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How could a free (i.e. free content) alternative for MathSciNet and Zentralblatt be created?


What can be done (based on answers below)

  • One thing that can be really useful and doable is to create (and maintain) a database of articles (and maybe abstracts), where you can find all the articles that were referring to a given one.

  • Once it is done we can add lists of errors --- it will add something new and valuable for the project (but this will take a while).

  • The above two things might be already enough for practical purpose. It will be even better if it will attract enough reviewers to the project.

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It may also be useful to think about ways to encourage MathSciNet to allow wider access to those without institutional accounts, and to allow access to their underlying dataset. – Scott Morrison Feb 1 '10 at 5:07
The AMS already has a discount program for institutions in developing countries, and is willing to consider other requests for discounts in "exceptional cases". See the bottom of – Bjorn Poonen Feb 1 '10 at 5:23
@Scott, I think that is the way it works --- you start an alternative project and it makes MathSciNet/Zentralblatt to be better :) – Anton Petrunin Feb 1 '10 at 16:36
It is frustrating when you are travelling, on vacation etc., and you are unable to access mathscinet. – Anweshi Feb 1 '10 at 19:14
@Anweshi: use a vpn or an ssh tunnel through your university account. – Loop Space Feb 1 '10 at 22:03

14 Answers 14

Everyone I know in the AMS would like to make MR/MathSci free, but the problem is that it costs millions of dollars to produce and maintain (it requires a large staff in Ann Arbor and elsewhere, including many mathematicians), and no one has managed to find any other way to pay for it*. This is certainly something the mathematicians in the AMS are aware of and have thought about. The AMS attempts to make it as widely available as possible given the constraint that it has to be paid for. As far as I know, the revenue from MR/MathSci only pays to support it, not any of the AMS's other activities [not so; see below.]

Posters don't seem to realize the huge effort that goes into maintaining a project like this (for example, every article has to be assigned to a reviewer, and every review has to edited). Certainly, I don't believe a free alternative would be able to come anywhere near the quality MathSci maintains, so my answer is no, a free alternative to MR/MathSci is not possible.

Perhaps free supplements to MathSci could be useful, but anything that drew potential reviewers away from MR/MathSci would harm, not help, what is an extremely valuable resource.

*Of course, the intelligent thing would be for the funding agencies in the wealthy countries (US,EU,Japan,...) to pay for MR/MathSci directly, so that it could be distributed freely, but getting them to do this seems to be hopeless.

Added: In response to Anton Petrunin's comment, here are some numbers. The AMS employs 15 mathematical editors (i.e., mathematicians) and a total staff of over 70 at Mathematical Reviews (in Ann Arbor). The total direct cost of producing MR/MathSci in 2008 was 6,569,000USD. However, contrary to what I thought, the AMS does use the revenue from MR/MathSci and its other publications to support a large part of its other activities (Member and professional services, general and administrative expenses). In 2008, about 24% of total publication revenue was used in this way. See 2008 report and ad.

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I second Jim's comment that people are underestimating the enormous amount of effort that goes into producing MathSciNet. The mathematics literature grows at an incredible rate; the bibliographic effort involved in keeping track of it alone is incredible; the actual production of reviews even more so. – Emerton Feb 4 '10 at 1:46
Thirded. I've never had to write a MR, but I know of at least one where the reviewer went to more trouble than the referee in hunting down some minor but "positive-measure" slips. I do think it's not just enough for people to stick articles somewhere; there is a continuing reason for having official journals and official reviews – Yemon Choi Feb 4 '10 at 2:31
It seems like you know numbers. Could you tell what is "large staff in Ann Arbor and elsewhere" and how much AMS gets from MathSciNet? (I'm curious --- no sarcasm) – Anton Petrunin Feb 5 '10 at 3:02
In any case it would be fare to give a free access for the reviewers... – Anton Petrunin Feb 11 '10 at 4:37
While I am not against the idea of charging something, I couldn't pay $2000/year for an individual subscription if I wanted to. This is very biased against non institutionalized mathematicians but I guess so is everything else in this industry. – Daniel Parry Jun 22 '14 at 23:03

This was discussed a little on the algebraic topology list last autumn, you can look up the archives to see what was said.

