Fine print: My opinions and thoughts here are as always my own, and not necessarily those of the UNC Libraries.
I’ve wanted to write about the state of citation management for months now, and the idea kept rattling around in the back of my head. There’s so many options for managing research and citations out there, and I support a couple of them as part of my job. I frequently get asked which one is the best to go with. When Proquest announced a free version of Flow last week, I couldn’t avoid the topic any longer. I was originally going to do a compare/contrast review of the major options out there, but I find the Flow announcement so interesting that now I want to focus on it entirely.
Flow is Proquest’s successor to Refworks. Their official line is that Refworks isn’t going away, but I have to believe that Refworks’ lifespan is limited at this point. Why would Proquest want to develop two similar products in parallel forever? That has to be a huge resource drain. Refworks hasn’t seen a major new feature in years, and still doesn’t support collaborative folders, while Flow seems to be adding interesting options all the time.
Flow is a promising product, but not quite at 100% yet. The web import tool in particular has a long way to go before matching the utility of Zotero’s, but at the same time the Flow UI provides a pleasantly minimalist reading experience and fills in a number of feature gaps present in Refworks (especially collaboration and PDF archiving) while streamlining the clunky Refworks UI into something much more usable.
But I’m not here to just review Flow as a product. What confuses me is this new business model of providing a free account. Flow’s free accounts include 2gb of storage and collaboration with up to 10 people per project. If an institution subscribes to the paid version of Flow, their users get bumped up to 10gb of storage and unlimited collaboration. The institution itself gets access to analytics data and a handful of other administrative features.
The free Flow option is certainly superior to Mendeley’s free plan, which also includes 2gb of storage but limits collaboration to just 3 users per account. I find Mendeley’s pricing for extra collaboration slots insane (plans start at $49/month and go up sharply after that), but that’s an argument for another time. Zotero, admittedly my personal favorite citation management tool, by comparison offers a paltry 300mb of storage but allows collaboration with an unlimited number of users. My point is that the free Flow plan, with 2gb and 10 collaborators, is a pretty attractive option by comparison to the competition. I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of our users would be satisfied with those limitations.
Flow or Refworks access at an institutional level is not cheap. We’re facing our fifth or sixth consecutive year of hard budget choices, and while we have no plans to cancel our Refworks/Flow access I have to wonder at what point that becomes a viable option. Other than the obvious Big Data potential, I don’t know what Proquest’s endgame is by offering free Flow accounts. I hope they’ve thought through what the option looks like to their paying customers.