contracts would save considerable time and expense.

In the book [1], there that many other chapters that detail further examples of how blockchain will provide new opportunities and productivity.

blue digital network with ai-brain illustration


What’s next for the scientific publishing industry?

Here, a few scholarly publishing blockchain developments relating in the scientific field are highlighted:

  • The University of Pittsburgh launched Ledger in 2016, the first ever open access, peer-reviewed journal solely devoted to research on cryptocurrency, which uses blockchain technology for proof-of-publication [4].
  • In 2019, researchers from San Diego proposed a new governance framework for scientific publishing based on a consortium blockchain model to create a more efficient means of navigating the publishing process [5].
  • With its launch 2018, the journal Blockchain in Healthcare Today became the world’s first open access, peer-reviewed journal focusing on distributed ledger technology in the health sector. It publishes research and innovations in healthcare information systems, clinical computing, network technologies and biomedical sciences [6].
  • A paper published in Information & Use provides several areas of opportunity for the blockchain distributed ledger technology in scholarly publishing. It offers “the possibility to open up horizontal discovery on the web between publishers providing optimal discovery, while at the same time creating trust and transparency between publishers” [7].

As you read these four examples, you can clearly see that while the scholarly publishing industry is moving slowly to adopt these new blockchain applications, my prediction is that once a couple of innovative publishers fully implement this technology then we will see the second movers adapt it more readily.

As publishers become more familiar with blockchain and its capabilities, we will witness the adoption and implementation of blockchain in various applications. If history has taught us anything, while the scholarly publishing industry can be slow to move, it moves decisively once that decision has been made.



1.  Transforming Scholarly Research with Blockchain Technologies and AI, Ed. Darrell Gunter (2021; IGI Global); link: igi-global.com/book/transforming-scholarly-publishing-blockchain-technologies/249309 (last accessed: 10 March 2022).
2. "On the prospects of blockchain and distributed ledger technologies for open science and academic publishing" by Krzysztof Janowicz, Blake Regalia, Pascal Hitzler, Gengchen Mai, Stephanie Delbecque, Maarten Fröhlich, Patrick Martinent, and Trevor Lazarus, Semantic Web, Volume 9, Issue 5 (2018); link: content.iospress.com/articles/semantic-web/sw322 (last accessed: 10 March 2022).
3. “Top 17 Blockchain Applications & Use Cases in 2022” by Cem Dilmegani, AI Multiple (published 5 April 2020, updated 9 February 2022); link: research.aimultiple.com/blockchain-applications (last accessed: 14 March 2022).
4. “An overview of the NFAIS conference: Blockchain for scholarly publishing” by Bonnie Lawlor, Information Services & Use, Volume 38, Issue 3 (2018); link: content.iospress.com/articles/information-services-and-use/isu180015 (last accessed: 14 March 2022).
5. “A Framework Proposal for Blockchain-Based Scientific Publishing Using Shared Governance” by Tim K. Mackey, Neal Shah, Ken Miyachi, James Short, and Kevin Clauson, Frontiers in Blockchain (published 15 November 2019; link: frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fbloc.2019.00019 (last accessed: 14 March 2022).
6. “Blockchain in Healthcare Today Debuts First Ensemble of Articles for Healthcare Industry” by Tory Cenaj, Cision PR Newsire (published 27 March 2018); link: prnewswire.com/news-releases/blockchain-in-healthcare-today-debuts-first-ensemble-of-articles-for-healthcare-industry-300619530.html (last accessed: 14 March 2022).
7. “Blockchain and scholarly publishing could be best friends” by Mads Holmen, Information Services & Use, Volume 38, Issue 3 (2018); link: content.iospress.com/articles/information-services-and-use/isu180016 (last accessed: 14 March 2022).

About the Author

Darrell W. Gunter has been at the forefront of major publishing industry initiatives. He is the president and CEO of his consulting firm Gunter Media Group, Inc. where he advises small start-ups to large publishers. Darrell is a graduate of Seton Hall University's W. Paul Stillman School of Business (BS Business Administration-Marketing) and Lake Forest Graduate School of Management (MBA). His column titled "The Innovator's Saga" appears in Against the Grain, a publication about libraries, publishers, and more. He is an adjunct professor in the W. Paul Stillman School of Business. Darrell has authored numerous articles for Against the Grain, which publishes information for libraries, publishers, and subscription agents, and edited the book: "Transforming Scholarly Research with Blockchain Technologies and AI" (2021; IGI Global). His radio show/podcast “Leadership with Darrell W. Gunter” features several episodes on blockchain.