Technologically, this is easy. The problems come in when you think beyond that.

  1. How would such a site start? Initially, there would be very few reviews so no one would have a reason to visit the site (the probability of the paper wanted being reviewed being almost nil). For obvious reasons, importing an initial dataset from MathSciNet or Zentralblatt is extremely unlikely. If no-one visits, no-one's going to contribute.

  2. How would such a site maintain itself? The big problem with reviews is that the person writing the review gets almost no gain from it but (to do it properly) has to put in a fair amount of effort (which is why so many reviews on MathSciNet and Zentralblatt are so appalling, just copying out the summary of the paper, and why the few gems are so greatly appreciated). That's a huge imbalance. MathSciNet sorts this out by awarding "points" to reviewers ("And points mean prizes!"). What would a free alternative offer?

  3. How would such a site maintain its standards? Here, one gets into extremely murky waters. One idea suggested on the alg-top list was to use something like the stackoverflow model, but as this is going to involve opinions it could be extremely dangerous. Often, the most useful information in a review is a reason not to read a given paper - if you're looking at the review, you are probably already inclined to read it - and some of the classic reviews are those that rip apart a paper. Who's going to write those on an open system?

There are other ways of essentially filling the same role as reviews. You read a review to find out whether or not it's worth reading a paper. But the main problem comes before that, which papers should I read? Once I've found that, then I use the review more to figure out whether or not I should bother finding the paper in my library or not. If the paper is freely available, it's almost as quick to read the paper itself as to read the review (but I often read the review first because I find the paper via MathSciNet so the review is there anyway). So I would much prefer something to speed up finding papers. A better system of linking papers together: "If you enjoyed this paper, you might also enjoy ..." sort of thing.

So a really useful thing to do would be to have a "related papers" section linked to a given paper. This could be started by the author - who would have every incentive to do so (since it increases the likelihood that their paper is understood) and who would find it very easy to do (since they would have such a list of papers lying on their desk - it's all the articles, books, and so forth that they read when writing the paper in the first place). Basically, it's an expanded and commented reference list, and one which can be added to by others (so that if reading a paper, you find some other paper very useful which the original author didn't know about, or knew so well they didn't think to mention it, then you can add it).

Added later in response to some of the comments and the changes in the question.

First, a minor point. MathSciNet and the arXiv already have the capability to link articles together. If you look at a typical MathSciNet review then you'll see at the top right corner a box linking to where the article was cited, either in articles or reviews. I've found this an invaluable tool and I hope that the AMS will extend it historically (the links are only to recent articles where this data could be found fairly automatically). The arXiv has experimental support for full text search, so you can search for the arXiv identifier of one of your articles and find all those that cite it, for example.

Now on to my major point. "Someone should set up a site that ...". Who's to say that this has to be centralised? After the discussions on the alg-top list and the subsequent discussions on the rForum, I've come to the conclusion that having a central system isn't the best idea. All that is really needed is a central place from which all other places can be reached. And that already exists. It's called the arXiv. The arXiv accepts trackbacks (subject to some approval) so when you blog about a paper, send a trackback to the arXiv and then you should get linked to from the page on the paper.

Of course, this only works for articles that are on the arXiv. So then lobby the AMS to accept trackbacks as well (they can bung their standard "the AMS has no responsibility for non-AMS sites" disclaimer on). The basic information in MathSciNet is freely available, these trackbacks can easily be added to those.

