To achieve a global view of the productivity in this field of research, this study’s results encompass the articles published during a given period and include information about their respective languages, countries, institutions, journals, and authors. As we have mentioned, the WoS and Scopus database search applies from 2010 to the end of 2018 because from 2019 onwards, the number of publications has multiplied, especially those related to the term blockchain, which may mislead the results (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2
figure2

Source: Own compilation

Most Cited articles in both databases.

Initial approach

The following data show the evolutionary state of the cryptocurrencies up to the present. As mentioned, the referenced sources are the WoS and Scopus databases, in which WoS is considered the pivotal source because of its greater seniority.

The first section analyzes the sample. Applying the corresponding search filters, we found 684 documents on the WoS database and 771 items on Scopus. Of these combined results, 407 documents appeared in both databases. The search in the two databases utilized the same period and began receiving content relevant to this study at almost the same time. Although the search is delimited by years, we focus on the starting year 2010 because of an anomalous result in Scopus in 1952 that coined the term Ethereum in an investigation by Dr. H. Greiner in the area of medicine. After excluding this search result, both bases coincide in the date of publication of articles, thus establishing this criterion equally.

Publications that included keywords, such as “Bitcoin,” “Ethereum,” or “Cryptocurrency,” appeared in 2011. Thereafter, the number of publications that included these keywords doubled annually. The recent creation of the aforementioned cryptocurrencies and their low impact indicate no related publications during the first years. Since 2011, when a single publication appeared in both databases, the results have increased exponentially. Figure 2 highlights that the trajectory followed by both databases is similar in terms of total publications, although with internal differences. If the set of publications is analyzed, Scopus includes a larger number than WoS, except for 2016, in which this trend is reversed.

The first publication included in WoS is “On Bitcoin and Red Balloons” (Babaioff et al. 2012), which talks about getting a reward in a node “competition.” Meanwhile, on Scopus, the first article is “Bitcoin: A bit too far?” (Jacobs 2011), which deals with issues internal to the currency. Although both publications received a low number of citations, the article “Bitcoin: A bit too far?” obtained a total of 10 citations compared to the two citations received by the article on WoS.

In terms of citations on both platforms, the most significant articles practically coincide, making it more relevant even with the creation of a common database that combines both sources (Fig. 2). In a separate analysis, both databases would show concordance in two of the three articles. Moreover, both articles would be in WoS and Scopus, although in different ranking positions. The article “Bitcoin: Economics, Technology, and Governance” (Böhme et al. 2015) is ranked first in WoS with 139 citations, whereas in Scopus, it is ranked third with a total of 207 citations. The article that ranked second on WoS is “Bitcoin and Beyond: A Technical Survey on Decentralized Digital Currencies” (Tschorsch and Scheuermann 2016), with 133 citations; however, this article is ranked first in Scopus, with a total of 225 citations. Meanwhile, the article “Where is current research on Blockchain technology?—A systematic review” (Yli-Huumo et al. 2016) ranks second on Scopus, with a total of 210 mentions, but it did not have any citations on WoS. Finally, the third-ranked article on WoS, that is, “Speculative bubbles in Bitcoin markets? An empirical investigation into the fundamental value of Bitcoin” (Cheah and Fry 2015), has 109 citations.

Apart from the articles ranked first, the number of citations on Scopus is higher than on WoS (Fig. 3). The average number of citations per article is also higher, that is, 19 on Scopus compared to 15 on WoS, even though WoS contains a larger number of documents on the topic. Although both databases commence with articles without citations, the ends of the diagram show a greater number of atypical results in Scopus.

Fig. 3
figure3

Source: Own compilation

As can be seen, the results are quite similar, both being in an equal position. The country variable in both also shows a homogeneous growth and with similar results. The most significant distinction can be found in the total number of citations if the results are distributed over the years with a significantly higher number of citations on WoS. This is because although the number of articles is lower, the variables of authors and journals are higher (Table 4).

