Reviewer: Robbie Fordyce
1) Is the subject matter relevant?
This article is certainly appropriate for the Journal of Peer Production’s special issue on distributed currencies. Locating social trust in a digital currency where users are fundamental anonymous is certainly a relevant research contribution. I can think of no better place for this work to submitted, and conversely, work on this topic would is essential for any special is-sue dedicated to distributed currency.
2) Is the treatment of the subject matter intellectually interesting? Are there citations of bodies of literature you think are essential to which the author has not referred?
I find this article supremely interesting, and I feel it is appropriate to the field of study.
As noted below, Actor-Network Theory is glossed over fairly quickly. This needs to be expanded, and the precise methods used need to be expanded from simply citing a “web of science” search.
I felt that there are discussions on the social nature of exchange need to be referenced, and that David Graeber’s Debt would be an excellent starting point for this. I also believe that Bauwens’ “Political Economy of Peer Production” must absolutely be included in this article, as it is a definitive piece of scholarly work within this field.
There are a number of works cited in the biblio that are not in the main text, and vis versa. This should be corrected.
3) Are there any noticeable problems with the author’s mean of validating assumptions or making judgements?
There are some issues on this front. There is a relative paucity of academic articles throughout, although this is somewhat in line with the relative newness of Bitcoin as an object of study. There is a discussion of methodology, but the section needs more clarity. While it is good to see a number of French-language academics receiving treatment in an English-language journal, it is necessary to have an increase in context, as these academics are only mentioned in citation, and not invoked as a part of a field of inquiry that grants any specific knowledge about these authors’ claims.
The authors have certainly examined the historical and technical aspects of the bitcoin exchange protocol. My concern is that this material is largely descriptive and preemptory for a research project, and that the authors’ contribution needs to be highlighted. I feel that the issue of trust that the research paper proposes to address is mainly backgrounded, and assessed in an indirect manner. The technical description of bitcoin is always going to be necessary in such discussions. But, because this description is interspersed throughout the document, it significantly overshadows the social analysis of trust. The devel-opment of a ANT-based assessment of the trust discourses of users – which at least, in part, seems to be the project pro-posed in the introduction – never seems to materialise on the page. If this is not the case, then the methodology needs to be updated so as to reflect the project that the authors have embarked upon. In either case, the methodology needs to be clearer.
Actor-network theory is mentioned, and this appears to be the system of analysis that the authors are working within, but this is not explicitly stated as the methodological system or mode of enquiry. Furthermore, the discussion on ANT appears to refer to an article by Musiani, whose contributions remain unclear, and not Latour or any of the other founding academics of ANT.
The article situates itself as an assessment of the issue of ‘trust’, but does not explicitly define what ‘trust’ is early enough in the article. There is a very brief mention of the concept of trust relations as occurring between individuals and other individ-uals; or, individuals and social institutions. Because this is a very generic description as far as relations go, and also because of the passing discussion of the concept of monetary trust, it is somewhat unclear as to what ‘trust’ is, such that we’d know it when we find it. Even in section 2, specifically on the nexus between monetary and social types of trust, neither the concept, nor its two derivatives are particularly clear. This causes problems when the idea of distrust is raised at times.
There are significant hurdles with language clarity, which I have mentioned below. This ambiguity is substantial enough to prevent the article from being clear enough in its claims. In its present form, this article lacks the rigour that makes it possi-ble to understand precisely what its authors are claiming at some steps.
4) Is the article well written?
This article is well structured, and progresses in a logical fashion. The article is rather long, but still within an acceptable limit. In terms of structure, I would recommend that perhaps the technical concerns with the bitcoin protocol needs to be resolved in its entirety in a single section, rather than introduced at the start and then re-developed in certain sections. While the technical information is always kept relevant, it is harder to start with a ‘big picture’ of the authors’ intentions, and some claims that could appear to be important otherwise give the impression of a prefunctory aside.