In the meantime, instead of waiting for someone to come along with some central setup (which probably won't be quite what you personally were thinking of) simply put your notes online. Here's the message from the front page of the nLab:

We all make notes as we read papers, read books and doodle on pads of paper. The nLab is somewhere to put all those notes, and, incidentally, to make them available to others. Others might read them and add or polish them. But even if they don’t, it is still easier to link from them to other notes that you’ve made.

On the nLab you will find information about papers that people have found useful. You can search for a particular paper to see if anyone's commented on it, use it, or cited it. Some papers/books have their own pages. Here's one example and here's another

The basic point is that you can do this yourselves, now, without needing someone else to say "Here's the way to do it". You benefit right now without doing loads of extra work, and everyone else benefits incidentally as a result. Everyone wins. It doesn't have to be the nLab, you can use whatever software you like. Just put it online. Somewhere. Anywhere. Stick the arXiv/MR identifier somewhere prominent and the search engines will pick it up.

Then the rest of us will get into the habit of searching on the internet for articles of articles and find your comments.

(Incidentally, along with this, make sure that you put your own articles on your webpages. Every journal that I've ever encountered allows you to do this and this is really a Must-Do for academics. Even if you just put a scan of older papers, it's invaluable for those whose libraries don't carry subscriptions to every single journal under the sun (and those that have no library at all). There is No Excuse for not doing this, especially given that photocopiers now can easily scan straight to PDF.)

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I was under the impression that most of the money you pay for mathskynet (ha!) is to pay for reviewers. – Harry Gindi Feb 1 '10 at 11:43
It isn't quite stated explicitly, but I infer from that writing a review gets you points, not cash. Continuing the logic, the money for MathSciNet goes into the general AMS pot for supporting the AMS and it's projects. – Loop Space Feb 1 '10 at 11:53
You don't get money, only 8 points per review. But you can redeem these points (1 point=1USD) to buy AMS books. – Chandan Singh Dalawat Feb 1 '10 at 13:20
@David: yes, that was badly phrased. What I meant to convey was the fact that at the moment, the AMS sits between author and reviewer and can mediate in case of a dispute. In an "open source" system, who's going to play mediator? @Anton: the problem is that whatever the new system is, it needs to offer something immediately that is not currently offered by MathSciNet+arXiv+whatever-else-we've-already-got. Of course, if one builds a good link-system then on top of that one could build a review/errata system. The key is to find the feature that will draw people straight away. – Loop Space Feb 1 '10 at 15:01
A better system of linking papers together: "If you enjoyed this paper, you might also enjoy ..." sort of thing. By the way, Google Scholar has essentially implemented this feature. Just click on the "Related Articles" link. – Ben Webster Feb 2 '10 at 16:14

In my view, the non-freeness of MathSciNet is a feature, not a bug. The MathSciNet fee is essentially a tax on universities by the AMS; when you pay for MathSciNet, you're actually paying for everything else the AMS does: the employment services (without the AMS, there would be no MathJobs!), the lobbying, the conferences, the public awareness. It's not clear to me that the other things that libraries would do with that money would bring as much benefit to the mathematical community as a whole.

Of course, there is a certain redistributivity involved, in that most AMS money stays in the US, and lots of foreign schools subscribe to MathSciNet, but it is worth pointing out that AMS does do discounts for institutions of poorer countries (as Bjorn noted), and plenty of US universities subscribe to Zentralblatt.

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I think AMS does a lot of good things for all the world (not only for the States). Still I want a free licence for my reviews... – Anton Petrunin Feb 2 '10 at 19:53
MathJobs has its own fee. – Kevin O'Bryant Jan 5 '11 at 21:15
On the other hand, I was just in departmental meeting where the assertion "MathJobs pays for itself 20 times over just in savings on postage" was made (and not disputed). It may well be that MathJobs is now profitable, but certainly we all benefited from having a mathematics society with deep enough pockets to roll it out. – Ben Webster Jan 5 '11 at 23:24
Also, that was just supposed to be one example. – Ben Webster Jan 5 '11 at 23:24

Rather than creating a "free alternative for MathSciNet", it seems more useful to do what MathSciNet does not, e.g. make a site that maintains lists of errors in published papers.

