Skip to Main Content

Have you ever needed to read a research paper, only to find it was locked behind a paywall? Your next step was likely to search on Sci-Hub, an illegal repository created by Kazakh graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan, that provides free access to millions of research papers.

While Sci-Hub is controversial, its widespread use points to a crucial question: Shouldn’t taxpayer-funded research be freely and immediately accessible to the public? We’re finally close to achieving this vision — so long as Congress doesn’t stand in the way.


Every year, Americans invest hundreds of billions in federal research. For instance, in 2022, the U.S. government’s research and development budget was $171 billion. Despite that, Americans — students, researchers, educators, and the public at large — don’t have free access to the outputs they fund. U.S. colleges and governments spend tens of billions on journal subscriptions to access published research funded by taxpayer money in the first place.

The multibillion scholarly publishing industry is monopolized by a few giant publishers such as Elsevier, Springer Nature, Taylor and Francis, and SAGE. It ranks between the music and film industries in global revenues, with profit margins of about 40%, higher than Google, Amazon, and Apple. These vast businesses prioritize colossal profits over the needs of the public and researchers.

Over the past decade, the U.S. government has intervened to democratize scholarly knowledge generated with public funds. In February 2013, the Obama administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued the Holdren memo. The Holdren memo directs federal agencies to increase public access to the research funded by the federal government by leveraging national repositories for long-term public access and data preservation. The memo, however, relied upon a 12-month post-publication embargo employed in subscription-based journals in making research accessible, therefore limiting the pace of scientific findings and data sharing.


In August 2022, almost a decade later, the Biden administration’s OSTP released the Nelson memo. This transformative memo is a game changer in open-access scholarly publishing. The memo directs federal agencies to ensure that all American taxpayers have immediate and free access to U.S. research funded by the federal government, effective 2027. Since a single scholarly article costs an average of $30-50 to read for those not affiliated with an institution that has purchased a subscription, the Nelson memo places equity at its core. The Nelson memo leads with open science and sets a precedent for accelerated data sharing by arguing its powerful impact during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In implementing the Nelson memo, for example, the National Institutes of Health has issued changes it will make to its Public Access Policy. NIH will make the research findings freely accessible through PMC, the National Library of Medicine publication archive, at the time of manuscript acceptance by the journal without embargo and will ensure retention rights with authors. Updated NIH Public Access Policy will allow NIH-funded investigators to charge publication fees, or article processing charges (APCs), to NIH grants. NIH will also monitor journal publication fees and policies to ensure they stay reasonable for equitable publication opportunities and empower taxpayers rather than publishers. This is important: multiple reports show that mean publication charges for open access articles have increased by 50% between 2010 and 2019 and continue to rise for major publishers. Without efforts to control costs like those mentioned by NIH, studies indicate and project that APC-based business models outperform profits from subscription-based models, ultimately costing taxpayers more.

But it’s not clear that Congress will fully support and implement the Nelson memo in making research freely accessible to all Americans. In July 2023, the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science released a bill containing Section 552, which prohibits federal resources from implementing the Nelson memo. The Republican majority House is already pushing for steep budget cuts across most appropriations spending bills, thus colliding with the democratic Senate. With no agreed funding for the new fiscal year starting Oct. 1, the U.S. government is heading toward a shutdown. If and when Congress passes a stopgap funding measure to keep the government running until an agreement is reached, it must remove Section 552 from the bill.

The opposition to the Nelson memo is a threat to democracy of knowledge. Because limiting access to scientific literature inhibits participation in education and research, Section 552 is a calculated attack on the academic inclusion of marginalized identities, consistent with other discriminatory practices, bills, and laws implemented in the country. If Congress wants to empower American taxpayers and millions of students and researchers who lead American science, it must avoid political obstructions to free and immediate access to published research funded with taxpayer money. We join SPARC, a nonprofit leader in open and equitable knowledge sharing, in urging all U.S. taxpayers to intervene by contacting Congress to remove Section 552.

Mayank Chugh, Ph.D., is a postdoc in the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. He is an early career advisor at eLife and former chair of the Harvard Medical Postdoc Association. Jessica Polka, Ph.D., serves as executive director of ASAPbio, a researcher-driven nonprofit organization working to promote innovation and transparency in life sciences publishing.

Exciting news! STAT has moved its comment section to our subscriber-only app, STAT+ Connect. Subscribe to STAT+ today to join the conversation or join us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Threads. Let's stay connected!

To submit a correction request, please visit our Contact Us page.