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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. Oct 24, 2018 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. Oct 24, 2018 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). Oct 25, 2018 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, 2018 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. Oct 26, 2018 at 5:31

2 Answers 2

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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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Option 1: Refuse on principle.

Do seriously consider telling MathSciNet you'll gladly accept, if they were to drop their paywall and make their content publicly accessible; which they will likely refuse.

But if you do this, don't just leave it at that, but rather 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.

Option 2: Use the Standard Trick.

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."

Well this is where the standard trick comes in - which is also useful for journals and conferences which try to one-up you legally by requiring you sign over your rights: Just before sending them your review, put it up on your personal web-page or blog. 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 on-line 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.

Caveats:

  • 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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  • If the journal license agreement grants an exclusive license, your "standard trick" could be fraud, which is a crime. Mar 27, 2021 at 9:44
  • @AnonymousPhysicist: No, it would not be fraud. Now, it's true that MathSciNet could change the text so to make using the standard trick more problematic, but they haven't to my knowledge.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 27, 2021 at 10:20
  • Do you have a reason for claiming that granting a license you can't legally grant is not fraud? Mar 27, 2021 at 10:21
  • @AnonymousPhysicist: It doesn't work that way. If you claim something is fraudulent, the onus of establishing that claim is on you.
    – einpoklum
    Mar 27, 2021 at 10:27
  • I think I already did that, but I'll go again. Fraud is intentional deception. Intentionally granting a an exclusive license after already intentionally granting another license is intentional deception. Therefore it is fraud. Mar 28, 2021 at 0:52

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