I have been asked to become a MathSciNet reviewer. I personally find the database very useful, but I am a bit held back by the fact the database is kept behind a paywall.

What is actually the licensing/copyright status of reviews submitted to MathSciNet? Do authors keep the copyright and are allowed to post copies on their websites (like the AMS license for its journals)? If so, does anyone actually do the latter?

The information is nowhere to be found on MathSciNet, and actually I have never seen anyone releasing their reviews somewhere else.

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    It's a good question. I am a reviewer and I found my original invitation letter. It says "We must ask each reviewer to grant all rights, including copyright, to the American Mathematical Society for each review written for us. A paper copy of form will be sent to you within in a few days; we ask that you sign it, thereby granting such rights to the AMS, and return it to us." I can't find my copy of this form, but I'm sure you could ask them to send you the form before you decide. – Nate Eldredge Oct 24 '18 at 16:54
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    In view of the journal policy, I would guess that AMS would probably not object to someone posting their own reviews, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone do this. – Nate Eldredge Oct 24 '18 at 16:55
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    Back in 2016, when I was invited to review, mathscinet did not grant me the right to post my reviews under an OA license on my site. Not sure if they still are following this policy (I declined to review for this very reason, so I don't get updates from them). – darij grinberg Oct 25 '18 at 5:37
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    This question on MathOverflow is very relevant, and puts the moral dilemma about writing for a paid subscription service in (what I think is) an interesting perspective. – Dan Romik Oct 26 '18 at 3:58
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    I see no dilemmas here, moral or otherwise. They want unpaid work from me, they don't get to pose constraints on what else I do with it. This is standard across most of the online content-generating community. – darij grinberg Oct 26 '18 at 5:31

Here are some answers to your questions: Yes, MathSciNet is behind a paywall. Yes, we ask reviewers to give us copyright to their reviews. Yes, you can post your reviews elsewhere. In return, for each review, we put US$12 on account at the AMS (up from the US$8 it was a few years ago) for the reviewer to use to buy AMS books, to pay (part of) your AMS membership, or to pay for other things (such as t-shirts). The credit is in the form of "AMS Points".

Why the copyright? This helps us to copyright the whole database. Copyrighting a database is rather different from copyrighting a journal or a conference proceedings volume.

Can you post the reviews? The reviewer letter says, "You may post your reviews on your website, circulate them to colleagues, distribute copies to your students, and make other customary scholarly uses. You may even include your reviews in journals, books, and databases in the particular field(s) of mathematics to which they relate, provided that first publication credit is given to the AMS."

Why the paywall? Creating and maintaining MathSciNet is expensive. It costs millions of dollars per year to run it. The subscription model allows us to cover the costs. It would take a lot of donations or ads to make up for that.

Why so expensive? We work hard to make sure that we get things right. In order to do this, Mathematical Reviews has a staff of 80 people. That includes 18 PhD mathematicians who serve as editors. We also have people with advanced library degrees and experience that ensure that our bibliographic data is complete and correct. We have cataloguers who ensure that we correctly identify authors. We have copy editors who help out with the reviews and check references. We have a whole department who work with the reviewers (and their reviews). We have an IT department.

I hope this is helpful. If not, post a comment!

Edward Dunne
Executive Editor
Mathematical Reviews

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    Why make the reviewer transfer copyright and not instead grant MR a license to print the review? A license is all that is legally needed to my knowledge. – Ben Trettel Oct 30 '18 at 20:15
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    I'm sure that if you had a voluntary "Support MathSciNet" link, and made it free, and encouraged AMS members to support it a bit more, you would cover the costs - and increase readership. Undergraduate math students who are strapped for cash (or in poorer countries) should not be denied access because of the considerations you mentioned. – einpoklum Oct 30 '18 at 21:16
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    @einpoklum Undergraduate math students will usually have access through their university, just like graduate students will (at least if this is something they need, which is not the case for most undergraduates). – Tobias Kildetoft Oct 31 '18 at 6:14
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    @einpoklum Are you serious? Do you believe that? In 2013, Wikipedia cost $30 million to run. And even with their enormous viewership, they have to run yearly funding campaigns and barely scrape by. The audience of MathSciNet is much, much smaller. Just do the math. You have definitely crossed the line between optimism and naivety. – user9646 Oct 31 '18 at 10:50
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    @einpoklum: As a nonprofit organization, AMS publishes annual financial reports. You can see there that they reported spending USD 8,189,326 on Mathematical Reviews in 2016. So, not 30 million, but on the same order of magnitude. – Nate Eldredge Nov 29 '18 at 14:25

First - do consider refusing on principle. But if you do that, don't just refuse, but engage with AMS policy-makers to at least make the case for opening up MathSciNet; and also make this known to your colleagues and encourage them to do the same. I'm not saying you must do so.

Now let's assume you're willing to contribute, but don't want at least your review to be hidden off from the world. So, as @NateEldredge suggests in a comment - AMS says they "must ask each reviewer to grant all rights etc. etc." The first; no, scratch that, the second thing to do is to write them back, saying "You must? Why? I agree to write a review, but I only want to grant you enough rights for it to be published by you, not more than that" See what they say and what excuse they come up with.

The first thing to do is the standard trick which is also useful for journals and conferences who try to one-up you legally by requiring you sign over your rights: "Publish" the review on your personal web-page, or blog, just before sending it over to them. Use a relevant license such as Creative Commons, GFDL or others. Once you've done so - even if you sign away your rights, you can re-acquire them from the published version... if you want to be air-tight legally safe a bit more, make sure at least one person you can count on has downloaded a copy, and thus has the rights - you can then argue that he gave you rights again after you've signed yours away.


  • I have not had any interaction with MathSciNet, this is general advice.
  • IANAL; and while I have some legal experience, that is always country-specific.
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