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Confronting Ethical Research Practices

Should crypto researchers be #nocoiners? Or is it acceptable for researchers to disclose when they buy cryptocurrencies, sit on advisory boards, or launch startups? Is it ethically permissible for researchers to manipulate markets for experimental purposes? What are acceptable reasons for a researcher to buy cryptocurrencies?

There are myriad complications when conducting cryptocurrency and blockchain research. A curious issue arose for me, again, recently. I’ve long held small amounts of cryptocurrencies for experimentation and testing, but with the recent price jump of Bitcoin (and subsequent fall), the value of the cryptocurrency I had been experimenting with suddenly become less “experimental.” Recently, I ended up with over US $1000 of Bitcoin in an old wallet attached to mining experiments conducted in early 2013. In fact, I had entirely forgotten about the wallet after draining it years ago—not realizing that the crumbs I couldn’t bother sweeping away (originally about US $2) would eventually become a considerable sum!

Or, consider another, even more controversial example. Is it permissible in research to break live smart contracts, potentially containing significant sums of money ? (Is this the same as breaking into a bank “for research” or something else entirely?) And, how about doing these experiments in a classroom setting?

Is it ethical to break smart contracts for research? 66% of the respondents of this Twitter poll think so.

The community clearly thinks breaking live contracts is ethically acceptable, but the confluence of computer security research practices, financial technologies, and a new research paradigm opens up myriad ethical issues that need serious thought.

This is uncharted territory for our emerging research area, and there is little existing guidance on acceptable practices (the ethical guidelines published by professional associations are not equipped to deal with these kinds of issues, and Institutional Research Boards lack the expertise needed to make judgements). To broach the topic of ethics in cryptocurrency and blockchain research (a topic that is long past due) I’m currently researching existing ethical guidelines and interviewing experts to gain a better understanding of the ethical issues present in cryptocurrency and blockchain research. From this research I will be developing preliminary guidelines tailored for our research area. I’ll report the findings in a future post.

Quinn DuPont

University of Washington

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