[ASAP] Blockchain: Will Better Data Security Change Chemical Education?

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SPECIAL ISSUE

This article is part of the Chemical Security special issue.


Chemistry, like most other disciplines, has been affected by the digital revolution. Traditionally, chemists have focused their security concerns on topics such as laboratory safety, environmental hazards, toxic chemicals, and transportation safety. Digitization creates both new opportunities and new challenges, including new ways to view chemical security. As chemists are increasingly dependent upon computerized information, they become vulnerable to hackers and cybercriminals as well as simple computerized errors. Globalization, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things are making the chemical world ever more interconnected, and Big Data is increasing the complexity. Sources of information are expanding exponentially, and not all are equally trustworthy. How does a chemist establish the provenance of the information that he or she needs?

Part of the solution to this problem may be a computer system called blockchain. Aside from a few brave souls who follow the financial gyrations of the online currrency known as Bitcoin, most chemists are probably not very familiar with blockchain. That may soon change. The panel of higher education experts who created The 2019 Horizon Report identified blockchain as one of the important technology trends that will affect higher education in the next four or five years.(1) The Horizon Report focused mainly on the potential effects of blockchain on academic credentials, but this technology has a number of applications beyond academic records that may make it important for chemists and chemical educators. Blockchain is potentially useful in any application where it is necessary to establish a trusted pattern of information exchange. Blockchain may also be used to determine ownership of intellectual property and to to track the shipment of chemicals to prevent their use for illegal purposes, such as terrorism.


Blockchain was originally created in 2009 to serve as the basis for Bitcoin (the first so-called cryptocurrency); since then, it has been used to provide information security for many different nonfinancial transactions. Basically, blockchain is a decentralized ledger located on different computers that have mutual control over the addition of new data. The data are saved in blocks on each server or node in the system of peer-to-peer (P2P) computers; changes can be made only if approved by the various nodes. Unlike systems that depend upon a single database server, the peer-to-peer network verifies data changes by obtaining a consensus across the nodes. The data are encrypted so that only authorized nodes can propose changes. Any time a data block is changed, the new block is linked to the previous version to create a chain of blocks. A computer algorithm takes digital information and uses it to generate a string of letters and numbers, called a hash tag, which uniquely identifies each block of information.

Now consider what happens when a user initiates an encrypted transaction with a change in one of the data blocks:

  • The encrypted transaction is shared with all of the nodes in the network. There is no single node that controls the system, so information is routed to all the nodes and each node can be either a data provider or a data consumer. This is why it is called a peer-to peer network.
  • The individual nodes authenticate the transaction using a consensus process to verify the encrypted entry. No transactions can be changed without the encryption key and a consensus acceptance among the various nodes. It should be noted that this process ensures that the information has been added by a valid source but does not judge the accuracy of the information provided.
  • When the new information has been validated, the validated transaction is collected into a new block and is shared with all the nodes in the system. Each new block includes a hash tag linking to the previous version of the block.

The new block becomes a permanent part of the blockchain. Each block is linked to the earlier and later versions of the block, making a chain. (See Figure 1.) The hash tag for each block can be used to determine whether or not the previous block has been modified.

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What Are Some of the Problems with Blockchain?


If a blockchain is open to the public, as in the example of Bitcoin, it is called permissionless, and anyone with a network connection can join and become part of the consensus process. In this case, more computer authentication is required, and the approval of a new transaction can become rather slow. If a fraudulent intruder manages to infiltrate the set of nodes, it can add false information to the blockchain. For these reasons, many users prefer a permissioned blockchain, where a network administrator controls the approval process that determines whether or not a potential new node can be trusted to be added to the system. Although the authentication process is similar, permissioned systems use fewer resources. Various other solutions are being developed to try to deal with this problem.(2) It is important to note that consensus approval by all of the nodes does not ensure that the information is accurate or valuable, only that it has added by an authorized user.