Distribution by area of research

When comparing the databases, our search results show that the main areas of knowledge are information technology and economics (Table 5). Although WoS had 100 fewer results when the same number of research areas were considered, the wide range of classified thematic areas contained within WoS is greater than the classification in Scopus, and thus the articles are distributed across a wider range of subjects.

Table 5 Distribution by research area

Using WoS as a reference, we use areas of economic knowledge, such as economics and business finance, in the ranking. The total sum of these articles is 282, which is similar to the second category in Scopus, which encompasses Economics, Econometrics, and Finance. The remaining positions in the ranking are related to computer science, systems, and telecommunications, almost half of those included in the list. The remaining articles are distributed among multiple categories, that is, a total of 76 different research areas include the terms Bitcoin, Ethereum or Cryptocurrency, although only 14 of these are specifically listed in the table. In contrast, Scopus directly links computer-related articles and ranks them first. Next, the economic and social sciences are ranked second and third with the remaining articles being linked, to a greater extent, to computer sciences, such as engineering and mathematics; and the social sciences with business and management. Once the threshold of the eighth theme is crossed, a greater diversity of topics begins to be seen.

The results of both the databases and the many thematic areas denote the wide variety of applications that technologies derived from electronic currencies have. Although the keywords are based on economics, the standardized use of technologies born from cryptocurrencies, most notably digital ledgers or blockchain, means that the distribution of themes is very widespread. The blockchain shows a positive evolution in databases, such as WoS, with a total of 692 results solely in articles in a period of just three years. The term “blockchain” did not receive citations until 2015, the year in which its development really took off. Hence, its importance is evident when compared to the origins in Bitcoin, because it has managed to equal the same number of articles in half the number of years.

Distribution by country

In terms of geographical distribution, an apparent growing trend toward research on this topic originates from the Asian continent, apart from the time factor (Figs. 4 and 5). That said, the principal language used is still English, and virtually all articles appear in the two databases published in this language. Other articles were published in Russian, Spanish, and Turkish in WoS, whereas the most used languages were Chinese, Russian, and German in Scopus. Note that although both databases consider Russian to an influential language, as a geographical region, Russia is not featured as one of the most influential countries in terms of the number of publications.

Fig. 4
figure4

Source: Own compilation

Geographical distribution. Mercator projection Map. Landmasses appear larger the farther they are from the poles. The projection, however, maintains constant bearings for navigation.

Fig. 5
figure5

Source: Own compilation

Grouping by country and year.

In a more detailed comparison, both databases show similar results with respect to the first four and the last two ranked countries (Table 6). Both databases show the USA, UK and China leading the ranking. These countries also account for the largest number of articles and citations together with the highest H-indexes. The databases also coincide with respect to the countries ranked last, with the possible exception of India, which in Scopus, is ranked sixth. Specifically, considering the ranking in terms of the number of articles published, the results from both databases practically coincide, whereas the results are more disparate in terms of the total number of citations. The discrepancy mentioned earlier in India can only be highlighted in the number of articles. Regarding the total number of citations, the rankings of Russia and Spain stand out for different reasons. In the case of Russia, the total number of citations is much lower than expected given the number of articles published. In contrast, Spain obtained a number of citations that would place it in several higher positions compared to the number of published articles; the h-index is clearly higher than that obtained in the classification.

Table 6 Distribution by country

If we develop the content dealt with in each country in a more important way, taking a total of 5 words as the focus of studies, we can see how the USA has always studied bitcoin, deriving from it the concept of currency, blockchain, innovation, and economy together with security. For its part, and also taking bitcoin as a central focus, England has added the volatility of these currencies together with their technology, such as blockchain, to its most relevant words. China is next, giving the same importance to bitcoin as to the blockchain, deriving two lines of research from which the main concern of bitcoin comes from its inefficiency and prices; however, the blockchain mentions security and smart contracts. Germany and Australia are next on the list, but the main focus is on bitcoin, but it is much shorter in terms of secondary issues, just mentioning economics and blockchain. Meanwhile, Russia remains with bitcoin and cryptocurrencies in general and, if the number of keywords is lowered as a concurrence, China appears as another result, being the only ones to mention another place directly.

