Of Blockchains, Blogs and Plagiarisms…

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Jul 21, 2016 9:46:23 AM


Blockchain, a technology most commonly associated with the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, is a distributed database that’s designed to preserve the integrity over the overall database despite it being publicly available.

The idea is that, as items are added to the database, they are added as blocks to the chain (hence the name) and then are encrypted and distributed to the entire network so they can be read but not altered as any tampering would break the chain. 

With Bitcoin, the blocks hold information about transactions and track the flow of currency online. However there is no reason that the technology can’t be used to track just about anything else.

In artistic circles, services such as Ascribe and Mediachain have been attempting to use Blockchain tech to provide verification of creation of a work. The idea is that, when an artist registers a work, it’s added to the blockchain for simple, public verification.

In a February 2016 edition of F1000Research, researchers Greg Irving and John Holden proposed and tested an idea for using blockchain technology for academic verification.

The idea is similar to what Ascribe is doing, but basically involves adding a hash of a research work to a blackchain before it’s submitted for publication. Thus, if there’s a dispute about who wrote a paper first, it can be quickly compared and verified.

Unfortunately though, the Irving and Holden’s research has run into plagiarism issues of its own. Blogger and doctoral candidate Benjamin Carlisle claims that he wrote a blog post in 2014 outlining the idea Irving and Holden used in their experiment. To make matters worse, Carlisle says his work was not attributed in any way, even though significant portions of it were copied verbatim.

However, rather than retract the paper, F1000Research allowed Irving and Holden the chance to resubmit it, adding clear citations to Carlisle’s work and a reducing the textual similarities.

This has done little to placate Carlisle, who continues to believe that even the revised version is a plagiarism. Likening it to a cook taking credit for a recipe because they were the first to document baking it, Carlisle believes that his contribution is not being adequately credited.

But there are those, including one of the peer reviewers of the original paper, who believe Carlisle deserves even less credit than he got originally. Amy Price said that:

I would argue that the authors were overly generous in crediting the concept to Mr. Carlisle. I don’t think that this blog would meet considerations for authorship in the paper even according to COPE…. The blog suggests a use for a concept based on open access tools in the public domain since 2009 but does not operationalize it. An idea or a tool is not research. To assign that or name it as research is quite a stretch and would not be accepted in an academic or even intellectual property sense.

She goes on to say that the blog puts forth no supplementary materials and the paper does, thus, in her mind, ending the dispute over similarity.

This raises serious questions of its own. With the Internet making it possible for academics to publish thoughts and even findings outside of the journal system, determining the weight and consideration such publication gets will be challenging and have a major impact on every step of the research process, including attribution.

For right now though, a potentially interesting and useful technology for addressing certain aspects of academic misconduct has suffered and unneeded setback. The reputation of blockchain is already complicated due to its connections with Bitcoin, but the recent plagiarism allegations will do nothing to push it into the mainstream.

If this is an issue that researchers wish to explore, issues like plagiarism have to be avoided. Already something of a fringe technology, plagiarism just gives those who are skeptical of it yet another reason to look away from it.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of iThenticate.