Tuesday 30 December 2014

Peer-to-Peer Review: The State of Academic Bitcoin Research 2014


Please note: An updated Peer-to-Peer Review 2015 is now available

I decided to build a rather large database of academic research on Bitcoin. If you'd like to see it, click on the link. It's a Google Doc, and it allows you to comment if you think there is something I've missed. You can also download it as an Excel spreadsheet. It includes academic, and quasi-academic, research papers, journal articles and theses related to Bitcoin.

Admittedly, the definition of 'academic' or 'quasi-academic' is pretty loose. It can include peer-reviewed papers that appear in major journals, to working papers released from university departments and think tanks, to a thesis of a PhD student, to independent research from people with clear expertise.

I built this list because I myself like to write quasi-academic articles on Bitcoin, and have been trying to find good quality analysis of cryptocurrency, frustrated by the huge amounts of spurious opinion churned in the media, and self-promoting rants by opportunists and ideologues.

How I built it: Lots of searching

To build this list, I spent about four days going through different academic search engines. Many of these search facilities found the same papers, but each also tended to find some unique articles that the others didn't. The sites include:
  • JSTOR (here)
  • ScienceDirect (here)
  • IngentaConnect (here)
  • Microsoft Academic Search (here)
  • SpringerLink (here)
  • SSRN (here)
  • Taylor & Francis (here)
  • Google Scholar (here) (including year-by-year search from 2008)
  • Wiley Online Library (here)
  • Directory of Open Access Journals (here)
  • DiVA-portal (here)
  • Econpapers (here)
  • ArXiv (here)
  • IDEAS (here)
  • Oxford Journals (here)
  • Cambridge Journals (here)

Open access vs. closed: A bit of both

A lot of the papers in the list are open access, which means you can get them as PDFs or HTML files. Unfortunately though, the top journals tend to be behind corporate-controlled paywalls and require university subscriptions or money to get in. That said, if a paper is closed access, search for it online and you'll often find earlier PDF versions of it floating about, because the authors often publish draft versions or working papers in open access formats before getting them accepted into closed journals.

Language: English

I'm not one of those people who is oblivious to the fact that research exists outside the English language, and I know that it's quite possible that some of the most cutting edge Bitcoin research could be going on in a Chinese university or in a Greek think-tank. Unfortunately I don't speak those languages, so be aware that these are only English language papers.

Quantity of research: Reasonable


Bitcoin literature is very new. The first paper - Satoshi Nakamoto's paper - came out only in 2008. I could find almost no academic research from 2009 and 2010, and only a trickle in 2011. It's only in 2012 that we start to find a decent amount emerging in the record. It's really in 2013 though, that the big research starts to come. 2014 has by far the most research, and it's in this year that peer-reviewed academic journal articles start to come out.

Bear in mind that peer-review processes for big journals can take years, so it's little surprise that there are so few cryptocurrency articles out in the really big-hitter journals. My prediction for 2015 though, is that there will be a big flood of research, and a significant batch of peer-reviewed journal articles. Good research takes a while to do, especially in the social sciences.

Quality of research: Hmm... 

Quality to some extent is in the eye of the beholder, but I'll be honest - there is a fair amount of crap research out there. For example, I've found 'academic' analyses of Bitcoin from people that work in big universities, that still hold onto archaic beliefs about money emerging from barter. There are also a lot of PDF documents floating about with academic-sounding titles, written by people with academic sounding affiliations, but you never really know how good they are, or if they're written by some enthusiastic second-year students who don't really know what they're talking about.

Peer-reviewed journals obviously demand a certain degree of quality, but being published in a big journal doesn't necessarily mean an article is groundbreaking. It just means you managed to pitch it right, and get past a panel of peers who might have the same biases as you. For example, it's widely suspected that the peer-review process in the big economics journals systematically excludes economic theories that don't follow neo-classical interpretations of markets. To be accepted into the hallowed halls of such journals, one must cow down and play the game, and couch everything in the apolitical language of mathematical equations and spurious models. Needless to say, some of the most interesting economics research is not found in the big prestige economics journals.

So, it's best to treat this list as an initial starting point to launch into papers, and to make your own decisions about how interesting they are.

