Cryptocurrency Research Finds Home at Pitt

Pitt’s University Library System has published the first peer-reviewed academic journal solely devoted to research on cryptocurrency, which is also known as “blockchain technology.”

Ledger is an interdisciplinary open-access publication, which allows a wider audience into the peer review process. Its goal is to create a robust discourse to supplement the wide-ranging cryptocurrency discussions taking place worldwide. Topics in the first issue of Ledger range from computer science to economics to philosophy.

The inaugural issue's cover.A cryptocurrency is a system of digital tokens whose ownership is tracked on a ledger shared by a network of computers. The key innovation that separates cryptocurrencies from earlier technologies is that no computer on the network has privileged status; there is no master or central computer that has authority over any other. Although cryptocurrencies potentially have many nonfinancial uses, one of their first applications has been as a peer-to-peer payment technology, made famous by the first cryptocurrency, called bitcoin.

Bitcoin was first described in a scholarly paper in 2008, and the first open source software implementation was released in 2009. With bitcoin, two individuals can exchange units of value (so-called “bitcoins”) online without using a third party intermediary such as PayPal, Visa or a bank. While initially worthless, today one bitcoin can be exchanged for $1,200, making the 16 million bitcoins in circulation worth approximately $20 billion.

Because cryptocurrencies can also be used, in principle, to track ownership of real estate, stocks, concert tickets, patents, health records and so on, researchers and entrepreneurs in the field have also begun to refer to the concept as “blockchain technology” to emphasize noncurrency uses.

“Blockchain technology could be as disruptive to our society as the internet itself,” says Christopher Wilmer, Ledger co-managing editor and assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at Pitt. “Even bitcoin, which is a narrower application of the technology, could potentially become a global currency with a lot of unknown social and economic implications.”

Blockchain technology could be as disruptive to our society as the internet itself.

Christopher Wilmer, Ledger co-managing editor 

Wilmer says the technology behind cryptocurrency blends computer science, cryptography, economics and game theory.

“There is a lot there for academics to explore,” he says.

One pressing question at the moment, he says, is the scalability of cryptocurrency. Bitcoin is employed by millions of users, but could it support billions? There are also a number of legal questions surrounding the technology. For example, central authorities that mediate online payments are typically responsible for preventing money laundering or terrorist financing, but without an intermediary, it is unclear who would bear this responsibility.

Cryptocurrencies also enable something called “smart contracts,” which are contracts that enforce themselves based on a computer algorithm without requiring the intervention of a court. While smart contracts might significantly reduce the burden on our court systems, it is unclear how companies would deal with situations where “smart” contracts and traditional contracts come into conflict.

Ledger’s international editorial board includes professors and experts from Oxford University, Cornell University, the Bank of England and others. It’s being funded by the nonprofit cryptocurrency policy group Coin Center. 

There is already buzz about the journal in academic and economic circles. Articles have appeared in Nature News and Motherboard.

“This is an exciting new area and a new place for this research to be published,” says Wilmer. “I think it’s great the University of Pittsburgh is playing such an important role in the field’s growth.”