Open Access Movement for Science

“Given its seemingly informal organization, the 15M mobilization surprised many observers by sustaining and even building strength over time, using a mix of online media and offline activities that included face-to-face organizing, encampments in city centers, and marches across the country.” - The Logic of Connective Action, Lance Bennett


“Whether we look at PPF, Arab Spring, the indignados, or [O]ccupy [Wall Street], we note surprising success in communicating simple political messages directly to outside publics using common digital technologies such as Facebook or Twitter.” - The Logic of Connective Action

In the age of digital communications, social movements aren’t what they used to be.

Using websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, citizens can now unite under a collective action cause without sacrificing their individual voices. According to Lance Bennett, Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington, social movements today can “cast a broader public engagement net using interactive digital media and easy-to-personalize action themes, often deploying batteries of social technologies to help citizens spread the word over their personal networks” (p. 742).

Traditionally, resource-rich organizations have unified people in collective action, organizing protests and petitions, for example. These organizations have used digital media to lower costs of communicating with their members and to help manage participation. In other words, social and political organizations have started to use digital media as an enhancement tool for their movements.

But digital media is more powerful than simply lowering the cost and barriers to communication and organization across a traditional group-based social movement. According to Bennett, a new connective action paradigm has emerged, in which individualized digital sharing, in the vein of “share your story with us” movements, can pressure real political action and change. This connective action, also called digitally networked action, involves personal action frames that travel over self-organized digitally enabled networks.

Personalized action can emerge on a large scale with today’s digital media – platforms can be organized overnight to bring together various communications for any given movement. From websites, to groupings of blog posts, to hashtags, personal message can mean more in their aggregate than they ever used to.


“Open data is the idea that scientific data should be freely available to all, without restrictions, in searchable online repositories. The open data movement is gaining momentum in the scientific community because of its promise to enable more frequent replication of studies and to accelerate the pace of research.” – Jean Flanagan, PLOS Blog

On August 26th, 2007, Bora Zivkovic published a post on his blog A Blog Around the Clock bringing together more than 80 links to other posts by various science bloggers, journalists and others in favor of open access to published scientific research. He also provided brief summaries of these posts and articles, for example, “This is disgusting. This runs counter to everything that science, academia, scholarship (and scholarly publishing!) stand for.”

Zivkovic’s blog post arrived as a reaction to a campaign against the open access movement organized by actors including the Association of American Publishers and PR agent Eric Dezenhall. The campaign website, incidentally, was abandoned shortly after its release – much thanks to the power of the blogging and “new digital media” community engaging in connective, networked action with a common goal.

I think that it is very apparent that the open access for science movement, with proponents largely sharing their views on social media, took the form of personal action frames traveling and being shared over digital networks. Following the revelation that the scientific research publisher Elsevier was backing the Research Works Act, scientists starting pledging online by the thousands to boycott Elsevier journals. You can read more about how the pledge started here. Although this is arguably an example of collective action, scientists coming together under a common goal requiring some amount of sacrifice and/or adoption of a common message, many scientists and science communicators also shared their more personal messages of open access with the online world.

“Science requires the exchange of ideas. Anything that impedes that exchange obstructs progress. Elsevier’s practices are anti-science.” - David Atkinson, FL Institute for Human and Machine Cognition – Computer Science


“The nuclear physics community NEEDS to get on this. The LHC community could make a huge impac[t]… Imagine if the Higgs boson discovery and all other related discoveries weren’t published with Elsevier!” – David Gerts USAF – Physics

Other proponents of open access took straight to their blogging platforms and social media. Since Zivkovic’s aggregation of various individuals’ reactions to the open science debate on his blogging site, many open access initiatives have popped up on various social media platforms. Take, for example, the #icanhazpdf hashtag, an innovative if rather “subversive” open access tool that allows Tweeters to ask for academic and scholarly journal articles behind paywalls. The hashtag itself, and its daily use by many students and researchers (including myself) is a personalized expression of the larger open access movement. Every time I submit an #icanhazpdf request, and every time I send you an article in response to your request, I am expressing my own personal support of open access for science.

Is the internet a better public sphere?

Of course, some social scientists don’t agree with the idea that an open, online forum intrinsically creates an environment of diverse views and public empowerment. I find it enlightening to look at research supporting this perspective – if primarily to point out some of my issues with the findings.

“[P]ublic communication should include a wide range of relevant topics, evaluations and arguments and should strive for the ‘widest possible empowerment’, i.e. extensive ‘popular inclusion’ of different actors.” – Is the internet a better public sphere?

In a 2010 study published in New Media & Society, Gerhards and Schafer analyzed print media (Washington Post and New York Times) as well as internet data (top 30 results from specific searches in Google, and to investigate whether internet communications provide a better public sphere than do traditional media.

In an analysis of human genome coverage online and offline, the authors found that “[s]cientists, especially bio- and natural scientists, i.e. the primary experts on the topic, account for a large percentage of all actors, and this is even more so on the internet” (p. 148). Based on these results, the authors conclude that internet communication is not more equal than print media communication, based on inclusion of diverse societal actors and voices. The authors find support for what they call a ‘bias toward the legitimacy of science.’

I find the authors’ examination of media coverage surrounding the human genome project to be a very poor example of internet communications excluding non-expert voices. First of all, scientific complexity and media literacy may combine to produce a digital environment surrounding the issue better suited to commentary by scientific actors. And as long as scientific actors have diverse points of views, is this such a bad thing? Keep in mind, these “science actors” might include not just scientists, but science students and science bloggers.

If traditional media includes more minority political or public voices reacting to human genome sequencing, is it primarily on account of journalistic norms of pluralism and balance, and not because these voices necessarily add meaningfully to the debate of a scientific issue. And if these voices DID have something meaningful to say, what is stopping them from being expressed on new social media platforms? What’s more, journalistic norms including balance have been shown to poorly serve the interpretation of pressing scientific issues – climate change for example.

“The emergence of the internet gave rise to many expectations about a potential reconfiguration of public debates and, more specifically, for a shift towards the idealized participatory model of the public sphere. […] In our study, we found only minimal evidence to support the idea that the internet is a better communication space as compared to print media. In both media, communication is dominated by (bio- and natural) scientific actors; popular inclusion does not occur.” Is the internet a better public sphere?

I do agree that search engines like Google, and retrieval algorithms at play in Google’s PageRank system, pose potential threats to balanced and ethical news on a variety of topics, including science. But this does not necessarily take into account the voice diversity possible in social media platforms including blogging networks, Facebook and Twitter.

What the authors are really saying is that the internet is not a better public sphere for science topic search engine results.

As we saw in the social media enabled movement toward open access to science, old media models are being challenged to their core, whether we like it or not. For good or bad, social media IS a new public sphere, and it certainly seems to have enabled positive movement, especially for empowering open access to information in the sciences and beyond.