Blockchain can Play a Role in Scientific Research


Trust in scientific research has suffered in the age of the Internet as more and more cases are cropping up where it’s clear that that data is being manipulated. According to a recent paper on the potential of Blockchain in Academia, UK doctors Greg Irving, GP and NIHR Clinical Lecturer at the University of Cambridge and John Holden General Practitioner, Garswood Surgery, St. Helens, Lancashire write they feel that time-stamped Blockchain protocols could improve the trustworthiness of medical science .  

Outcome switching, data dredging and selective publication are some of the problems that undermine the integrity of published research. Here we report a proof-of-concept study  using a ‘Blockchain’ as a low cost, independently verifiable method that could be widely and readily used to audit and confirm the reliability of scientific studies.

In their proof-of-concept study they used publicly available documentation from a recently reported randomized control trial. A copy of the study protocol was prepared based on it’s pre-specified endpoints and planned analyses which was saved as an unformatted text file (Dataset 1). The document’s SHA256 digest for the text was then calculated by entering text from the trial protocol into an SHA256 calculator (Xorbin). This was then converted into a bitcoin private key and corresponding public key using a bitcoin wallet. To do this a new account was created in Strongcoin and the SHA256 digest used as the account password (private key). From this Strongcoin automatically generated a corresponding Advanced Encryption Standard 256 bit public key. An arbitrary amount of bitcoin was then sent to a corresponding bitcoin address. To verify the existence of the document a second researcher was sent the originally prepared unformatted document. An SHA256 digest was created as previously described and a corresponding private key and public key generated. The exact replication of the public key was then used to prove the documents existence in the Bitcoin Blockchain using The protocol document was then edited to reflect any changes to pre-specified outcomes as reported by the COMPare group. This was used to create a further SHA256 and corresponding public and private keys.

The result?

Incorporating a transaction into the Blockchain using a public and private key generated from the SHA256 digest of the trial protocol provided a timestamped record that the protocol was at least as old as the transaction generated. The transaction took under five minutes to complete. The process cost was free as the nominal bitcoin transaction could be retrieved. Researchers were able to search for the transaction on the Blockchain, confirm the date when the transaction occurred and verify the authenticity of the original protocol by generating identical public and private keys. Any changes made to the original document generated different public and private keys indicating that protocol had been altered. This included assessment of the edited protocol reflecting pre-specified outcomes not reported or non-pre-specified outcomes now reported in the final paper.

Which can be seen here.