Home 9 Blog Posts 9 The Nelson Memo: More Questions than Answers

The Nelson Memo: More Questions than Answers

by | Sep 6, 2022 | 1 comment


by Meg White, Director of Vendor Partnerships, Charleston Hub / Conference Director, Charleston Conference

August 25, 2022 marked a radical shift in policy related to access to federally funded research in the United States. In an eight-page memorandum (aka Nelson Memo) and accompanying report, “Economic Landscape of Federal Public Access Policy”, Dr. Alondra Nelson and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) updated the existing guidelines issued in 2013’s Memorandum: Increasing Access to the Results of Federally Funded Scientific Research (aka Holdren Memo) to agencies regarding public access to federally funded publications and supporting data.   The memo, combined with the report, understandably sent shock waves across the scholarly communication community.

The White House. Photo by Kristina Volgenau on Unsplash.

The headline from the new OSTP-issued policy is the elimination the existing embargo, which currently allows a 12-month post-publication delay in public access to publications based on federally funded research. The removal of the existing 12-month embargo is disruptive enough to generate wide-ranging consequences across the research landscape. But, beyond the removal of the embargo, the memo and accompanying report greatly expand the requirements of the 2013 policy and this expansion increases related demands on federal agencies, authors, and publishers.  The Nelson Memo extends the remit of its predecessor including increasing participation to all NIH agencies, removing the $100K threshold for impacted research, and an exponential increase in the scope of content, specifying book chapters and most significantly, data. Industry experts from all sectors have provided insights and commentary since the release of this policy, with varying reactions that range from enthusiastic support to measured skepticism.

The memo mandates the creation of policies by federal agencies that have the potential to radically alter the landscape of scholarly research and dissemination of scholarly knowledge. Compliance with these requirements will require stakeholders to examine fundamental aspects of their organizations, from mission to operations. Right now, given the widely expanded scope of the Nelson Memo, there are more questions than answers about this new policy, its implementation, and related impact, but we’ll offer a few thoughts on some notable components of the policy and related report and address some topics notable for their lack of inclusion.

Who Pays and How Much?

Although the memo allows researchers to “include reasonable publication costs and costs associated with submission, curation, management of data, and special handling instructions as allowable expenses in all research budgets,” neither it nor the report make specific reference to additional funds (agency or otherwise) being allocated to cover these costs. The memo does suggest that these costs would be covered by re-allocating existing research grant funds or alternatively, would be provided by the agencies through Congressional appropriation. The report estimates that publication costs are “less than half a percent, on average” of the total investment by US taxpayers in research and development. Perhaps as importantly, the report references per-article publication costs.  However, both estimates are predicated on current business models and federal public access requirements for content and metadata, which will expand significantly under the new policy. We’ll discuss the operational challenges related to content requirements below, but it is reasonable to expect that the greatly expanded definition of “content” will require additional systems and infrastructure that will impact costs.

In a special issue of the Brief, focused on the updated policy, Clarke & Eposito outline some questions around the OSTP’s financial analysis of the overall costs to agencies associated with alternative publishing models, specifically related to article processing charges (APCs). The challenges associated with migrating from a subscription model to an APC model are daunting enough for many organizations, and the report specifically cites that smaller, non-profit societies are potentially at risk under this new policy. This challenge is just one aspect of future financial impact that compliance with the new policy will have from for all stakeholders. 

Content and Content About Content

Looming larger perhaps than the removal of the 12-month embargo is the ambitious scope of included content and mandates on related metadata introduced in the Nelson Memo. Content included is defined as “peer reviewed scholarly publications” that result from federally funded research, which allows agencies to include books, book chapters, and conference proceedings in addition to journal article and papers. In addition, and staggeringly, the policy adds “Scientific Data” to this requirement, an area which, relative to journal articles or even eBooks, has only recently seen efforts to meaningfully capture, organize, store, and disseminate this vast universe of disparate and unique content. In a 2019 keynote address “The Future of Research Information” at the Charleston Conference, Annette Thomas, then CEO of Clarivate, envisioned a future in which scientific communication would be “connected. open. Seamless.” While each of these goals is itself ambitious, the “connected” objective relies almost exclusively on metadata to make meaningful connections among a vast universe populated by terabytes of data.  While the Nelson memo echoes many of these same goals, including connectivity, it makes only passing reference to the vast amount of infrastructure and costs associated with the management and application of metadata.

Which Version and Where?

Section 4 of the Nelson Memo charges each agency to “take steps to ensure that public access policies support scientific and research integrity by transparently communicating to the public critical information … “. It goes on to state that each agency must “update their public access plans specifying approaches taken to implement the provisions in Section 4.” As with the Holdren Memo, it is left to each agency to determine 1) what they will make available and 2) where it will reside. Current agency policies accept either author accepted manuscripts (AAM) or the published version of record (VOR). Will this practice be adequate to meet the standard outlined in Section 4 of the Nelson Memo? Further, although the Nelson Memo makes no specific mention of repositories, the OSTP Report does identify PubMed, but repeatedly misidentifies it as a “federally funded repository.” PubMed Central is the taxpayer-funded public access repository for full-text scholarly article in the biomedical sciences. PubMed, by contrast, is a citation database that links to PubMed Central and other full-text sites, including commercial publishers and scholarly societies. This is a seemingly small but significant distinction, particularly considering the increase in content requirements contained in the Nelson Memo.  The large increase in scope of content required to be made publicly accessible under this new policy will put an incredible amount of pressure on existing repositories, including PubMed Central, but also publishers, societies, and collaboratives, such as CHORUS.  Building out policies and processes to meet the greatly expanded content scope of the Nelson Memo will require resources and cooperation from stakeholders across the research and publishing ecosystem.

Mandatory or Optional … Is There a Choice?

Writing in the Scholarly Kitchen, Rick Anderson identifies subtle but differing language around the requirements to comply with the newly outlined policies. Contrasting the Nelson Memo with the Holdren Memo, Anderson calls attention to what appears to be a lack of a specific mandate to comply with the updated policy.  Anderson states: “At no point are the terms in the Nelson Memo referred to as “requirements,” whereas those of the Holdren Memo are explicitly characterized in that way” and goes on to cite multiple examples of this apparent difference. Is the use of language that seems to signal optional adherence to this new policy an accident?  An oversight? Or an intentional choice that only will only further muddy the waters? Only time will tell.

What’s Next?

As the OSTP Report accurately points out, since 2013, there has been “a seismic shift in the cultural and technological contexts in which science is conducted and communicated.” The report identifies a shift away from subscription-based models of academic journals and a move toward models that are more open and identifies innovations and investments made by publishers as part of this shift. The “modernizing” of the 2013 OSTP Memorandum, almost 10 years later, represents an expanded challenge to federal agencies, but also to the larger community that supports the creation and dissemination of scholarly information and research created by these agencies. The scope and requirements of this new policy are far broader and more far-reaching than its precursor. With a 12-month embargo in place, some stakeholders may have taken a conservative approach, reluctant to make changes to long-standing, stable processes, and models.  The scope of the Nelson Memo establishes conditions that will be impossible to ignore, regardless of the role your organization plays in this ecosystem. The ripple effects of this policy will reach every corner of our industry, from funders, to authors, to publishers, to libraries, to researchers. Although many questions around implementation and impact remain, the time for sitting on the sidelines is now over.

1 Comment

  1. Anthony Watkinson

    Thanks Meg for this excellent summary
    Anthony Watkinson


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