Karen Lin, Senior Photographer

In his office, Sten Vermund clicked open a journal paper on the Hepatitis C Vaccine. 

Because Vermund, a public health professor, teaches at Yale, he immediately gained access to the full article.

“If you’re at Sacred Heart, or if you’re at the University of Zambia, or if I’m just at home not logged on through Yale, I will get a firewall,” Vermund told the News. “And then it will say ‘If you wish to buy this article, you can pay us fifty dollars.’”

Vermund supports open access, a set of principles where researchers can share their findings immediately and freely with the public. Currently, it costs authors $12,290 to publish an open-access paper in Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals. The other route to publication is cost-free for the researcher, but comes at the expense of visibility: the paper remains paywalled, and only Nature subscribers and paying readers can view it.

However, under an August 2022 White House memorandum, dubbed the “Nelson memo,” all federally-funded research will be made publicly available “without an embargo on their free and public release.” Under this motion — which will go into effect in December 2024 — students, researchers and the general public will have free and immediate access to the $171 billion dollars worth of publications and data that the U.S. government funds annually. 

“Part of the drive [for open access] is a vision for an open science future … in which all over the world, we have access to all the research that’s happening, all the scientific tools we need, and they are an equitable resource for everyone,” Eseohe Arhebamen-Yamasaki, the U.S. Head of Communications at Springer Nature Publishing Group, said in a press briefing.

According to Barbara Rockenbach, the Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian at Yale, there have long been equity issues with the “pay-to-play” system of academic publishing, for both researchers and readers. For authors who can’t afford the fee, their paywalled articles receive 84 percent fewer downloads and 30 percent fewer citations than open-access articles. For readers, only those from well-resourced institutions can read and access research in the first place, with universities and government agencies footing tens of billions of dollars in combined subscription fees annually. 

In 2013, the White House published a memo mandating that papers funded by agencies making over $100 million in grants appear open-access. But the Nelson memo dramatically expanded its reach. Now, all federally funded publications — including humanities and social science articles — and datasets must be freely available, and research journals are no longer granted a 12-month embargo period on articles before releasing them to the public.

In a joint statement to the News, Rockenbach and Yale library representatives Daniel Dollar, Sandra Aya Enimil and Lindsay Barnett emphasized their strong support for the Nelson memo’s goal to “equalize the scholarly publishing playing field.” They outlined the library’s commitment to free scholarship and to defending researchers’ rights at Yale and other institutions. 

“In essence, the Nelson Memo has made [Yale Library’s] long-standing value of barrier-free access to information a policy that will require compliance,” Rockenbach told the News. “Our values backed by policy will help us achieve a more open and equitable system of research more quickly.”

In response to calls for open access, commercial publishers have advocated for a shift to “transformative agreements” over subscription systems. Under this model, university libraries would negotiate and pay a transformative agreement — a consolidated contract that includes both article-processing fees and subscription fees — depending on each university’s financial abilities. Individual researchers would be free to publish, at no personal cost, in journals of their choice. 

In a pilot study conducted by Springer Nature, open access articles published under a transformative agreement at the University of California were downloaded over 3.6 million times worldwide — a 120 percent increase from the previous year.

“And that’s the sign there that people desire this research, people want this information to be made public,” Arhebamen-Yamasaki said. 

This is especially valuable for early-stage academics with little funding, who can’t always reach the readership they want. These issues are compounded for women and Black scientists, who, on average, receive fewer grants from the National Institutes of Health. According to Vermund, these individuals often have to publish their articles behind “fiscal firewalls” — or, more dangerously, in illegitimate journals, which falsely advertise open access publication for a cheaper price.

The University has entered into open-access agreements with nonprofits, university presses and scholarly organizations. In their statement to the News, the University librarians expressed their caution to ensure all partner groups be “aligned with our goals of building a cost-effective and globally equitable ecosystem.” Projecting increased costs from greater publishing activity, Yale librarians reiterated their hope that publishing policies remain accessible for less-funded universities, as well as individuals without institutional affiliations.

In a March letter to Office of Science and Technology Policy, co-signed by Rockenbach and representatives from all 13 Ivy Plus universities, the authors emphasized that their goal of an open-access system does not simply shift the financial burden from under-resourced authors to underresourced institutions.

“Equitable opportunity to contribute to scholarly literature is as important for the integrity and usefulness of scholarship globally as is the open accessibility to read,” they wrote. “As representatives of some of the most well-resourced libraries in the country, we are committed to using our resources to promote public access to all research, not just the research our scholars produce.”

They hope future agreements can protect cost sustainability, authors’ copyright, and long-term open access for all individuals.

Beyond the Nelson memo’s local and national consequences, Vermund reminded the News of the global communities also at stake. Many research journals from the Global South still cannot clear their articles for open access, since restricted funding prevents them from meeting national criteria. Vermund pointed to the importance of global partnerships like Hinari, which allows low- and middle-income countries to read and access health literature. Most recently, Springer Nature and the CAPES foundation announced plans in December for the first transformative agreement for both in Brazil. 

The White House memorandum was authored by Dr. Alondra Nelson.

Samantha Liu covers Community Health & Policy for the SciTech desk and serves as co-chair for the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee. As a Global Health Scholar, she studies English and Molecular Biology.