This paper will review the foundational concepts in media framing and apply them as a case study to the contentious debate over open access. The results of an analysis of editorials and letters published in major world newspapers illustrates that proponents of free access to the research literature have routinely framed their arguments in terms of transparency and accountability. In addition, proponents have been able to construct social action frames, a necessary component in creating social movements. Opponents, on the other hand, lack a central frame and have constructed complex and nuanced counterarguments about quality and sustainability of scientific publishing. While these counterarguments may be sound, they lack the simplicity and narrative structure of the proponents’ arguments.

Paving the Foundation

Framing has its roots in how journalists construct news in a way that makes sense to lay audiences. Frames capture the essence of an issue. They define what the problem is, and how to think about it. Often they suggest what should be done to remedy a problem (Kinder 1998).

“Journalists provide tools to enable the public to make sense of new information.”

While it is common to think that journalists “spin” stories, it is more reasonable to consider that journalists provide tools to enable the public to make sense of new information. Frames help shape the way we view the world (Lakoff 2004). People use analogies to make sense of new events in terms that they already know and understand, and the most powerful analogies involve notions of causation that explain why things happen (Holyoak and Thagard 1995).

Studies in cognitive psychology illustrate that people are highly influenced by the way choices are framed. For example, the landmark studies by Tversky and Kahneman (1974; 1981; 1984) demonstrated that people will choose different outcomes depending on whether the same information is framed in terms of risks or as payoffs. This work led to the development of the field of behavioral economics and a Nobel Prize in economics for the researchers.

Foundational work in media framing has described frames as “schemata of interpretation” (Goffman, 1974) or “interpretive packages” (Gamson 1988; Gamson and Modigliani 1989). Gamson and Modigliani (1989) put frames within larger containers that they call “media packages.” A media package includes a central organizing idea (the frame) and a number of “condensing symbols” that often refer to the frame and its position in shorthand. Journalists routinely rely on five common framing devices when reporting the news: 1) metaphors, 2) exemplars (e.g. historical examples from which lessons are drawn), 3) catchphrases, 4) depictions, and 5) visual images.

Given the importance of framing in how individuals make sense of the news, defining an issue is an instrument of power. It is not surprising that various interest groups can engage in a struggle to define a controversial issue. Nisbet and Huge (2007) write that “levels of attention to a problem are a function not of objective conditions alone, but are determined by a social contest to define the nature and importance of issues” (p. 196). Frames that emphasize conflict, morality, and uncertainty drive more public concern than frames that emphasize economics, policy, and other more routine issues.

Those who oppose the changes advocated by a group will often engage in counterframing, a process that attempts to undermine and redefine one’s interpretive framework (Benford and Snow 2000). Framing should be thought of as a dialectical process: that is, there is no frame without a counterframe (Gamson and Modigliani 1989). For example, the news media have described the effect of the Internet on people’s lives through the frames of emancipation and participatory democracy (Rossler 2001). These frames are opposed with two counterframes, one that warns us of the threat of discipline from a state that engages in surveillance of its citizens, and polarization, which suggests that the Internet will further the concentration of power into fewer hands. Through these counterframes, we are reminded of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, as a chilling view of how the future could unfold.

Creating social movements often requires a frame that conveys a rationale for change, one that inspires and legitimates the activities of social movements. These are called collective action frames (Benford and Snow 2000). In his book Talking Politics (1992), Gamson describes three components present in all collective action frames: injustice, agency, and identity. Injustice highlights some moral indignation that traces the cause to specific actors who are responsible for the harm and suffering. Agency describes that something can be done about the problem if we act collectively. Lastly, identity is the process of creating an adversary based on clearly apparent differences in interests and values. It is a process that creates the dichotomous us versus them. Gamson argues that without an adversarial component in the frame, the target of the indignation remains an abstraction (like the war on terror), and serves more to confuse than to motivate one to action. He maintains that it is difficult to be mad when one does not know whom to be mad at. An adversarial frame, Gamson argues, serves to resolve this tension and direct the emotional component of the injustice frame.

