Bitcoin graduate

Academia is increasingly focusing on bitcoin, and hundreds of papers on the subject have now been published, according to research by author and alternative finance commentator Brett Scott.

Notably, more than three times as many papers were published in 2014 as in the previous year.

Scott pieced together a database of published research on the digital currency by combing through 16 online repositories, including Google Scholar and academic publishers' websites.

In addition to peer-reviewed research, he included self-published and independent work, theses and "quasi-academic" pieces, among which he counts his own work.

He said he was motivated by personal curiosity to start compiling the database, and also because he was seeking quality research to read himself.

"I wanted a list of deeper, more robust, research pieces that go beyond the standard ideologically-driven pieces about how wonderful or terrible bitcoin is," he said.

Scott embarked on manually gathering the material for his database over Christmas, thinking it would be wrapped up quickly. In the end, the project consumed more than six days of his time, although it also seems to have found an interested audience.

According to Scott, the database has already been viewed more than 8,000 times six days after it was published on 30th December. The project is funded by donations (he has received about £100 so far) and he encourages users of the database to tip him in bitcoin.

Quality of work varies

The self-titled 'alternative finance explorer' is the author of The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance, a book about the financial system and how ordinary people can use it for "guerrilla finance" and "activist entrepreneurialism".

He gave the quality of research on bitcoin that he found a relatively good grade overall (B+), but with the addition of some important qualifiers.

"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," he wrote in a blog post introducing his database.

Scott himself has a fair amount of academic experience. He is a lecturer at the Camberwell College of Arts and carried out research at Cambridge University under the noted economist Ha-Joon Chang. In between, he has been a derivatives broker and a fellow of the Finance Innovation Lab, an incubator, in London.

Crunching the numbers

An analysis of Scott's database shows a rapidly rising quantity of research centred on bitcoin, revealing an academia that is increasingly grappling with the subject.

The amount of published work grows from one in 2008 – Satoshi's seminal white paper – to none the following year, and then one paper in 2010. It increases eight-fold the following year before tripling in 2012. The next year again sees a three-fold increase, to 61 papers, before an explosion of 205 papers hits the reading public in 2014.

Scott predicts that this year will see even more research on the cryptocurrency. He also notes that the peer-review process for the most prestigious journals can take years, so a lag in in published work is to be expected.

"There will be a big flood of research ... good research takes a while to do, especially in the social sciences," he wrote.

Social sciences 'underrepresented'

Perhaps unsurprisingly the bulk of research is technical, delving into cryptography, computer science and systems design, Scott finds.

There is a also a large amount of work on the regulatory and legal questions surrounding bitcoin. The economics of the digital currency are another area of academic fascination, with an Austrian flavour to the work.

Crunching the numbers of Scott's database shows that, apart from independently published efforts, the two sources with the most bitcoin research are the papers collected from last year's Financial Cryptography and Data Security conference and the Business Information Systems Workshops that also took place last year. The Journal of Peer Production is the third most popular host for bitcoin work.

The open-access platform arXiv, operated by the Cornell University Library, is the most popular place for independent researchers to publish their work, with 35 pieces accounted for in Scott's database.

The social sciences are underrepresented, Scott says. He calls for deeper ethnographic and geographic analysis of bitcoin, as well as critical engagement with the implications of a decentralised, algorithm-driven system.

"This research remains hugely underrepresented, which is ironic, because it's by far the most important area of research," he writes.

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