What’s the Difference between Public Access and Open Access?

Being aware of the distinction between Public Access and Open Access will be more important for authors over the next several years. By the end of 2024, all Federal funding agencies will have to release their plans per The White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) Memo of 2022: Ensuring Free, Immediate, and Equitable Access to Federally Funded Research (OSTP 2022 Nelson Memo). The OSTP 2022 Nelson Memo directs federal agencies to update their public access policies regarding publications and scientific data no later than December 31, 2024 and to implement the updated policies no later than December 31, 2025.

The purpose of this blog is to clarify the requirements for complying with the publication component of the new policies per OSTP 2022 Nelson Memo.


  • All scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research should be made freely available and publicly accessible upon publication in agency-designated repositories.
  • All applicable publications will not be subject to any embargo period—meaning, the full-text (final, peer-reviewed manuscript version) should be made immediately available upon publication.

Public Access reflects the U.S. government’s commitment to let taxpayers read and access the results of federally funded research for free. Currently, most federal Public Access policies allow for an embargo period where the taxpayer cannot read the content until a certain time period after publication.

Open Access means that scholarly publications in journals are immediately accessible to readers worldwide, while authors retain their copyright and can specify how their work is reused. On publisher websites, Open Access often indicates that authors need to pay Article Processing Charges (APCs). In theory, publishers use APCs as a replacement for revenue from subscriptions and other licensing methods, such as text mining and commercial reprints.

The removal of an embargo period is one of the biggest changes from the 2022 OSTP Nelson Memo. Scholarly publications from federally funded research will be free to read immediately upon publication, and readers will not have to subscribe to journals to access these publications. Publishers are preparing for this change, and the language on their websites and in their license agreements may be confusing to authors. Over the past twenty years, Public Access and Open Access have been used interchangeably, but each are different, as shown in the table below. 

Key Distinctions: Public Access and Open Access

  Public Access Open Access
Model Public Access is a philosophy based on a mandate that readers should have access to federally funded research without barriers. Open Access is a publication business model.
Version of Work Final, peer-reviewed manuscript, also called a post print. Final published article, also called a version of record.
Publication Cost None, except for color fees if applicable. Article Processing Charge (APC) often applies.
Authors or funding agency pays the APC.
Copyright Author retains rights to the final, peer-reviewed manuscript version.  

Publisher retains rights to the final published version; may grant authors specific uses.
Author retains rights to the final published article with allowed uses noted on the Creative Commons license.  

Publisher has a license to publish the final published article.
Subscription Required for Reading Subscription required to read final published article.  

Users can read final, peer-reviewed manuscript version in a repository such as PubMed Central.
No subscription required to read final published article.  

Users can also read final published article in a repository such as PubMed Central.
Compliance with Funder Policies All federal agencies allow for the final, peer-reviewed version to be deposited.

Other funders may require final published article.
The final published article is not required by federal agencies to be deposited.  

Other funders may require final published article and offer support for the APC.
Embargo An embargo period usually applies. No embargo period.

Notes for Authors

  • Publishing your work as Open Access or under a specific license (i.e., Creative Commons) is not required.
  • The final, peer-reviewed manuscript is acceptable for compliance. Per FAQ released by the White House: “the requirement for sharing scholarly articles can be achieved . . . with the final peer-reviewed manuscript.”
  • No fees or Article Processing Charges are required for compliance.
  • The NIH Draft Public Access Policy in response to the 2022 OSTP Nelson Memo was issued on June 18, 2024.

Recommended Steps for Authors

  • Review the publisher website and understand your options before you submit your work for peer review. 
  • Contact your campus library if you have questions.
  • Keep an eye out for announcements from your funder, the libraries, and the WU Office of Research for public access policy updates.
  • Save your final, peer-reviewed manuscripts.

Becker Medical Library (School of Medicine Campus)
Amy Suiter or Cathy Sarli
Washington University Libraries (Danforth Campus)
Treasa Bane or Micah Zeller

Cathy Sarli is the senior librarian at Becker Medical Library. Treasa Bane is the copyright and scholarly communication librarian at the University Libraries. Amy Suiter is the research support librarian at Becker Medical Library. Micah Zeller is the head of scholarly communication and digital publishing services at the University Libraries. This post is also available here.