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Sources and Resources: Grey Literature

What is Grey Literature?

Definitions of grey (or gray) literature abound.

"Literature which is not readily available through normal bookselling channels, and therefore difficult to identify and obtain." Auger, Information Sources In Grey Literature, 1989
"... limited circulation reports" Australian Subject Gateways' Information Paper for the IMesh Workshop, Warwick, U.K. 2-4 June 1999

"Informal documents ... (position papers, pre-prints, etc.)" José Luis Borbinha, et al. Networked Digital Libraries: the Concept and a Case Study Position paper presented at the ACM SIGIR-97 Workshop on Networked Information Retrieval, Philadelphia, July 31, 1997

"foreign or domestic open source material that usually is available through specialized channels and may not enter normal channels or systems of publication, distribution, bibliographic control, or acquisition by booksellers or subscription agents" U.S. Interagency Gray Literature Working Group, "Gray Information Functional Plan," 18 January 1995

"... 'semi-published' material ... not formally published or available commercially, and consequently difficult to trace bibliographically (Harrodís Librarianís Glossary 8th ed. 1995). Grey material refers to information that is not publicly available, many librarians interpreted grey material to mean unpublished information. " Julie Warren and Ruth Fraser Science Information Produced in New Zealand, National Library of New Zealand, 1999

"... literature which is unclassified and not proprietary, but produced in limited quantities for limited purposes ..." Gillian Dempsey, Industrial Espionage: Criminal or Civil Remedies, T&I 106 (March 1999)

"That which is produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers." The Luxembourg Convention, Third International Conference on Grey Literature (GL '97) (Luxembourg, November 1997)

Drawing on these and other sources, several characteristics may be identified as associated with grey literature:

Semi-published / published in a third or fourth world country / privately published / locally published / "fringe"
Outside traditional distribution / publishing channels
Draft / Working
Difficult to find ('fugitive')
Untranslated materials
Unscrutinized materials (lacking rigorous standards)
(Sometimes deemed) the opposite of peer reviewed and synonymous with unpublished

It is these characteristics which make grey literature a challenge to identify and access.

Search Approaches

Deciding when and how to search for greylit involves considering the originating source, the form of the content, and the subject of the content while analyzing the potential for the actual existence of data or information on your topic of interest. For instance, is your required content (the theme or general category) one which has inspired wide-spread, long-standing interest or is it a flash-in-the-pan or bleeding edge subject area? Will politics and political agendas hamper either the quantity or quality of the research done? Are you seeking: bibliographic references with immediate full-text; primary sources (raw data, documents, publications); secondary sources (analysis, editorialization); tertiary sources (summaries, digests); or comparable and/or comparative data and information?

In an originating source approach, you would likely begin by reading the record carefully. There should be hints about the issuing agency, institute, organization or centre, but vagueness may be the order of the day. For instance, you may find a comment something like "The discrepancy results from U.S. government testing methods" which gives only the most basic of information regarding source. Further reading may narrow your choices. For instance, if this statement referred to vehicle emissions, you might guess that the agency involved in the study was the EPA. That guess, combined with other information culled from the resource (such as dates, names of individuals, etc.) may be enough to get you started.

In a subject-based approach you will likely want to pre-identify possible sources (including bibliographic indexes, web collections, etc.) and think about the form of the information that you need. Where you choose to "enter" the subject and the aspects you assign will be key.

With most subjects you will have a choice of hierarchical entry level:

broader, narrower: earth sciences; geology; hydrogeology
related: geology, economic; mines and mineral resources
used for: paleontology UF palaeontology; paleozoology
Aspects and perspectives may include the standards such as social, economic, political, psychological, legal, ethical, etc. influenced by identifiable groups and groupings:

gender, age, disease or condition, disposable income, income distribution ...
markets / market share: current/potential goods and services, ownerships, current/potential customers
ethnic, religious, cultural
people / place: Chinese / China

Geographic / national restrictions, public safety, intellectual property laws, and lack of publicity will further temper access.

In a form-based approach you will likely want to pre-identify the form of the item needed (bibliography, working paper, randomized trial, verbal, graphic). Greylit includes, but may not be limited to:

Reports and studies of various kinds (statistical, research, technical, working papers, and the like) produced for foundations, think tanks, research institutes, etc.
Contract reports
Conference proceedings
Working documents (memoranda, rfcs, etc.)
Government / legal documents and publications
Personal communication of unpublished research

These "traditional" types are now expanding to include:

Electronic communications (discussion groups, email, etc.)
Presentation materials
Image data
Operational (administrative) information
Private (privately funded, developed, owned) databases, catalogues

Content may range from pre-prints to interpretive documents resulting from meetings to drafts to data and situational analysis.

A variety of barriers may stand in the way of easy access to greylit. You may have only vague references or the type of incomplete citations which often appear in press releases and media sound bites. If you have a complete citation you may find that it contains unhelpful and extraneous information (such as contract numbers) that sends you scurrying around wasting time. If you are looking for a government publication or document you may face the task of sorting out the official title from the popular title (for example, the Commission of Inquiry into the Use of Drugs and Other Banned Substances in Sport was usually referred to as the Dubin Commission.

The biggest barriers to identifying and accessing greylit are likely to be unfamiliar or non-standard search tools and indexing. You have to look where the information is likely to be, not simply where it is convenient to search. For some suggestions, see: Sources and Resources: Grey Literature

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Created: 1999/01/01 Last updated: 2010/08/20
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