The dialogue between opposing groups takes place within a domain of shared beliefs (Pan and Kosicki 1993). For instance, in democratically elected societies, we hold a shared belief that taxpayer funds should be used for the public good, and this is an assumption that need not be stated as the foundation of one’s argument. This domain of shared beliefs is what Gilin meant when he wrote that media frames are “largely unspoken and unacknowledged” (Giltin 1980). Uncovering these foundational assumptions is at the core of frame analysis.

Frames are “largely unspoken and unacknowledged” (Giltin 1980): the phrase “open access” implied the values of freedom and democracy, and became a powerful rhetorical device. For example, a democratic government is based upon the notion that the dealings of publicly-elected officials are openly available. The open nature of these records allows for these officials to become accountable to their electorate; hence, the frame of democracy implies transparency and accountability. It does not have to be explicitly stated.

The Framing of Open Access

The phrase “open access” has a long historical record. Its general meaning of unrestricted admission or access is documented by the Oxford English Dictionary as far back as 1602. In library science, the phrase can be traced to 1894 with reference to patrons’ unrestricted access to the publications kept on library shelves. The current meaning of open access in the library and publishing communities is based on the widely cited declaration of the Budapest Initiative from 2002:

By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. (Budapest Open Access Initiative)

This case study will apply the framing theory to how open access has been represented in the media. In The Access Principle (2006), John Willinsky identifies ten “flavors” of open access. However, for this case study I make no distinction between different models of open access. Furthermore, in order to understand the dominant media frames, I will focus on editorials and letters to the editors printed in major newspapers around the world. It is in this forum that individuals express single-sided arguments for or against open access, which is a different objective than the journalistic mode of reporting that attempts to find balance between opposing sides. Lastly, I have limited my analysis to the last five years (25 April 2003 to 25 April 2008), a time frame that begins with the creation of the Public Library of Science and ends after the establishment of the National Institutes of Health policy requiring recipients of research grants to archive their manuscripts in PubMed Central. This sample is intended to contain the major events and associated debate. All news records were retrieved from the Major Newspapers file of the LexisNexis Total Research System database. In the analysis section, I use additional sources (journal articles, books, and Web pages) to emphasize certain points.

In the News...

Table 1 lists the subjects associated with the phrase “open access” in the news media. What is clear is that this phrase is associated with an enormous variety of topics. Open access is used to argue for affordable education and health care, economic access to financial and commercial markets, the right to view the records of public officials, and the right to use public airways and telecommunication systems, among many others. In the United Kingdom, the right to access public lands was a dominant theme, and in Australia, aboriginal rights to fishing and seabed resources were recurring topics. Open access to inspect weapons facilities in Iraq was deemed important to national security, while at the same time, keeping government records classified as secret was also used as an argument to preserve national security. Here we see the use of a frame and counterframe over the same issue. Those editorials and letters referring to free access to the research literature comprised only 25 of the 204 published records.

