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Review Summary: Guiding Principles for Ethical Cryptocurrency, Blockchain, and DLT Research

Published onApr 05, 2021
Review Summary: Guiding Principles for Ethical Cryptocurrency, Blockchain, and DLT Research

Review Summary
Guiding Principles for Ethical Cryptocurrency, Blockchain, and DLT Research. [PDF]
Quinn DuPont (University College Dublin)
(‡ accepted for both conference and journal)

Paper summaries from the reviewers:
This paper investigates the ethical risks associated with cryptocurrency research. The author uses two research methods:

  • reviews existing cryptocurrency, blockchain and DLT research and analyzes the research methods and ethics disclosure practices in the existing literature

  • surveys academic researchers on six research themes (research methods, awareness of ethics guidelines, ethics and pedagogy, software vulnerability disclosure, token ownership and disclosure, and industry relations) and reports findings from the survey data.

Using the empirical data derived from these two research methods, the paper re-conceptualizes the theory of ethical contagion and presents eight principles for ethical research in cryptocurrency research.”

“While much has been written about ethics of the technology, not as much attention has been paid to the ethics of academic research and writing on cryptocurrency and related technologies – this paper fills that gap. The paper discusses the issues around the ethics of blockchain research, including token ownership, disclosure, private funding, and contentious research methods. It proposes 8 guiding principles to deal with ethical challenges. It is a clearly written, very useful, and topical paper.

“The impact of funding on research has been a contentious issue in various disciplines, from life sciences to climate science. More recently the question of how corporate funding from internet giants such as Facebook or Google impacts computer science, and information law and policy research is extensively discussed. Within these discussion there is a consensus that this  topic is very important, partly because even if funding doesn't directly influence research output, the ways how it is reported, used, managed, discussed can have a fundamental impact on the reputation of scholars and research institutions.”

Comments on the strength of the paper:
“This article breaks new ground by thematizing a form of funding which has not been so far discussed at length. Token ownership in the blockchain / crypto domain clearly has a potential to bias the incentives of researchers with substantial financial exposure to their token holdings, and even if such bias is not taking place, the fact of exposure may create substantial reputation / credibility issues.  At the moment there is very little information on the exposure of researchers to systems, tokens which they write about, and this creates a huge uncertainty about the extent of the problem, as well as the reliability of research. In addition, there are no set standards of disclosure, ethical norms, or institutional safeguards to handle of potential and actual abuse.”

“The paper does a great job analyzing the ethical risks of cryptocurrency research. They describe the standard conflicts of interest that apply to all fields (compensation and bias) as well as the risks that are unique to cryptocurrency research (prevalence of industry sponsorship, unique technologies) and further, within the field, risks that are unique to research that requires researchers to purchase and use cryptocurrencies in order to conduct research. The paper also provides survey and coded data that reveals that researchers have extensive undisclosed industry relationships and token ownership coupled with low use of institutional review or ethics guidelines. These are important findings that will motivate new research and policy making in this area. The paper attempts to show that the risks are complicated by their contagion effect. While the contagion effect is highlighted as the key conceptual contribution of the paper, this piece of the paper would benefit from further development and explication.”

“It is thus imperative that the community starts discussing this topic, and starts working towards ethical guidelines and institutional practices that identify and handle a potentially devastating source of corruption in the scholarship.”

“The survey rate is on the low end (17%), which raises some concerns that the survey responses may be somewhat biased towards researchers with above average level of interest and awareness in the topic. “

“The authors carefully describe what contagion is but it is not clear what the specific causal factors of this contagion are. The paper makes useful comparisons to ethics in journalism, pharmaceuticals, bio and nanotechnology. It would be helpful to clarify how contagion occurs in ethics in cryptocurrency research. Burt’s (1987) conception of contagion in innovation in the pharmaceutical industry (“people proximate in social structure using one another to manage the uncertainty of innovation”) is helpful to understanding the management of the risks of innovation but it was unclear how it relates to the management of ethical risks in this research field.”

“More specifically, what are the factors that give rise to the contagion, and how do the eight proposed principles relate to the contagion? Is the contagion caused by externalities that are not accounted to or borne by the individual researchers? If so, perhaps you could draw from how we distinguish between individual vs. systemic risks in other contexts (e.g. in financial crises).”

“Another source of contagion might be the lack of trust in the field. Experiments on human behavior suggest that people act more selfishly when they believe others are selfish. As you note on p.14: "respondents hold generally negative views about the ethical practices of the cryptocurrency and blockchain industry. Nearly half of the respondents reported feeling that the industry is “neither ethical nor unethical” (44%) ... but a sizable proportion reported feeling that the industry is “somewhat unethical” (36%) or “highly unethical” (16%)."  If so, which of the eight principles you propose for ethical research could help bridge this trust gap?”

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