Even though blockchain is more secure than most computer systems, nothing is perfect. Dan Price has done a good job of summarizing some of the problems with blockchain.(3) Using fewer nodes can create concerns; for example, if a group of hackers takes control of more than 50% of the computing power used by a given blockchain application, they will be able to change the information on a permissionless blockchain. Blockchains with fewer nodes would be faster, yet they would also be especially vulnerable to this type of attack. Finally, the best computer security in the world is no better than the encryption keys chosen by users. A recent study showed evidence that a “Bitcoin bandit” had stolen millions of dollars from cryptocurrency accounts by guessing security keys that were too simple.(4)

Bitcoin is open to all users (i.e., it is permissionless), and so security consumes a great deal of computer resources and huge amounts of energy.(3) It has been estimated that the Bitcoin system alone represents 0.6% of the world’s entire electric consumption, and this energy use will only increase as new cryptocurrency systems become popular. The applications discussed in this paper that would be of greatest interest to chemical educators avoid the energetically costly proof-of-work consensus protocol typically required for Bitcoin because the users would be limited to those accepted by a network administrator.

Can Blockchain Create More Secure and Accessible Academic Records?


Academic credentials are becoming more complicated. Today’s students have often attended more than one institution of higher education and so must provide multiple transcripts when they apply for a job. The rapid pace of technological change has made lifelong learning a necessity, not just a slogan. It has also called upon institutions of higher education to develop new pathways to certify skills that are more personalized, practical, and focused. This has encouraged colleges to create innovative forms of academic credentials that recognize the specific skills developed by learning in relatively brief experiences such as short courses on campus or online massive open online courses (MOOCs).(5) This process for getting credentials seems cumbersome to students who have spent their lives sharing text, photos, videos, and other information on their phones and tablets. Blockchain offers a good way to authenticate these experiences.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that more than 50 million U.S. adults, or one in four, had obtained a professional certification, license, or educational certificate apart from a postsecondary degree awarded by a college or university.(6) This form of recognition is called microcredentialing and may include badges, certificates, etc. that may come from nonacademic as well as academic sources. Even within a traditional undergraduate curriculum, some laboratory courses, such as instrumental analysis, are often taught in a round robin fashion, with small groups of students. Not all students in the group might have the chance to become equally conversant with every piece of equipment. Badges for specific instruments verified by blockchain would demonstrate to prospective employers that a student had the specific skills desired. Towns and Harwood have used badges to ensure that students master basic laboratory skills, including pipetting, reading a buret, and making solutions in a volumetric flask.(7) Mellor et al. have combined gamification with badges to teach green chemistry.(8) Microcredentials can offer potential employers a more detailed picture of what a student learned over his or her course of study.

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Blockchain provides a way to unify all of a student’s academic credentials on a platform that is easily shared and authenticated and may eventually replace transcripts. An improved process to make applicant information more dependable would clearly be beneficial for employers, since a study several years ago found that 58% of employers have found inaccurate information on applicant résumés.(9) This may mean that an employee is doing a job for which he or she lacks the requisite qualifications, but it could also give someone access to confidential intellectual property that they plan to steal. Already several projects have demonstrated the feasibility of using of a blockchain-based platform to create a verified record of grades and/or credits for higher education, such as Sharples and Domingue(10) and Turkanovic et al.(11) Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has created an experimental program that allows some students to create and share academic transcripts securely.(12) An international group of nine major universities has formed a consortium to use blockchain to create a standard procedure for creating, storing, and authenticating academic credentials.(13)

Nonacademic organizations are also proposing to offer blockchain credentials so that individuals will not have to deal with the cost and technical problems of setting up a blockchain network. Cloud infrastructure companies such as Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon are developing managed credential services based on their cloud services that allow individuals and organizations to create and manage their credentials,(14) while educational providers, such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill, are not far behind. In 2018, World Education Services, a nonprofit organization that is attempting to find better ways to verify qualifications, began to issue blockchain-based digital badges to applicants as a way to recognize their qualifications.(15) If institutions of higher education fail to respond to this need, they may miss out on a vital opportunity to connect with and support their graduates.

Blockchain and the Scientific Literature


There are a number of situations related to the scientific literature that could be addressed or improved by using blockchain technology. As open access journals have proliferated, it has become common to charge authors to publish articles. This creates a hardship for authors who lack institutional or grant funds to pay for publication. Some types of scientific work do not necessarily produce publications but are worthy of recognition, for example, serving on an editorial board or reviewing grants or papers. Nature magazine has reported that a majority of peer reviewers would like more recognition.(16) Some professors are hesitant to share their teaching strategies, curricula, and other materials (e.g., CAD files that are the basis for 3D printing(17)) online for fear that their legitimate ownership claim might be lost, and some may feel that they should receive more compensation either in terms of reputation or finances when they share with others.