Table 1. Newspaper topics containing the phrase “open access”
  • Affirmative action
  • Commercial markets (purchasing alcohol over the Internet; right to purchase a gun (U.S.); direct advertisement to children)
  • Donor records to public colleges and universities
  • Financial markets (investor access; public access to stock trading)
  • Financial records (assets of public figures)
  • Freedom of the press (journalism, freedom to read)
  • Healthcare (access to health care, medical records, abortions, insurance, hospitals, cheaper drugs from Canada, alternative therapies, condoms in prisons)
  • Higher education (rising tuition, affordable tuition; access to community colleges, public colleges and universities; access to scholarships)
  • Humanitarian relief (N. Korea; Darfur, Sudan)
  • International trade (free trade; access to foreign markets)
  • Legal records (court proceedings, criminal conviction records, juvenile records, child-sex offenders, prosecutor records)
  • National infrastructure (public utilities, roads, carpool lanes, railways, airspace, electrical transmission lines, gas pipelines)
  • National security (against open government; access to inspect weapons facilities in Iraq)
  • Public institutions (libraries, museums, prisons)
  • Public and natural resources (oil, gas and electrical markets, fisheries and ocean resources, shore and seabed (Australia)
  • Public records (presidential and administrative records; access to public meetings, homeowner association records, calendars of public officials; government information on Iran; Nazi files; Freedom of Information Act; crime statistics; teacher evaluations)
  • Privacy (residents, employer access to genetic records of employees; private lives of public figures)
  • Property access rights (public spaces, national parks, hiking and biking paths, public land (UK), crossing farm land (UK), mushroom hunting (UK), Old City of Jerusalem, Burma, neighborhoods; access to school playgrounds on weekends)
  • Religion (right to religious worship, rights of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba)
  • Research (right to access scientific literature derived from public monies)
  • School choice (public, private and parochial)
  • Telecommunications (access to public radio airways, media choices, cable, Internet access and bandwidth, physical telecom network, public Wi-Fi, Net Neutrality, cell phone spectrum; censorship in China, television viewing by children)
  • Voting (democratic voting, access to polls, shareholder voting rights)
  • Welfare system
  • Wikipedia (open authorship)
News dataset includes 204 letters and editorials published in major world newspapers covered in Lexis-Nexis from 25 April 2003 to 25 April 2008

Table 2 lists the common frames used to argue for and against open access to the research literature. While many of the editorials and letters employed more than one frame, the public accountability frame played a dominant role in the articles supporting open access. If research is supported by public monies, authors of these editorials and letters argue, there should be some form of accountability, which could be satisfied through public access to the research findings; hence, transparency is a logical precursor for public accountability. The public good frame refers to the benefit such free access to scientific research would confer on society, through advances in science and medicine leading to better medical care, cures for diseases, and economic growth. Essentially, the public-good frame argues that free access to the literature is a social welfare–maximizing strategy. Arguments against open access were fewer and more complex in their construction. Most did not dismiss the basic argument for open access, but focused on criticizing the producer-pays model of publishing. The quality frame was invoked as a warning that the integrity of scientific research could be compromised by the producer-pays economic model. The sustainable business model frame argued that academic publishing requires financial stability, which cannot be achieved effectively through a producer-pays model. The barriers to participation frame described how a pay-to-publish model would establish new financial barriers for authors while it eliminates barriers to readers. This new financial barrier for authors would introduce bias in the literature by favoring those who can afford to publish their work. The government intrusion frame argued that the government should not dictate the terms and conditions of scientific publishing, but allow competition and the free market to regulate itself. Lastly, the unintended consequences theme described how changes to scientific publishing, through government mandates, would cause negative consequences to other groups who were not the target of the initial legislation. For example, the potential loss of journal profits to scientific societies would compromise their broader mission of public education.

Table 2. Common frames employed with open access to research
Frame Number of occurrences
Public accountability (public universities’/taxpayers’ dollars) 17
Public good (sharing knowledge; innovation/advancement in science; discovering cures for disease; better medical care; economic growth) 11
Transparency (citizens’ access to medical information; access to data from pharmaceutical companies) 4
Personal incentive (scholars want their work to be read and cited) 1
Frame Number of occurrences
Quality (peer-review will suffer) 4
Sustainable business models (important for quality and stability; free-rider problem) 4
Barriers to participation (biased against those who cannot pay author fees; freedom to publish) 3
Government intrusion (government intruding in private-sector; free market and choice; government overriding copyright law) 3
Unintended consequences (financial threat to smaller publishers and specialty journals; societies and associations hurt) 2
News dataset includes 25 letters and editorials limited to the topic of open access to research literature published in major world newspapers covered in Lexis-Nexis from 25 April 2003 to 25 April 2008. A single news story can include multiple frames.