Research themes: The tech, the law, the economics... the humans

There are a number of themes coming out in the research
  1. Firstly, there is a huge amount of technical stuff about the cryptography, computer science, security and systems design. Computer science researchers have clearly enjoyed the chance to get involved in this cutting-edge area. The only problem with this though, is that the quantity of this research drowns out a lot of the equally important social sciences research, and tends to present Bitcoin as a technological issue, rather than a profoundly human phenomenon
  2. Secondly, there is a sub-strand of the tech-related research that focuses on how to change Bitcoin, or create a variant of it, or point out some failing it has. See, for example, this piece on a Bitcoin-based emissions trading model
  3. Thirdly, there is a pretty big strand of research on the regulatory status, tax status, and legal status of Bitcoin. This is clearly driven by the need to reach some clarity on these questions so that people know how to practically proceed in the short-term. There is also a nascent strand of accounting research - check out, for example, this new piece
  4. Fourthly, there is a growing field of economic analyses of Bitcoin, mostly coming from pretty mainstream economics, or from Austrian-style libertarian economics. Like most economics, the attempt is to create models, or to analyse incentive structures, and they will tend to call people 'agents', rather than, well, 'people'. See, for example, this piece coming out in the prestigious Journal of Economic Perspectives
  5. Then, finally, there is an emergent trickle of social sciences research on actual humans, including the sociology, anthropology, politics and even ethics of the system. This research remains hugely underrepresented though, which is ironic, because it's by far the most important area of research

Areas that need more attention: Humans

There are a number of areas, in my opinion, that need deeper research and analysis. 
  • Bitcoin as money: There are surprisingly few real discussions about the monetary theory embedded in the Bitcoin code, or how it might function as money. The papers on 'the economics of Bitcoin' don't address it deeply enough (but then again, economics has always been pretty shite at money analysis). I'd love to see more deep analyses of the nature of decentralised electronic money, and the social dynamics of such money
  • Despite the huge amounts of focus on the technology of Bitcoin, there is still very little critical reflection on the technological politics of Bitcoin, or critical studies of decentralised algorithm-based systems. My piece on the Politics of the Bitcoin Blockchain sketches out areas that need more focus
  • Ethnographic studies of Bitcoin: There are a few surveys of Bitcoin users, and some interesting attempts to use social media to analyse users, but there are few true ethnographic studies 
  • The geographical dynamics of Bitcoin: Bitcoin is often spoken of as a global currency, but in reality most of the writing about it comes from Americans and Europeans, and many of them sitting in cities. I'd love to see true studies on, for example, whether someone in rural Zimbabwe would actually use cryptocurrency (given that most of my family is from rural Zimbabwe this is not just a throwaway question)

25 interesting looking papers to peruse

I haven't had a chance to read all of these, but here are some really interesting looking articles that are probably not going to get as much attention as they should. 
  1. “When perhaps the real problem is money itself!”: the practical materiality of Bitcoin (here): Written by the economic anthropologist Bill Maurer and his collaborators Lana Swartz and Taylor Nelms
  2. "BitCoin meets Google Trends and Wikipedia: Quantifying the relationship between phenomena of the Internet era" (here)
  3. "Virtual Currency, Tangible Return: Portfolio Diversification with Bitcoins" (here): One for  the investment portfolio analysts
  4. "Nowcasting the Bitcoin Market with Twitter Signals" (here)
  5. "The digital traces of bubbles: feedback cycles between socio-economic signals in the Bitcoin economy" (here)
  6. "Who Uses Bitcoin? An exploration of the Bitcoin community" (here)
  7. "Is Bitcoin a Decentralized Currency?" (here)
  8. "Testing the Efficient Market Hypothesis on Bitcoin Exchanges" (here)
  9. "Alderney: gambling, Bitcoin and the art of unorthodoxy" (here): From the Island Studies Journal, ha ha
  10. "Coining Bitcoin's 'legal bits': Examining the regulatory framework for Bitcoin and virtual currencies" (here)
  11. "Bitcoin and the legitimacy crisis of money" (here), coming out in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, from Beat Weber. Beat is critical of Bitcoin, and it's worth checking out his other piece in the Journal of Peer Production here
  12. "Do the Rich Get Richer? An Empirical Analysis of the Bitcoin Transaction Network" (here)
  13. "The (A)Political Economy of Bitcoin" (here) - this one is from Greek commons-based economy advocates from the P2P Lab
  14. "Bitcoin: a regulatory nightmare to a libertarian dream" (here), from P2P law expert Primavera de Filippi
  15. "Internet architecture and the layers principle: a conceptual framework for regulating Bitcoin"(here), from a Google employee
  16. "Characteristics of Bitcoin Users: An Analysis of Google Search Data" (here)
  17. "The politics of cryptography: Bitcoin and the ordering machines" (here): This is from Quinn Du Pont, who is doing intriguing work on cryptography political philosophy
  18. "The paradoxes of distributed trust: Peer-to-peer architecture and user confidence in Bitcoin"(here)
  19. "Synthetic commodity money" (here) - this one is in the Journal of Financial Stability, but free versions are floating around on the internet
  20. "The Economics of Bitcoin and Similar Private Digital Currencies" (here) - this one is in the Journal of Financial Stability, but free versions are floating around on the internet
  21. "The Ethics of Payments: Paper, Plastic, or Bitcoin?" (here): In the big-hitter Journal of Business Ethics
  22. "Are Bitcoin Users Less Sociable? An Analysis of Users’ Language and Social Connections on Twitter" (here): A very intriguing paper, which suggests that 'Bitcoin followers are less likely to mention family, friends, religion, sex, and emotion related words in their tweets and have significantly less social connection to other users on the site'
  23. "How Did Dread Pirate Roberts Acquire and Protect his Bitcoin Wealth?" (here): Everyone likes a pirate story
  24. "Do libertarians dream of electric coins? The material embeddedness of Bitcoin" (here): Great title, and out in a pretty innovative Scandinavian journal
  25. I'll let you decide what number 25 is: Perhaps a paper that you'd like to write?