Institutions

The most pivotal institution related to electronic currencies that focuses on Bitcoin and Ethereum is the University of London with a total of 24 and 14 articles in WoS and Scopus, respectively (Table 7). This institution is followed by PDX Currency Corp in WoS, with 17 published articles, although no citations are related to them. Again, in terms of number of published articles, the next ranked institutions are the University College London with 14 articles and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich (ETH Zurich) and the University of California System with 13 articles each. They have also attracted a large number of citations. Except for ETH Zurich, the aforementioned institutions are all English-speaking, which coincides with the high number of publications in that language.

In contrast, Scopus shows a greater spatial distribution with respect to institutions. Although the first result coincides with the aforementioned results from WoS, the institutions appearing next in the ranking are Montpellier Business School, Chinese Academy of Sciences, ETH Zurich and Holy Spirit Univ Kaslik located, respectively, in France, China, Switzerland and Lebanon. The articles published by these institutions have a higher number of references compared with more prominent institutions listed in WoS.

The results show that WoS has a greater concentration of English and American institutions as a central pillar, bringing together a core of English-speaking institutions that makes up 40% of the total. In contrast, Scopus has a more varied distribution. The central focus of the five institutions of each essential database has always been on issues related to bitcoin as a core, with publications on its volatility, hedge, and economics deriving from it. In a more minor way this time, the concept of the blockchain appears. To conclude this section, we created a cluster map of institutions. As suggested by Fig. 6 and given the recent development of the topic, the links and relationships between institutions are scarce, with only a suggestion of a rapprochement between Asian entities.

Fig. 6
figure6

Source: Own compilation

Cluster map of institutions.

Journals

The journals with the highest number of publications in WoS and Scopus are Economics Letters and IEEE Access with a total of 29 and 28 publications, respectively in the case of Economic Letters and 26 and 30 in the case of IEEE Access. They both clearly have a high H-Index along with a large total number of accumulated citations. Two sources appear in the third position of the ranking of both databases, albeit without any associated citations. They are Digital Currency Challenge Shaping Online Payment Systems through US Financial Regulations and Economist United Kingdom with 17 and 21 articles, respectively from USA and UK. This phenomenon of not receiving any citations is repeated in the WoS ranking with the fourth ranked journal, Palgrave Pivot, and in Scopus with the seventh ranked journal, Technology Review.

In the sample provided, only five journals are considered global publications in Table 8 for both databases. This is evidence of the disparity between the two sources because, aside from the two journals mentioned in the previous paragraph, Finance Research Letters, PLOS One, and Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications are the only journals listed in both sources. Although there are no other concurrences, the basic scheme observed is remarkably similar because the coincident entities do so in almost an equal number of the ranking, whereas the remaining journals coincide approximately in the number of articles. The number of publications in these journals is always related to economics, inefficiency, volatility, and gold, leaving blockchain and security as secondary topics.

Table 8 Distribution by Journal

Authors

As a final comparison, Table 9 shows the authors ordered according to the index of publications on the topic. The 17 articles by P.C. Mullan, which appear solely in WoS, can be highlighted as an anomalous result, as they have received no citations. This can be linked to the previous section on publications, as these articles are contained in a manual. Regarding the rest of authors, E. Bouri and D. Roubaud stand out with nine articles each, published in 2017 and 2018. Both authors have collaborated extensively and had many citations, well above the average of other authors, although not in all articles.

Table 9 Distribution by author

Based solely on the total number of publications, and focusing on the most influential authors, the distribution of authors in both databases is quite similar. Regarding the field to which the authors belong, the most important ones come from Business & Economics, Computer Science and Environmental Sciences & Ecology. However, in a cluster analysis (Figs. 7 and 8) and using the two databases as the basis for the analysis, we determine that the relationship between them changes. In both cases, the grouping has been generated using the same basic parameters that, together with the greater distribution among the Scopus institutions, shows broader results with six central nuclei versus the two mere nuclei in WoS.

