Cindy Elliott Garner Additional Research Sources with Grey Literature
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By Cindy Elliott


Grey literature can offer researchers a wealth of additional information, not just in text form but video, infographics and presentations. Cindy Elliott introduces this resource which exists outside the traditional publishing model and offers some tips for incorporating grey literature into your research strategy.


Used with care, grey literature can open up valuable additional sources of information for researchers. Created by government, academics, business and industry, grey literature is not published, managed or controlled by commercial publishers, and nor is it disseminated widely. It is often hard-to-find information which organisations produce and that is not found in commercial databases or indexes and may exist only in print or online on an organisation’s website.  

Whilst it can offer a wealth of additional information, some of it much more current than otherwise available, it should also be treated with caution and cross-checked with other sources. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) major assessment of climate science in 2007 was criticised by the Inter-Academy Council (an umbrella council for science academies). The IAC says part of the report contained statements based on little evidence, the BBC reported, and the use of grey literature "sparked controversy".

However, universities increasingly recognise the importance of grey literature and often provide guidance to students on sourcing and evaluating grey literature. Australia's University of New England advises "Much grey literature is of high quality. Grey literature is often the best source of up-to-date research on certain topics, such as rural poverty or the plight of homeless people in Sydney."

The use of grey literature is by no means restricted to student or university researchers. The UK Health Forum (formerly the National Heart Forum), for example, released a discussion paper this year titled "Grey Literature in Public Health: Valuable Evidence?" (PDF) which "aims to initiate research and stimulate further discussion around the importance of grey literature as evidence in public health". The UK's FADE library specialises in grey literature for the National Health Service and offers a very useful source of information on grey literature in the health arena.

On a European scale, a working group aims to preserve and ensure access to EU documents or publications of all kinds - including grey literature - to satisfy requests from EU staff, researchers and the wider public. It published its recommendations on long-term preservation, access and discovery of EU grey literature at the end of 2012 but the findings and recommendations in the report will be applicable to anyone interested in grey literature.

Examples of Grey Literature

Grey literature broadly includes the following types of materials:

  • Technical ­­reports
  • Memoranda
  • Unpublished research studies
  • Market research
  • Theses and dissertations
  • Conference meeting abstracts
  • Technical specifications and standards
  • Non-commercial translations
  • Bibliographies
  • White papers
  • Listserv archives
  • Clinical trials
  • Datasets
  • Blogs
  • Tweets
  • Emails
  • Wikis

Who Produces Grey Literature

International agencies, governmental agencies, companies, non-profits, think tanks, universities, research institutes, professional associations, corporations, libraries and special interest groups produce grey literature. Grey literature exists for most industries and topics, and is generally disseminated outside of traditional publishing resources. More effort has been paid to the gathering and access to grey literature in recent years.

Challenges of Finding Grey Literature

Although many organisations post the material on public-facing websites, internet search engines are indexing any available text on the item whether it’s a document, image, or presentation, which is making some of this grey literature easier to find. However, many of the formats are non-traditional text, image or multimedia based so they are not easily found using traditional database types of search tools.

FreePint Subscribers can log in to find out more about the benefits and challenges of finding and using grey literature in Cindy's article "Beyond the Pale: Researching Non-Text Resources and Grey Literature".

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