I personally think MathSciNet is a great product, very much worthy of support, and I do not get the argument "since MathSciNet is not freely available, one should not support it". Just stop using MathSciNet for a few months and see how it feels. Finally, posting your reviews on your own homepage will make them publicly available; I see no problem here as well.

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It's slippery terrain but some way of making the knowledge of errors in papers known, that's reliable and doesn't cause conflict, that would be a useful resource. I don't know what it's like in other fields but topology certainly has its share of papers that should be marked. Papers that are clearly wrong are mostly well-known but it would be nice to have a website where the gray areas could be mapped-out by people, as in a wiki where people help each other through proofs or point out flaws, corrections, etc. – Ryan Budney Feb 1 '10 at 18:33
Here's a website dedicated to discussions of published papers: – user3035 Feb 1 '10 at 18:39
@Anton, I think most people stopped reviewing for MathSciNet due to other public service commitments such as refereeing, taking part in panels, wiki editing, writing recommendation letters. – Igor Belegradek Feb 1 '10 at 19:01
I agree with Igor, most of the people that I know, if they've stoped writing reviews the reason is it's a lot of effort for little reward. I like it as it gives me a reason to read papers I would otherwise at most skim over. – Ryan Budney Feb 1 '10 at 19:23
@Anton, most good things in life aren't free in the sense that somebody pays, e.g. Google is free because lots of businesses chip in; MathSciNet is free for users in most places where math is done. On the other hand, after someone donates to Wikipedia, for that person wiki is not free anymore. So to answer your question, all things being equal I would opt for a free version of anything but I think this is not how the world works. – Igor Belegradek Feb 2 '10 at 3:55

The answer to the question (if one interprets "free" in the strongest sense) is obviously NO: there are hidden costs associated to almost any such system. For example, the arxiv is far from cheap to run, and it may need to switch to a new funding model. See

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What are funding agencies for ? – Chandan Singh Dalawat Feb 1 '10 at 4:49
To be fair (a) arXiv is free to the user because it's useful enough such that someone (i.e. Cornell) sponsored it, so if you make something similarly useful, there's a chance some university will also help run it, and (b) arXiv's bandwidth requirements are far greater than a review site would be. – Jason Polak Feb 1 '10 at 5:00
Remember MathSciNet is run by a relatively benign organisation, the American Mathematical Society. While I agree that it would be great to get their metadata database into the public domain, there are some significant costs even to a professional society. – Scott Morrison Feb 1 '10 at 5:06
Re: Polak's comments, the arXiv was filling a void before Cornell stepped in. MathSciNet has its niche covered. So there's little incentive for an alternative. IMO it's a huge an healthy resource, and the fact that it isn't free is a tiny issue that isn't even on my radar. – Ryan Budney Feb 1 '10 at 5:11
"Associated with or attached to", just for the record. – Harry Gindi Feb 1 '10 at 11:40

I stopped to write reviews for MathSciNet because I think such information should be completely free.

You are a kindred spirit : so did I. I no longer write for Zentralblatt either. Why should I review papers which are not freely available to me, or to almost everyone ?

It did occur to me to review papers from the arXiv that I like, but there is no place really where these reviews could appear. If someone starts a substitute for MathSciNet or the Zentralblatt, I would be willing to contribute in my small way.

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There are some sites that review the arXiv papers but they are not that popular (yet?), specifically for mathematics one has e.g. – mathphysicist Feb 1 '10 at 10:43
I meant a site which has editors and reviewers drawn from professional mathematicians. – Chandan Singh Dalawat Feb 1 '10 at 12:38
I value very much MR and I think think your opinion is counter-productive. Nothing is actually free, someone has to pay for it. In this case, relying on volunteer work is not enough, there are other kinds of costs involved. – Claudio Gorodski Aug 24 '12 at 18:00

There's not much of a theoretical difficulty, is there? You just need to scrape titles and abstracts from whatever journals' websites that you choose to include -- this seems like something a reasonably net-savvy programmer could put together rather quickly (heck, you could probably write a quick GreaseMonkey script to do most of this). Then you just need a user-base of "open-source reviewers," a catchy domain name and some web-hosting, and you're good to go.

