Research or Perish! The Decentralized Web and Open Research. A Report from the FORCE11 2018 Montreal Conference

Image: FORCE11 2018 Montreal Conference, group photo

I attended the FORCE11 annual conference—an event with a very broad coverage of scholarly communications—with a mission in mind. This mission was to see what decentralized web (DWeb) research projects had matured to a level to be reusable in the working context of a scholars. Most DWeb systems and services are in an alpha phase, so in early R&D state where things are still experimental and not meant for large scale professional use. When a systems is in an alpha phase the objective is to carry out R&D to be able to test a set of assumptions and so improve a system to be able for it to move onto become a beta system, and then a full release. My very real concern is that almost all DWeb systems being proposed don’t know enough about how scholars and academia works, and instead use very thin models of scholarly workflows, that in turn means the chances of adoption, moving through the development phases, or solving the big problems in science communications are greatly reduced.

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#GenR Theme: The Decentralized Web – A Gutenberg Threshold! Running: Sept-Oct 2018

A call for contributions!

Image credit: NASA, ESA and the HST Frontier Fields team (STScI), Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt, 2013. 
NB: A tip to McLuhan’s notion of ‘knowledge galaxies’ (McLuhan, 1962), and J.C.R. Licklider and his memos on ‘Intergalactic Computer Network’. (Licklider, 1963)

#decentralizedweb – A Generation R Open Science theme running from late August to early October 2018

Intro: A Gutenberg threshold!

The frame of Gutenberg and the spread of book technology with the accompanying acceleration in learning, as an example of earlier information revolutions, has been a long-standing comparison for the growth of the Internet. For example in the book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg by John Naughton. (Naughton, 2015)

What is of value in the comparison of the creation of the system of ‘movable type’ and systems of the ‘decentralized web’ is the similarity in needing the convergence of many existing technologies to create a new technological pathway for knowledge, such as the book, or the decentralized web. It is then the far reaching impact of these new pathways which in turn create new: knowledge systems, institutions, industries, knowledge regimes, and knowledge galaxies (McLuhan, 1962), etc.

  • With ‘movable type’ the technologies were, as examples: metallurgy, paper, the press, and type matrix, etc.
  • Similarly with the ‘decentralized web’ it is a convergence of technology and also accompanying developments that make it a game changer in opening up a new pathway for knowledge. Example technologies are: the Merkle tree, cryptoIDs, content addressable, LOD, ontologies, DevOps, continuous integration, etc.
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Decentralized Web: Theme Announce

This theme will be publishing from the start of September 2018 and run for six weeks.

This is an invitation to contribute and to help develop the ideas.

Ideas and literature will be collated here on GitHub and as a literature / sources list on a Zotero collaborative library


Among the many perspectives and motivations for the interest in the decentralization of the web two areas that seem most compelling for Open Science are:

  • firstly, the ability to verify the provenance of data objects, and
  • secondly, to aid making content independent of platforms and their inevitable lock-in — either from business exploitation or the end of the life cycle of a platform being reached.

The model of decentralization is already firmly instantiated as the Internet, a system that never crashes (fatally), or stops working, and can scale and evolve. The question it would seem we face is how to extend such resilience to research software, platforms, and infrastructures.

Currently the decentralized web has three different technology enabling models in the running.

  • Solid
  • Blockchain
  • DAT

All of these technology options are currently being run in research programmes in academia. We will look to assemble voices from these different communities to look at the motivations and outcomes of this R&D.

For the researcher we will look at how they can get involved in using what is on offer from decentralized systems while keeping their data and time invested in adopting or trialing these technologies somehow safe.