Grey literature in brief

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Grey literature is an unfamiliar term to many, although it has become a commonly used term amongst particular disciplines such as health, archaeology and library and information sciences. This background information gives an overview of grey literature and some of the keys issues that the Grey Literature Strategies project is interested in looking at.

Download a four page project summary including this background information as a PDF

Definition of grey literature

Grey literature is a relatively recent collective noun for "information produced on all levels of government, academia, business and industry in electronic and print formats not controlled by commercial publishing i.e. where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body", defined at the Grey Literature Conference, Luxembourg, 1997 - expanded in New York, 2004 (Farace and Frantzen 2005).

Defining grey literature is notoriously difficult and best understood by focusing on three factors: the nature of the documents concerned, the types of producers, and the means of dissemination. On this basis grey literature can be described as encompassing documents such as technical and project reports, working papers, discussion papers, technical manuals, information sheets, conference papers, theses, etc. that are produced by government departments and agencies, universities, think tanks, non-government organisations, corporations and professional bodies, and are usually lacking in systematic means of distribution or bibliographic control.

Who produces it?

Grey literature is extremely important for many disciplines including science, technology, health, engineering and social sciences, government and public policy arenas and a range of professional and commercial practices. The aim of the producing bodies is to share key information on ‘what works’ - technical specifications, project outcomes, changes to policy or legislation - to relevant parties quickly and easily without the delays and access restrictions of academic journals or book publishing. There is often little incentive or justification for these organisations or individuals to publish in academic journals, and no reason to charge for access to information that they may be mandated to share (Feather and Sturges, 2003: 210). While the production and research quality may be extremely high (with the reputation of the organisation vested in the end product), the producing body, not being a formal publisher, generally lacks the channels for systematic distribution and bibliographic control.

Collecting grey literature

With the increase in online content in the 1990s many saw the need to try to collect and make accessible valuable resources for their interest groups and disciplines. Existing databases went online and new ‘clearing houses’ (specialist resource and information collections either print or online), databases, digital libraries, portals, repositories, subject gateways, aggregators and archives were established. Given grey literature’s unconventional nature these have been developed by a wide range of bodies including libraries, universities, government bodies, not-for-profits and commercial companies, as well as national, international and state-based initiatives, to provide some kind of service for identifying, locating, collecting, cataloguing, disseminating or preserving online resources and publications.

The business of creating order from such a highly unorganised system has been extremely challenging, not to mention the issues of competing interests, institutional legacies, outdated legislation and other complicating factors that have prevented the kind of streamlined access to content that would benefit all society.

Grey literature vs peer review

In 2010 informally published research literature emerged into the public arena as a topic of news in the world media with articles reporting on the IPCC referencing of publications by the World Wildlife Fund that provided inaccurate statements about the rate of ice melting in the Himalayas. The IPCC case brought to public attention the need to be able to properly distinguish between kinds of publications and to understand their provenance. It also demonstrated the extent to which scholars, researchers, governments and others use and rely on both formal and informal research, especially where it intersects with public policy issues.

While many studies in the UK and the US have looked at changes to commercial and scholarly publishing and the impact of open access movements and scholarly communication, most of this research has been limited to peer-reviewed journal articles, monographs and conference papers. Informal publishing has often been overlooked as it is considered outside the orbit of scholarly or commercial interests. This is despite the fact that many scholars and academic centres, along with government, NGOs and professional bodies, are increasingly publishing their findings informally (whether they are aware of it or not) and often reference informal publications.

Improving grey literature access and collection

Finding better ways to access, control, evaluate, collect and preserve grey literature is an important national and international issue in the 21st century, just as it was in the 20th century, the 19th and possibly even earlier.

According to the Blue Ribbon Taskforce report  report (2010) “Clarification of the long-term value of emerging genres of digital scholarship, such as academic blogs and grey literature, is a high priority. Research and education institutions, professional societies, publishers, libraries, and scholars all have leading roles to play in creating sustainable preservation strategies for the materials that are valuable to them.”

A concerted effort to achieve policy changes, infrastructure investment and collaborative approaches is needed to really unlock the potential, and reap the value, of grey literature in an online world.



Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access 2010, Sustainable economics for a digital planet, OCLC. Ohio.

Farace, D.J. and Frantzen J. (eds.) 2005, Sixth International Conference on Grey Literature: Work on Grey in Progress, GL 2004 Conference Proceedings, New York, 6–7 December 2004, TextRelease, Amsterdam.

Feather, J. and Sturges, R. P. 2003, International encyclopedia of information and library science, 2nd, Routledge, London.

Houghton, John, 2011, The costs and potential benefits of alternative scholarly publishing models, Information Research, vol. 16, No.1