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There is an expression in politics:  “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

This is not because politicians are daft. Messages need to be framed in a way that require little or no explanation or interpretation.  If messages are constructed right, they contain both the problem and the solution.

Take the phrase, “digital divide.”  Digital is about technology, progress, the future.  Divide is something that separates us, segregates us, creates an inequality.  We’d rather have unity, not division.  In two simple words we understand the problem, its significance, and its solution.  This is the power of framing.

Now let’s look at the phrase, “open access.”  Open is about visibility, transparency, and freedom.  Its antithesis is “closed access” which is often used to describe subscription-access.  We are shut out, kept in the dark, barred from access.  Subscriptions are about denying freedom.

You will note that this implies something very different than the phrase “free access,”  which does not assume access as a right, but as a privilege.  In this frame, access is a gift that someone else paid for and something for which we should be grateful.  Free, as in “free beer.”

“Open access” has a long history as a frame, but it did not originate in the open access movement. Rather, it comes from the politics of democracy.  We need open access to government records and the dealings of our elected officials.  Without transparency, accountability is impossible.

If you do an analysis of how the phrase “open access” is used, as I did last year as part of a graduate class on science communication,[1] you’ll find that the argument for access to the scientific research literature makes up only a very small part of your results.  You’ll mostly find letters and editorials advocating:

  • open access to affordable healthcare
  • open access to safe schools, libraries, and playgrounds
  • open access to government records, including who Dick Cheney was meeting in secret
  • open access to financial markets, resource markets, international trade markets
  • open access to private land (for hiking or mushroom gathering)
  • open access to natural resources, fishing, and mining rights for aboriginal peoples

Since most of these evoke transparency and accountability, it’s not surprising that some of the most salient arguments for open access to the scientific literature have elicited the same frames.

Meanwhile, those who have written against specific open access proposals make more complex and nuanced arguments, drawing distinctions between business models and access models, or what we mean by “free.” In sum, their arguments lack a familiar frame.

In a reflective article, Paul Ginsparg, the creator of the arXiv, wrote concerning the NIH public access policy:

The message to legislators is deceptively short and simple: “The taxpayers have paid for the research so deserve access to the results.” The counter-argument is somewhat more subtle and takes paragraphs to elucidate, so the U.S. congress can be expected to legislate some form of open access

Not only have open access proponents made clear arguments, they’ve also been able to motivate individuals to action.

The open access community has constructed a powerful campaign.  By the number of email messages in my mailbox urging me to take action to help block the Fair Copyright in Research Works Act (H. R. 801), I’d say they are being very effective.

On the other hand, they have alienated one community that should be on their side: the non-profit scientific societies.

In crafting their campaign, open access advocates created a caricature of the greedy, amoral publisher attempting to constrain information for pure financial gains.

By doing so, open access advocates ignore the fact that many society publishers are non-profit and use the surpluses from their journal to provide grants and opportunities for young scientists, fund public awareness of science programs, among other social benefits.  Open access advocates  ignore the fact that scientists share a common ethos of openness and a culture of sharing, and that these values are at the heart of most scientific societies.

In sum, they alienated a group that could have been their greatest proponents.

The more I think about open access, I’m coming to realize this debate is not about science or economics or business models.  Open access is about policy, and policy is rooted deeply in core values.  The language simply reflects those deeply held values.  Open access advocates will continue to accuse publishers (as a group) of being uncaring and working against the public good.  In turn, publishers will continue to accuse open access advocates of being irrational ideologues.

One thing is clear — this debate was never about science.


[1] Philip M. Davis. How the Media Frames “Open Access”. Journal of Electronic Publishing, vol. 12, no. 1, February 2009,

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


7 Thoughts on "Framing the Open Access Debate"

I admire Phil Davis’ work and appreciate this thoughtful contribution.

However I want to comment on the final point about non-profit societies. If the OA crowd is guilty of caricaturing publishers as greedy and manipulative, they are occasionally also guilty of assuming that all “scholarly society” publishers are knights in shining armor. This isn’t the case.

The largest of them have inverted (some might say perverted) the model by becoming major quasi-commercial publishers that happen to have memberships attached — ie, the tail has been wagging the dog for years. The fig leaf of non-profit status allows these publishers to command a self-serving moral high ground and pretend they are on the side of science and the public, when in fact it’s all about the money.

Sure, the money supports the “society”, but it also supports 7-figure executive salaries and lavish headquarters and bullying lobbying arms that seek to reframe the OA debate and paint OA as a form of dangerous neo-socialism that will destroy the fabric of science, and similar nonsense. And the society costume helps to give these arguments more credence with policymakers than any commercial firm could get.

They frequently act in ways that are diametrically opposed to the wishes of their own rank and file members, although here again the power of framing helps them convince members, editors and authors that Daddy knows best and is acting in the best interest of scientists. Who are these members, whose knowledge of publishing economics is sketchy at best, to disagree with their own society’s leadership?

I will avoid naming names here because it should be obvious who I’m talking about. Certainly not all non-profits fall into this category; hopefully most don’t. But the few that do are giving the rest a bad name.

It’s too simplistic to divide the publishing world into artificial and largely meaningless “for-profit” and “non-profit” buckets. These are tax-status terms and have little to do with mission, size, philosophy, or business models. There are good and bad among both types.

You are absolutely right that there are exceptions to the hard society/commercial dichotomy that I’m creating. We may even have the same chemical society in mind…

To argue from exceptions, however, is to confuse the debate. The vast majority of scientific societies provide exceptional value per subscription dollar based on many different metrics (articles, pages, downloads), and use their profits for activities that are consistent with their broader mission in science and society.

This is different than rewarding shareholders for their investments.

As one of the Society publishers that puts money into nurturing the next generation of scientists, thank you for your comments. Also, as the coordinator of the DC Principles Coalition, we have tried not to use the term “open access” in our messaging. We use “free access,” free access based on terms set by the society publisher based on its existing business and publishing models. In so doing, when we give free access, it is indeed a gift to the community, whether given immediately or after 12 months.

This is indeed a policy issue. And as such, it is indeed subtle and rooted in core values. But having raised that point, let’s tease out some of the subtlety.

Not all society publishers are alike. But for those who use their publishing surpluses to fund grants and other activities related to their core purpose and whose core subscription base is university libraries the question remains: is this the most efficient or effective way to fund these activities? It might be better to let universities keep more of their money and fund these activities directly.

It’s an old argument and may apply to few societies.

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