in Libraries/Info Sci, Ramblings, Reviews

Proquest Flow now offers free accounts. Why?

Flow logoFine 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.

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  1. Very helpful comparison. I’m noticing that the differences between these tools mostly lie in the plans/pricing they provide. In terms of features though, it seems they do pretty much the same thing as their competitors. I’ve been using Mendeley for some time now, and tried out Flow today, and although Flow has a cleaner interface, it’s basically the same thing as Mendelay. As helpful as these tools are, I’m kinda waiting for someone to do something really new, innovative, and helpful, instead of replicating the same features over and over.

  2. I don’t know but I’m guessing that Flow allows Proquest to seriously horizontally integrate with other parts of their suite of products – Summon 2.0 now has free Flow built in (or full Flow if you have an institutional subscription) – it even looks like Summon 2.0 (perhaps it’s written in angular.js too?)

    Maybe their business model is like Apple’s in the 80s – supply schools with cheap macs and hope the habit sticks with the kids as they grow up. Integrate Flow with Summon and get 400+ universities worth of graduates who want what they know as they move into the work force?

    From my perspective library tech world is coalescing around 4 competitors: OCLC, Proquest, Ex Libris and Ebsco.

    Each has it’s unique core expertise and has been on a long trajectory of moving into each others’ areas by acquiring partners and/or swallowing other players, and expanding into areas where none had a product (personal bibliographic software being a case in point as is digital asset management).

    Again guessing, each of their long term plans includes being able provide everything in the library management/research management space to an institution because there is little doubt as budgets and staff numbers shrink externally hosted integrated services are attractive, at least at first glance.

    The back up plan of course is to build systems with APIs or to open standards so bits of your suite will work with bits of the other companies’ suites so you can get a slice of their pie – and maybe make your slice so tasty the customer leans toward you when the next review of a component is due. Because we are down to arguably four this is getting easier, but their are still hiccups (like Ebsco’s (until recently) reluctance to share metadata with Ex Libris and Proquest).

    Once upon a time content creators and access providers were on opposite sides of the dance floor – now they’re in the middle sweating in their leotards.

  3. The webinar suggests Flow is indeed going to be far more than a reference manager.

    I saw this figure where Flow was doing various things from working as a staging ground for publication and hosting for prepublication. This is something new, I won’t be surprised if the new owners of Mendeley , Elsevier aren’t cooking up something similar.

    I see their strategy as basically following the Mendeley one. Draw in as many users as you can with a reference manager which is inherently useful even without network effects, be at where researchers are, scale sufficiently and you pretty much have the power to provide services as

    1) Identify provider
    2) Act as “Facebook for academics with collaboration
    3) Wealth of recommender system data
    4) and much much more…

    There’s also the reason why suddenly Springer is buying up Papers, and Elsevier is buying up Mendeley.

    In fact, Flow institutional ed looks pretty much like Mendeley’s Institution edition.

    Both for example allow librarians to see which journals are most frequently used in reference libraries of your institutional users.