Open Access Movement as a Collective Action Frame

Open access is often described as a social movement through the development of collective action frames. As described earlier in more detail, the collective action frame includes three necessary components: injustice, agency, and identity.


Several lines of injustice are invoked in the argument for open access. Proponents consider it wrong to take free manuscripts (and the copyright) from faculty, package them in journals, and sell them back to universities at egregious prices. The victims here are libraries whose subscription dollars provide less return, and faculty who may not reuse the material they gave away freely for such innocuous uses such as teaching. Under the public accountability frame, the taxpayer is the victim: the taxpayer supports public research, but is unable to access the results of that research.

it is wrong to keep publicly funded, peer-reviewed research results locked in expensive journals (Washington Post 2007)

Your tax dollars may have financed the clinical trial of a new treatment regime for the rare disease you’ve contracted, but you’ll probably still have to pay to see the results (Los Angeles Times 2007)

The present system effectively locks out the patient with, say, breast cancer or obsessive-compulsive disorder who can’t afford the fees from learning about research and clinical drug trials that may offer them relief or change their lives. (Hartford Courant 2004)


The open access pamphlet published by SPARC (2004) describes open access as a “growing, worldwide movement” (emphasis mine) and lists several things that faculty can do to “help the cause” (emphasis mine), such as launching an open access journal or supporting one through their editorial board, establishing an institutional repository, or educating peers. The Association of American Publishers has been depicted in the media as attempting to “quash the movement” (Weiss 2007a) through its organized efforts.


The adversary in the movement toward open access is depicted as the amoral commercial publisher, whose interests lie only in profits, not in the values of openness and sharing. Articles covered in this study created the dichotomy of “well-heeled journal publishers” and “cash-strapped libraries” (Weiss 2007a), of commercial publishers “fighting this wave of open access, fearing their ledgers will drown in red ink” (Hartford Courant 2004), and “worried that free journals could diminish their profits” (Los Angeles Times 2004). Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, compared traditional publishers to “slave owners” and open access advocates to “abolitionists” (Yamey 2007). Interestingly, by creating dichotomy between us (scientists and librarians) and them (publishers), open access proponents place non-profit society and association publishers—many of whom have been strident in their criticisms of the business model of open access—in the same group as the commercial publishers. It may be rhetorically more powerful to create a single and unambiguous enemy, yet this process ignores differences in values and missions between society and commercial publishers. As Marty Frank, executive director of the American Physiological Society, wrote in an editorial, “such single-mindedness has fostered an us-versus-them fundamentalism that could undermine the efforts of publishers to make content available according to their individual business and publishing models” (Frank 2006).

Balance and Nuance Lack Strength

“Unambiguous stories are valued over complex and nuanced ones, and negative news draws more attention than positive news.”

Values in reporting science news are similar to the values of reporting other types of news (Gregory and Miller 1998). Unambiguous stories are valued over complex and nuanced ones, and negative news draws more attention than positive news (Galtung and Ruge 1965). The supportive arguments for open access based on public accountability are simple and resonate with core values we hold for open democratic government. On the other hand, the counterarguments are several and nuanced, and make complex arguments based on balance and sustainability. As Paul Ginsparg, creator of the arXiv, writes about how the complexity of arguments affects public policy decisions, “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 (sic) can be expected to legislate some form of open access” (Ginsparg, 2007). Linguist George Lakoff asserts that such long, descriptive rebuttals often indicate a conspicuous lack of a counter-frame (Lakoff, 2004).

Arguing against the simple and forceful position that public support of research should require public access to the research findings, Michael Mabe, Executive Director of the International Association of STM Publishers, argues that spending public money on the Olympics does not provide public entitlement to free tickets (2007). This is a complex argument from analogy that makes a distinction between research and research findings—a distinction that does not require clarification in the proponents’ argument (Barbour et al. 2004).

