The Nelson Memo: Preparing for Updated Federal Public Access Policies

by Kathryn Pope, Esther Jackson, and Jeremiah Mercurio

On August 25, 2022, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), under the direction of former Columbia faculty member and divisional dean Alondra Nelson, released new guidelines on increased, expansive public access to the results of federally funded research. The guidelines, or the “Nelson Memo,” build upon the public access policies created in response to OSTP’s 2013 guidelines (or, the “Holdren Memo”). The Nelson Memo acknowledges the need to learn from the positive outcomes of the accelerated rate of sharing research due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also highlights equitable access to federally-funded research as one of the main policy goals of the new guidance, stating: 

A federal public access policy consistent with our values of equal opportunity must allow for broad and expeditious sharing of federally funded research—and must allow all Americans [emphasis ours] to benefit from the returns on our research and development investments without delay.

In addition, the new guidelines direct all federal agencies with research and development expenditures to create public access policies–expanding the scope of the Holdren Memo, which only applied to agencies with expenditures of more than $100 million annually.


The Nelson Memo provides a timeline for policy development. Federal agencies have either six months (for those with public access policies already in place) or one year (for other agencies) to present their public access policies to the OSTP. Implementation timelines are even longer. 

Within six months of memo date: Deadline for agencies with more than $100 million annual R&D expenditures (these are agencies that already have public access policies in place) to submit updated policies to OSTP and Office of Management and Budget (OMB)

Within one year of memo date: Deadline for agencies with $100 million or less annual R&D expenditures to submit public access policies to OSTP and OMB

December 31, 2024: Deadline for agencies to publish full implementation plans for their public access policies AND for agencies to submit public access policies for metadata collection and assignment of PIDs to OSTP and OMB

December 31, 2025: All agency public access policies for publications and data must be in effect.* 

December 31, 2026: Deadline for agencies to publish full implementation plans for public access policies for metadata collection and assignment of personal identifiers (PIDs).

December 31, 2027: All agency public access policies for metadata collection and assignment of personal identifiers (PIDs) must be in effect.*

*Note that some agency policies may go into effect before the deadline.

Preparing for the New Public Access Policies

Despite the lack of details about how these policies will be implemented, and the varying opinions about how they will affect researchers, institutions, and the scholarly publishing industry, we know the Nelson Memo introduces substantial changes to public access policy guidance. With this knowledge, researchers can take practical steps now to prepare for when the policies go into effect.

Changing and New Guidelines for Publications

The Nelson Memo directs agencies to create policies that facilitate immediate public access, concerning research articles resulting from federal funding, to either the accepted manuscript version or the final published version of peer-reviewed scholarly publications (including research articles, book chapters, editorials, and conference proceedings). This removes the Holdren Memo’s allowance for a delay of up to 12 months for the public release of research publications. In keeping with its emphasis on equity, the Nelson Memo also directs agencies to facilitate the availability of publications in machine-readable formats, including formats readable by assistive devices. 

Changing and New Guidelines for Research Data

In addition, the new policy guidelines require immediate public access to data underlying federally funded research upon publication, within the bounds of limitations due to law, policy, or funder or data-use agreement terms and conditions. The OSTP expects agencies to provide guidance to researchers on appropriate data repositories. (The Nelson Memo also instructs agencies to create plans and timelines for sharing data resulting from federally funded research but not associated with publications, but it is unclear when such requirements might take effect.)

New Guidelines for Metadata

Additionally, the Nelson Memo provides new guidelines for how federal agency public access policies can support “scientific and research integrity” by communicating information about federally funded research. Agencies must create plans to collect such metadata as author names and affiliations, funding agencies, and grant numbers, and to provide persistent digital identifiers (PID) for these metadata whenever possible. Researchers should expect to be asked to obtain such a PID for themselves.

PIDs are a mainstay of scholarly publishing and scholarly infrastructure. They allow for information about entities (people, organizations, publications) to be linked together. When links like these are created, it is easier to answer questions such as “at what times of year do Columbia University researchers publish the most?” or “how has the format of published research output changed over time?” This allows for organizations, including Columbia University and OSTP, to better understand and anticipate future needs of researchers and scholarly infrastructure. 