Jorisvan Rossum has proposed that blockchain could be used to make scientific data more secure and more reproducible and to determine who was the first to come up with an idea or procedure.(18) He argues that whereas current articles only describe the end result of a scientist’s work, blockchain could record all the steps from the initial idea to experimental design and final results. He also suggests that researchers could receive blockchain tokens for certain professional duties. The researcher could then use the tokens to purchase services, such as access to articles or fees to publish in open access journals. This would support researchers who lacked financial support. Much of what van Rossum suggests sounds very reasonable, and the Internet is already changing chemistry. The Royal Society of Chemistry offers chartered status as a way to recognize the knowledge and professionalism of those working in chemistry,(19) and other Internet sites are creating new forms of interaction between scientists. Blockchain could be a useful addition to these types of sites. Journal publishers would certainly like a better way to track the source of the articles that appear on Sci-Hub, the pirate journal site.(20) Using blockchain for academic sharing would make ownership clear and might even provide a mechanism for financial compensation. Blockchain may be used to ensure proper credit or ownership for patents or other intellectual property. Cisco even predicts that the use of blockchain will create an open market for ideas that will foster innovation by allowing individuals to receive credit for their contributions in ways not previously possible.(21)

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Several projects are already underway using blockchain to create an integrated platform that will combine a social media scientific network, a decentralized journal environment, and a funding platform. Scienceroot depends on blockchain-based science tokens that create a scientific marketplace where researchers can exchange funds, crowdfund scientific projects, and share scientific articles.(22) Scienceroot also allows peer reviewers to be recognized with tokens that can be used to participate in a process that has neither paywalls nor a centralized publishing company that controls the process.(22) Project Aiur is a similar attempt to create an online economic model based on blockchain tokens to compensate researchers who develop useful research tools, do peer review, or publish on the platform.(23) Ultimately, the success of these projects will depend on whether or not the scientific community will accept them as a valid measure of scientific achievement.

Other Potential Academic Applications of Blockchain


One type of activity where blockchain might be valuable for academics is group projects. Cooperative projects are valuable because they prepare students for the environments they are likely to encounter in the workplace after graduation; however, students often complain because it is difficult for instructors to assign credit accurately for the work produced by each individual. Too often, individual effort is uneven, and some contribute little to the project. If the activity is created as a blockchain, each individual will accumulate credit as they contribute to the growing chain, and it becomes easy to assign recognition appropriately.

As commercial supply chains are becoming globalized and more complicated, demand increases to understand the provenance of products, where they were made, and how they were transported. Some chemical companies are experimenting with the use of blockchain technology to solve this problem. For example, BASF has been testing the use of blockchain to improve record-keeping and identify problems in the delivery process for their products.(24) Blockchain may improve the efficiency of restocking as well as combatting pilfering or access by individuals who plan to use the chemicals for illegal purposes. If these initial efforts prove to be valuable, blockchain might even have an impact on the chemical stockroom on college campuses.


The future of blockchain credentials will be determined by the willingness of employers and tenure-promotion committees to value them. This is not just a problem of computer security. A second-rate institution or journal does not become first-rate simply because its credentials have become more trustworthy. Academics tend to be conservative, and so established universities and companies may enjoy an advantage as providers of blockchain credentials. Even if MIT does not vet the badge of someone whose credentials reside at MIT, some will still assume that this badge is more prestigious than one that resides on a personal server. Likewise, Scienceroot and Aiur will have to establish a reputation as a venue for important publications before they can be fairly compared with traditional journals.

Blockchain may not be a perfect solution to computer security problems, but it is more than enough of an improvement to justify using it for some of the applications mentioned above. As higher education and industry store and share more information on the Internet, unauthorized access and verification become increasingly important. Blockchain may offer a more secure way to handle these valuable resources.

The author declares no competing financial interest.

This article references 24 other publications.

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