Medical research and the block chain

A few years back when I was doing my MBA, I’d planned to write a final dissertation on the publishing industry. Then I stumbled across a blog post (‘Elsevier – My Part In Its Downfall‘) in which an eminent Cambridge mathematician basically said enough was enough and took a stand against the established method of scientific publishing.

A simplistic summary of the argument is that academic publishing is, to put not too fine a point on it, nothing short of scandalous. Whilst the medical research of academics is supported by public funding, the results are locked behind paywalls. Scientific publishers, who rely on free time and effort that other academics feel compelled to provide in order to review the research and ensure that it is sufficiently robust, subsequently bundle such publications together and force institutions to pay subscriptions that rise in a way that appear to have far less to do with the rate of inflation than the abuse of oligopolistic market positions.

One professor’s blog post led to a significant amount of press and suppot from fellow scientists, who set up a campaign against such practices called ’The Cost Of Knowledge’. As soon as I started reading up on the subject, I knew it was one that I had to investigate further. One of the reasons that I’ve always been so fascinated in technology is simply because I believe – strongly – that the indexation of human knowledge will enable people from many different walks of life to each contribute and create solutions to problems that just would never be possible were we to simply focus on specialisms alone.

Or, to put it another way – it’s one thing rinsing a market for all it’s worth to eke out a profit – but there’s something particularly morally repugnant about keeping medical research in particular hidden away.

After deciding to write my final MBA dissertation focused on open access publishing (I found it an almost impossible task to write a balanced argument when the benefits appeared to me to be so much greater than the negatives), I’ve not had the opportunity to really delve back into the topic in any great detail since. However, listening to the newest Let’s Talk Bitcoin podcast and the conversation with Kevin McKernan really reminded me of those issues and how broken the system remains.

Dig into the argument that regulation itself holds back progress in medicine (there’s a similar argument when it comes to patents of course) and there’s a huge discussion here. However, there’s another point that Kevin McKernan (@Kevin_McKernan) made has really got me thinking once again. Is the current top-down system of medical research that we utilise actually the way forward? Or should our system of research actually replicate the distributed, decentralised systems that we see in nature (think block chain)? To put it another way, what can we achieve once medical research can be carried out in a far more distributed manner using data from far greater numbers of people (whilst comibining this with the development of personalised medicine)?

There’s so much in this interview that’s worth taking on board. It’s an important message. And Kevin’s involved in a number of projects that certainly deserve some support.

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