If you're talking about the added access to articles through MathSciNet, then I think you're out of luck for the immediate future -- support the Arxiv and free online journals and hope for the best.

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I don't understand what you mean by "added access to articles through MathSciNet". I don't believe you can access any article through MathSciNet that you don't already have the necessary subscription for. – Mark Meckes Feb 1 '10 at 14:13
If you plan to scrape titles and abstracts, you need not only a programmer, but also a good team of lawyers. I am afraid the big publishing houses will sue the heck out of you as soon as your site has some success. – Federico Poloni Jan 26 '12 at 14:24
Scraping titles and abstracts is no problem, the web site doing that already exists! It is called Google. The "user-base of open-source reviewers" may be a bit trickier. Why should I spend my time reviewing for some upstart web site which lacks the tradition and reputation of the established review journals? – Michael Renardy Jun 17 '13 at 7:02

I've been thinking about this and similar issues myself lately.

There have been two aspects that were raised in this discussion and I would like to address both. First, the website for reviewing papers, noting errors in papers etc. A few months back Scott Morrison, Jessee Johnson and myself were chatting and decided to open such a website. The result, a wiki, is and it has very few submission and even fewer users...I am the main user and I use it as a sketch pad for scribbling my notes about papers that I read. The current idea for is that it will be a place to discuss papers: the difficulties therein, the mistakes, the missing references, a summary that isn't just what the authors want it to be, the nice parts, the parts that are an obvious copy from a different get the point.

So far it has failed to attract people because it is small, and vice versa. I have recently discovered another, slightly larger website that has a similar goal (but it leans more towards the humanities), and was thinking about integrating the two websites. This has yet to happen, and I'm not sure it will. I think that some sort of institutional backing is very important so that the people who donate their time and effort to writing in the site feel that whatever they write will be available to them later if they want. Perhaps this can be solved technically by providing an easy way to email a review page or a set of pages to yourself or something like that.

If you are interested in please drop me a note.

The second thing that was mentioned in this discussion is the possibility of finding papers that are interesting to you. I was just thinking about how such a program would be a fantastic time saver. Imagine having a program/webiste know the people and papers that interest you and by looking at the arxiv and other various (free or locked) sources of titles/abstracts/authors/fulltext could alert you whenever a paper that you "should" read comes up. This could happen because the paper is new, or because your interests have shifted/expanded (the program should find this out by trivial actions on your part such as downloading a new paper to your computer, or adding a contact to your email program, or by starting to write a new paper yourself, and not by explicit actions such as you creating a filter or somesuch).

If such a program exists, I'd love to hear about it. And if someone wants to write it, I would applaude them, and possibly help too!

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One has to start with database and there is nothing like this in – Anton Petrunin Feb 1 '10 at 23:54
Currently I have implemented some of the database functionality using the wiki Categories. It is ad hoc but it allows for adding structured information to a paper. However, I see you point and could look at implementing it. – Yossi Farjoun Feb 2 '10 at 7:15
media wiki has an extension called SemanticForms. For example uses it. What would you think of wikadimic if it had this extension? Of course one could then add scripts that fill the database with data from the various eprint servers and regular journals... – Yossi Farjoun Feb 2 '10 at 8:22
There are some obvious problems with this project, I would like to discuss it but not here. Can you send me an e-mail? – Anton Petrunin Feb 3 '10 at 14:05

I discussed similar ideas with Peter Storm and Tamar Ziegler about a year ago. It is not that hard to build an abuse safe system - everything gets some score:

Any review has two scores:

  • The review reputation, dependent on votes from other reviewers, and the reviewer reputation and the score it assigns to a paper.
  • The reviewed paper score.