Fig. 7
figure7

Source: Own compilation

Fig. 8
figure8

Source: Own compilation

Author cluster on Scopus.

Figure 9 shows the evolution of the scientific production achieved by the most relevant authors, taking WoS as a reference to observe their trajectory. The circles on the cluster map represent the number of articles, and the color represents the intensity of the citations received during the year. This would show how the most important publications were produced in WoS during 2017, coinciding precisely with the beginning of the increase in scientific publications.

Fig. 9
figure9

Source: Own compilation

Top authors’ production.

Trend analysis

Based on the content of all the articles, we can identify the most common terms and those with the greatest impact related to electronic currencies. Using the VOSviewer software and R (Bibliometrix package), we compiled a series of large clusters indicating the frequency and evolution of the keywords (Figs. 10 and 11), combined with a three-field plot of top Keywords Plus, Sources, and Author Keywords (Fig. 12). Notably, the wide variety of terms in Scopus is due to a higher index of publications, even if some of them have not been followed up.

Fig. 10
figure10

Source: Own compilation

Fig. 11
figure11

Source: Own compilation

Fig. 12
figure12

Source: Own compilation

Three-fields plot of top Keywords plus, sources, and Author keywords.

The results of both graphs show similarities in terms of key concepts that are maintained over time. The secondary issues continue to have Bitcoin as the central focus, drifting toward the concepts of blockchain, money, and security. Remarkably, although the term Ethereum has been used as a study keyword, it does not appear directly in the cluster figures, although the derivative terms, such as Smart contracts, appear as the purpose of this type of currency.

The concept of security appears directly related to electronic currency, and hence, the fact that it is not reflected in any type of legal regulation is conspicuous, given the complexity of these payment mechanisms. If the latest publications and texts taken from conferences are incorporated, changes are made to the graph that had not been previously considered, such as security becoming an impactful mainstay of the topic. This is due to the standardization and greater acceptance of these types of currencies that had even been temporarily banned in countries, such as China (2019), which is now one of the largest producers of articles related to the subject, coming to appear in the keywords of both databases, although the current situation in China is complex, as its uses have recently been limited (China 2021).

Returning to the concept of security, we determine that the term crime appears close due to the increase in publications related to criminal acts, such as money laundering processes, darknet shops, or payment to ransomware, that in the last three years has doubled the number of publications (Turner et al. 2019; Albrecht et al. 2019). This terminology is related to the illicit and dark web keywords that evolve from the concept of anonymity.

To finish with the new trends section, we compiled a Sankey diagram (Fig. 12). The diagram shows the relationship between sources (center), Keywords Plus (left), and Author Keywords (right), which is especially useful for locating the topic in each of the journals (Riehmann et al. 2005). The size of the nodes represents the frequency of the item and the lines show the connections between them. The use of Keywords Plus and Authors’ keywords shows a difference to be considered, as Keywords Plus are more effective than words given by authors in bibliometric analyses even if they are less representative of the article’s content. (Zhang et al. 2016).

We can argue that Economics Letters relates its publications to a greater number of terms, such as inefficiency, volatility, or market, covering more topics or characteristics because of connector flows. These are in turn closely related to the words “electronic currencies, bitcoin and smart contracts” as the authors’ keywords. Therefore, although this first node mentions more topics, they are all related to the economic world, leaving in the background the importance of applied technologies, such as blockchain. The publications of the second most influential node, IEEE Access, are closely related to the concepts of “inefficiency, Bitcoin, and volatility,” with special interest in the authors’ words “bitcoin, security, blockchain, smart contracts, privacy and privacy regulation.” Therefore, the authors of these publications can focus more on the financial applications that arise from blockchain networks than on developing the currencies themselves. This perspective seems to be shared by four other sources (i.e., Computer Law & Security Review, Journal of Risk and Financial Management, Banking Beyond Banks and Money, and Royal Society Open Science), whereas Applied Economics and Finance Research Letters follow the trend of the first node.

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