Enjoy, comment, and please share

Thanks for reading this. If you see any mistakes in the list, or have any suggestions and additions you'd like me to make, please do comment, either here or on the Google Doc. I get sent an email every time that happens so I'll definitely see them. I'll update this list periodically as new pieces come out. Finally, please do share this with people who might find it useful - I spent a fair amount of effort creating this, so I want it to be as useful as possible.

Lastly: Much energy went into this, so feel free to buy me a beer

This took me at least four days to build and double-check, and it was pretty damn exhausting. If it's useful to you, and helps you in your own research or enlightenment, please do consider supporting me. Here are three things you could do:



    1. Nice work. Really appreciate the time put into the excel doc. We linked to it on our curated newsfeed at https://CoinPrices.io. We are a news gathering service and educational hub that links to pubs and blogs around the web. I just added your blog to our watchlist.

      Matt Odell

    2. Regarding #12 paper you link this http://www.vo.elte.hu/bitcoin/ is a better link with the half-instruction on how to rebuild the database and obtain the same result, my question to an eventual bitcoin studious reader is: are you able to complete the explanation to do the query online or in local - with the instruction on how to build the databases first?

      I'd like to have some instruction to be able to perform other basical analysis, and I think this will be really simple if I get how to re-obtain that's results.

    3. This is much needed, thank you. I took some time to read your document titled "Visions of a Techno-Leviathan: The Politics of the Bitcoin Blockchain" and found it to be very well on point. Wonderful reference to Hobbes Leviathan and very appropriate for Bitcoin. I mean that as a cautionary statement :) I think we will see much more local and fine-grained use of the blockchain to avoid such monstrosities as a global currency. The so called gold standard has been the ruin and revolution of many helpless debtor nations, a tool if you will, and digital stepping-stone at best. We should look further back to the roots of inequality.

      I have linked your article on the website http://cryptotown.org as a valued asset. Please check my article titled Enlightenment of the Blockchain Masters - http://cryptotown.org/enlightenment-of-the-blockchain-masters.html I think you will enjoy it. We should connect, my friend. I share your frustration with the current state of discussion and realized it is a function of the money and power at play.

      Brian (papersheepdog)

      1. Excellent Brian - I've got your article bookmarked to read. Yeah, I'm looking forward to some more critical analysis of blockchain tech - my techno-leviathan piece was pretty well received by a lot of people, so I think there is appetite for it. I reckon 2015 we should see some interesting stuff come out

    4. Anyone wishing to update the wiki article with any omissions or corrections is welcome to! http://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Research

    5. Really great stuff. I'm currently doing research in the Geographies of Bitcoin for my PhD thesis so this is really great to see. I'm also really enjoying your book! (Small) Bitcoin donation on its way - lets hope it appreciates.


      Jack Parkin

    6. Great compendium here, Brett. Good work. Wish it had been around when I was writing my book.

    7. Great resource! I included it in a resource guide on Bitcoin research: http://bitcoinlibrarian.com/bitcoin-in-academia-a-guide-to-scholarly-digital-currency-research-resources/

      I'll definitely be using this in my own research, as well.

    8. I think I am the one from the "Greek think-tank" as our paper is the only one about bitcoin written in greek. I 'll try my next publications to be in english.

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