Reviewers have scores which are a function of the scores of reviews they write, and the papers they write.

Papers have scores, which are a function of the reputation and score of the reviews they get (yes, a paper may have several reviews).

This system assures that important papers will be reviewed very fast and very thoroughly. The downsides we saw are:

  • As Peter put it: it would be an excellent system for Vulcans, but mere humans may get hurt.

  • bootstrapping

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It seems an alternative has just been created : it is called the Selected Papers Network, and Tim Gowers has blogged about it here.

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I don't think this is intended to have the same functionality that MathSciNet currently has. Often it isn't the reviews themselves that have proved useful in short-term searching, but being able to crawl up and down the citation tree. – Yemon Choi Jun 17 '13 at 6:07
Not for me --- I am not going to create Google+ account. – Anton Petrunin Jun 17 '13 at 12:49

It seems to me, that one thing that can be really useful and doable is at least to create a database of articles, where you can find all the article that were reffering to a given one. This is one of the main skills of MathSciNet.

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Yes it would be already useful --- the question is how to make it. (The reviews are getting less and less important.) – Anton Petrunin Feb 1 '10 at 21:12

I could be mistaken, but the way I understand it many people on MO are voting members of AMS, and combined together could ask it to change MathSciNet's current policy.

However, as others pointed out, MathSciNet works as a funding channel for AMS which would have to be either replaced by some other method of funding or leave AMS with less funds overall. A responsible proposal for making MathSciNet free would also somehow address the above alternative.

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One alternative would be to make it free for "independent users" but fee-based for universities and other institutions around the world. One could in worst case maintain a large database of IP addresses to sieve out universities and (e.g.) companies from "independent users".

This is a trust based system and, of course, there would be scammers but I think most universities are honest and would pay the license fee. But then again, what stops ScamA Uni., ScamB Uni. and ScamC uni. from creating a VPN tunnel, splitting the fee and getting by the system that is used right now?

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It seems strange that nobody has mentioned (as far as I see) that Zentralblatt allows for restricted search for free, meaning that you only get the first three results out of the whole matching items. Concretely, if you know "enough" about the paper you are looking for, you are pretty sure to pin it down uniquely, and access the review. This is basically the only reason why I keep on writing reviews for Zentralblatt – because I think this is a great tool.

As for MathSciNet I second some answers above saying that not being free is a feature, not a bug. I write reviews and consider it part of my job as mathematician and I am happy with the constant friendly and extremely professional contact I have with MR people each time I have a problem – it would not be equally easy to provide professional editing only relying upon mathematicians. Moreover, as it seems that one of the issues motivating this question was about not being able to access MathSciNet from outside an academic Institution, an "AMS Mobile" service has been introduced some six months ago allowing you to install some cookie on your Notebook/Tablet/Mobile allowing you to access MathSciNet (and many AMS Journals) from everywhere in the world.

It seems to me that the discussion is also somehow turning into a political debate as whether these tools (and someone may wish to include even publications) should or not be free. It seems to me that the main arguments for this is: since the job of mathematicians has already been paid by University, they should not paid for it twice. I personally find it a non-argument, because

  1. One can simply say that the cost for University is not only paying employees (like researchers) but also for "machineries" which in our world does not mean proton synchrotron boosters or tons of chemical products (which nobody asks chemical industries to give to Universities for free) but could mean MR
  2. The day that MathSciNet became free, it means it would be paid by someone without it being noticed by others – namely, US citizens would have to pay for it and in the rest of the world it would be really free. So, in this case, non-US University would pay for the job zero-times, not twice...
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Filippo, "free" means "free content", it is not exactly about "free access". – Anton Petrunin Jun 17 '13 at 12:37

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