Crypto-developers—ironically, a community devoted to eliminating centralized authority—could use more traditional vetting structures.
In 2008, a mysterious figure named Satoshi Nakamoto uploaded a PDF to the internet outlining a digital framework for spending money without centralized banks. He sent the paper to a cryptography mailing list, and thus bitcoin—and the blockchain—were born. Ten years later, an entire cryptocurrency industry valued at $300 billion has bloomed from those nine pages.
To many in the cryptography world, this was unexpected. “When we heard about bitcoin for the first time, many of us cryptographers—myself included—did not think it was going to work,” says computer scientist Alejandro Hevia of the University of Chile. Nakamoto didn’t include detailed analysis on the bitcoin architecture, as is customary in peer-reviewed computer science papers. And he hadn’t publicized his ideas via the customary channels: not at crypto conferences or on arXiv, the loosely-moderated site where computer scientists upload their newest ideas in advance of peer review.
“It set the stage for people afterward—that it’s OK to write stuff on your own, put it on your website, and let the world see it,” says computer scientist Emin Gün Sirer of Cornell University. Some 1,600 cryptocurrencies exist today, each of their releases accompanied by a paper explaining the need for its existence. Their inventors write these so-called white papers to communicate how their cryptocurrency is better than the last—and to attract investors.
But without formal vetting, it’s rare for a white paper to achieve Nakamoto-level quality. Some papers are outright scams, veiled in pseudo-technical language that might not even be logically sound. “Maybe they’ll call the person they have beers with to read it on a Saturday, and they call that peer review,” says Sirer. “These papers would not pass scrutiny by any sort of scientist.”
In a widely publicized example this year, the platform Tron, currently the eleventh largest cryptocurrency, released a white paper that seemed to plagiarize two other ones. In some cases, Tron duplicated phrases word for word, without any citations. In response to the accusations, Tron took down the white paper, and its founder wrote on Twitter that the seemingly copied text was due to a translation error. (Tron’s original paper was written in Chinese.)
Tron isn’t the only example. Bad white papers are so plentiful that experts have identified recurring red flags, like when a white paper doesn’t cite any prior work. It’s just not possible that your brilliant new idea didn’t build on any existing concepts, says Chris Wilmer of the University of Pittsburgh, who edits Ledger, an academic journal dedicated to blockchain developments.
“The problem is that people are too eager to claim they’ve done something new,” says Hevia. Many of the underlying cryptography concepts in blockchain originated from academic research in the 80’s and 90’s, says computer scientist Arvind Narayanan of Princeton University; even Nakamoto’s white paper had a reference section.