In a letter to the editor, H. Frederick Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics responded to how the word “free” had been used in an editorial, arguing that free access to information does not necessarily mean costless, and that we need to recognize that investment is required to maintain the publishing enterprise (Dylla 2008).

Producer-side fees, while eliminating barriers to reading, create barriers to publishing. This argument is framed in terms of creating new forms of bias and censorship. In a letter to the editor, Peter Gregory, Director of Publishing for the Royal Society of Chemistry, writes, “with author-pays models, it will be he who pays the monkey who calls the tune” (2004). Michael Mabe warns of “swapping the problems of poorer readers with poorer authors and endangering academic freedom to publish” (2007).

There have been other attempts to discredit open access publishing, either by suggesting that scientific literature produced under such a model would lack integrity and stifle diversity (PRISM), or by equating those promoting the open access movement to a bunch of radicals by associating them with the FreeCulture movement (Weiss 2007b; FreeCulture.org), a student-run organization inspired by some of the works of the legal scholar, Lawrence Lessig.

Perhaps the strongest counterframe to the accountability frame is the government intrusion frame. In several instances, mandates and laws were viewed as a form of “unwarranted government intrusion into the private-sector publishing industry” (Weiss 2007a). While this is indeed a strong frame, especially within the larger values of the American economy, the NIH Public Access mandate (U.S. Dept. Health and Human Services) was not particularly radical, nor unexpected, given that it was based on a preexisting policy.


“Humans are wired for storytelling.”

Humans are wired for storytelling. Like frames, narratives provide a framework for understanding new information. A key difference, however, is that narratives use a temporal order of events to construct meaning (McComas and Shanahan 1999). Stories include drama, imply causation, and often entail a moral teaching. Good stories have a set-up, create tension, and finally provide release to the reader.

As illustrated above, the open access debate has been described by its proponents as a moral struggle, a battle for access to information that is rightly the public’s but has been co-opted by greedy and amoral publishers. Theirs is a story of the individual scientist and librarian fighting for the rights of the poor and disenfranchised. For them, it is a story of power, and how individuals acting together can take back what is rightly theirs. Open access makes excellent storytelling, and storytelling is the basis of great journalism. Consider the following paragraph taken from an article in the Washington Post:

Last month, leaked documents revealed that the Association of American Publishers, led by former Colorado congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, had decided to boost its firepower by hiring Eric Dezenhall, the take-no-prisoners guru of message management who has been nicknamed “the pit bull of PR.” (Weiss 2007b)

In this single paragraph, the author creates the drama of a scandal, involving a powerful publisher group, its politically savvy leader, and a high-priced media consultant depicted as an aggressive dog. Compare this to the depiction of scientists:

In 2000, Michael Eisen, then a 34-year-old UC Berkeley scientist, founded the nonprofit Public Library of Science, hoping to aid those researchers unable to pay five-figure annual subscription charges or $30 fees to download a single article from a commercial journal. (Los Angeles Times 2004)

In this paragraph, Eisen represents the icon of the young and ideological scientist, hoping to help his peers against the powerful publishers who control the research literature for purely commercial interests. As readers, we are drawn to side with the underdog in his fight against the powerful status quo. The moral of this story is that individuals can make a difference, and collectively, we can change the world.


The transparency and public accountability frames that are expressed in the phrase “open access” are powerful, unambiguous, and used very frequently in diverse political debates. The adoption of this phrase to mean unfettered access to the research literature became a natural extension and a central frame in the proponents’ argument for social change. The use of collective action frames took open access beyond a technical and economic debate and made it a moral imperative. In contrast, opponents routinely employed complex and nuanced counterframes against particular business models, making their views much more difficult to elucidate.

Philip Davis is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at Cornell University and a former science librarian. His Web page may be found at https://confluence.cornell.edu/display/~pmd8/resume. Email: pmd8@cornell.edu


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