For those interested in specifics, some of the most well-known PIDS include ORCIDs for people, RORs for organizations (including funders), and DOIs for published research, including articles, datasets, and software packages. To read more about PIDs and how they relate to the Nelson Memo, review Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe’s response in the Ask The Chefs: OSTP Policy Part II post from the Scholarly Kitchen.


There have been a range of responses to the Nelson Memo among the scholarly community. Overall there has been broad support for the OSTP’s aim to increase public access to government-funded research in an equitable manner. The generalized nature of the recommendations means that individual agencies and institutions have work to do in filling in the details about implementation and monitoring the incentives that the memo creates (e.g., a potential favoring of the article processing charge (APC) model, though OSTP emphasizes that this is not the case). Nonetheless, the OSTP’s focus on further increasing open access to federally funded research is welcome news.

Resources for Columbia University Researchers

Because each affected federal agency will have the opportunity to set its own policies, and because no two fields are exactly the same, it’s challenging to give guidance at this point in time that is sure to be useful once new policies have been implemented.

That said, the timeline for these changes allows for Columbia researchers to explore the options that the university provides to support their publication and data management. Researchers can:

  1. Consult with Research Data Services as needed and develop Data Management Plans at the beginning of every project.
  2. Reach out to Columbia Research (EVPR) for NIH research-data management support
  3. Deposit a version of a research work into Columbia’s institutional repository, Academic Commons, thereby creating a public access copy of work that might otherwise be behind a paywall. OSTP has emphasized that this should be a peer-reviewed version or final manuscript of a research work (article, book chapter, editorials, conference proceedings). Authors should review their publication agreements and reach out to Copyright Advisory Services and the Scholarly Communications team with any questions.
  4. Though researchers can comply with funder public access policies by depositing a manuscript version of a published article in a designated repository, some may wish to publish open access. The Columbia Libraries are in regular discussions with publishers about “read and publish” agreements that either reduce or waive open access article processing charges for Columbia researchers. As of January 2023 Columbia has entered into four such agreements–with Cambridge University Press (CUP), the Royal Society, the Company of Biologists, and PLoS Biology. The CUP agreement went into effect earlier in 2022; you can read about it in this Libraries Spotlight blog post or on the CUP website. The additional agreements went into effect on January 1, 2023. More details can be seen here on the Libraries’ website

Final Thoughts

The Nelson Memo has brought to the forefront many exciting and controversial conversations around public access, research equity, publishing models, and funding in the United States and internationally (where open access initiatives include Plan S in Europe and a network of open access repositories in Latin America). It is important to remember that the goal of this guidance is to increase access to federally-funded research for all Americans, regardless of institutional affiliation or personal wealth. For now, it is only guidance. We look forward to tracking the policies created by individual agencies in response to this guidance, and hearing from researchers about how these policies will affect their work in the coming months and years. Please reach out to the Scholarly Communications team to follow up with any questions.

Further Reading on the New OSTP Public Access Policy Guidance

“Frequently Asked Questions: 2022 Public Access Policy Guidance | OSTP.” December 20, 2022. The White House. Accessed December 23, 2022.

Bourg, Chris and Rebecca Saxe. “Colleges Should Reward Efforts to Make Research Open | MIT Libraries News,” September 12, 2022.

Ghamandi, Dave. “A Critical Examination of the OSTP Memo,” September 12, 2022.

Joseph, Heather. “In a Historic Win for Open Access, U.S. Publicly Funded Research Will Be Freely and Immediately Available to All.” SPARC, August 29, 2022.

Anderson, Rick. “A New OSTP Memo: Some Initial Observations and Questions.” The Scholarly Kitchen, August 29, 2022.

Moore, Samuel. “Thoughts on the New White House OSTP Open Access Memo.” Samuel Moore (blog), August 31, 2022.

Pooley, Jeff “The Big APC Question Mark Hovering Over the OSTP Announcement | Jeff Pooley.” August 26, 2022.

Simons, Natasha, Greg Goodey, Megan Hardeman, Connie Clare, Sara Gonzales, Damon Strange, et al. “The State of Open Data 2021.” Report. Digital Science, November 30, 2021.

The White House. “OSTP Issues Guidance to Make Federally Funded Research Freely Available Without Delay.” Accessed September 26, 2022.

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