There is also a great degree of ambiguity in a number of crucial sentences, primarily within the introduction. This is mainly a problem of concept density – a problem that I personally share with these authors – and unpacking these sentences should alleviate this problem somewhat. I have taken the liberty to note the most pressing issues here, and explain some of the rea-sons why these are important. I have also marked up the document with a number of concerns.
General grammatical points:
− As an academic article, I believe that “etc.” as a term should be avoided – we need specifics as opposed to gener-alities. This only happens a few times, but it makes lists appear more open-ended than they actually are.
− A reduction in the use of italics – in most cases, italics are not needed, and I am fairly sure that block quotes do not require italics for the Journal of Peer Production.
− Following the style guide, footnotes need to be manually inserted as endnotes, appearing between the end of the ar-ticle and the bibliography.
The following technical terms need to be expanded upon, or perhaps de-emphasised. As they currently stand, some appear to be technical, but may in fact simply be descriptive or functional terms:
− ‘innovation’ – is this the psychic act of innovating, or the technical innovations themselves? Given the introduction of the ‘sociology of innovation’ in the introduction, this would seem to be an idea that needs more clarity.
− ‘development’ – at the nexus of computing and sociology, development needs to be clarified as either the develop-ment of the Bitcoin protocols, or the social developments that have emerged afterwards.
− ‘monetary beliefs’ – this appears to be a common term within economics, but I am admittedly unfamiliar with it, and thus I feel it warrants explanation.
− ‘translation’ is being used as a technical verb, but it is unclear whether this fits with the actor-network theory ap-proach, and thus Latour’s use of the term, or whether it has different uses in this case.
− The second paragraph of the article is particularly in need of correction as it defines the methodological and epis-temological approaches for the article.
− The third paragraph reads “Every innovation is surrounded by a number of discussions […]” this section needs to be clearer as to whether it is referring to Bitcoin, or innovations in general.
These problems are not ruinous to the overall structure of what is otherwise an interesting article, but I believe that they are significant enough to require additional proofing before this piece is publishable. Some of these sentences may be substan-tially reduced, or cut entirely.
5) Are there portions of the article that you recommend to be shortened, excised or expanded?
The article is certainly on the longer side, but I would leave it up to the authors in their response to any feedback to hopeful-ly determine by themselves which areas could be reduced. Because of the nature of some of the problems I have already mentioned, I believe that the conclusion needs to be expanded so that it effectively covers the issues that have been raised.
The fourth section, on politics, remains the strongest of the sections. I feel that this is the most critical section, and ad-dressed the tensions of the political economy of Bitcoin the best.
Well done on an interesting piece. The authors clearly show conceptual and scholarly talent, and because of this, I expect that a Revise and Resubmit should see them presenting a publishable piece.
The topic of the paper is extremely interesting and topical. Still, the paper is way too long and the structure is not clear. It reads more like an essay where different aspects of Bitcoin are discussed, rather than a paper on the question of trust. Actually, trust, distributed trust and trust in code are never really defined and the discussion on the issue of trust is over at page 11, only to reappear in the conclusions.
The paper seems informed about the conditions of operation of Bitcoin, but seems unable to explain to the reader what is really at stake. The paper is badly structured with a very long introduction followed by very short sections that address a variety of issues that are not really resolved, do not necessarily connect to one another or inform the main question of the paper. The references to the theory of money are very limited and misrepresents both the commodity and the credit theories of money (apart from Ingham 2004 – there are no other references in the text). The application of these theories to Bitcoin seems to confuse rather than illuminating the conditions of existence and operation of Bitcoin.
The paper needs serious restructuring and revision. My suggestion would be to shorten the introduction where the main question of the paper should be explicitly formulated.
The paper should also explain:
1. How Bitcoin is working and why is it different from traditional currencies
2. Define trust, distributed trust and trust in code, explaining why Bitcoin is accepted
3. How the analysis of Bitcoin is relevant for the theory of money, eg the credit and the commodity theories
4. The possible challenges of Bitcoin in the future