Framing Science

Over the weekend I spotlighted a Washington Post article on the Association of American Publishers’ hiring of the “PR Pit Bull” to frame their attacks on free access to federally-financed research articles. The Post article noted the perception problems caused by consulting with Eric Dezenhall, who’s former clients include Exxon Mobile and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron fame. As things go from bad to worse for the industry trade group, the journal Nature has more to add to these details. Here’s a sample:

From e-mails passed to Nature, it seems Dezenhall spoke to employees from Elsevier, Wiley and the American Chemical Society at a meeting arranged last July by the Association of American Publishers (AAP). A follow-up message in which Dezenhall suggests a strategy for the publishers provides some insight into the approach they are considering taking.

The consultant advised them to focus on simple messages, such as “Public access equals government censorship”. He hinted that the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review, and “paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles”.

Dezenhall also recommended joining forces with groups that may be ideologically opposed to government-mandated projects such as PubMed Central, including organizations that have angered scientists. One suggestion was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Washington DC, which has used oil-industry money to promote sceptical views on climate change. Dezenhall estimated his fee for the campaign at $300,000-500,000.

In an enthusiastic e-mail sent to colleagues after the meeting, Susan Spilka, Wiley’s director of corporate communications, said Dezenhall explained that publishers had acted too defensively on the free-information issue and worried too much about making precise statements. Dezenhall noted that if the other side is on the defensive, it doesn’t matter if they can discredit your statements, she added: “Media messaging is not the same as intellectual debate”.