Grey Literature: Our Favourite Sources and Suggestions

This article was originally published in the November 2016 edition of Wired West.

At the recent 2016 SLA conference in Philadelphia, one of the most popular sessions was Hidden Treasures: Mastering Grey Literature. This session was co-sponsored by the Science-Technology Division, the Social Science Division, and the Taxonomy Division. A panel of speakers from institutions such as Cornell University and the Canadian Library of Parliament spoke about their favourite sources for grey literature. Inspired by that presentation, we have assembled here a very Canadian primer on grey literature.

For the uninitiated, Wikipedia offers a very accessible definition for this field of literature:

Grey literature … are materials and research produced by organizations outside of the  traditional commercial or academic publishing and distribution channels. Common grey literature publication types include reports (annual, research, technical, project, etc.), working papers, government documents, white papers and evaluations. Organizations that produce grey literature include government departments and agencies, civil society or non-governmental organisations, academic centres and departments, and private companies and consultants.

Grey literature may be made available to the public, or distributed privately within organizations or groups, and may lack a systematic means of distribution and collection. The standard of quality, review and production of grey literature can vary considerably. Grey literature may be difficult to discover, access and evaluate but this can be addressed through the formulation of sound search strategies. (Wikipedia)

In our own work, we have had ample opportunity to help clients dive deep into research topics through grey literature. Grey literature can be especially important when the client has budgetary constraints and limited access to specialized subscription-based databases. It can also be helpful when addressing either a very old or very new topic. New topics may not yet have been addressed by academic journals due to the long lead time required for vetting and publication. Older topics may no longer be addressed by current publications on the topic and relevant commentary may only be available through digitization of archived materials

We provide a short list of our favourite sources here:

Social Sciences Research Network
The Social Science Research Network (SSRN) is an open repository “devoted to the rapid worldwide dissemination of social science research.” It includes a wide range of free content, including abstracts for working papers and forthcoming papers, article preprints, and conference papers. SSRN is comprised of twenty-four research networks representing various branches of the social sciences—accounting, law, leadership, marketing, and political science, to name just a few. The Network was acquired by Elsevier in May 2016, but insists it remains committed to keeping content free to submit and download.

Google or Google Scholar
Google has the ability to capture high-value commentary that may not be published elsewhere. Increasingly professionals and academics are being encouraged to blog about their topics both as a way of spreading knowledge and engaging in business development. For example, the Cornell LII blogs and offer academic and lawyerly commentary on current events intersecting with the law.
The academic offshoot of Google, Google Scholar, is a rich source of grey literature from government agencies, professional societies, digital repositories, and post-secondary institutions. While access to some full text content is restricted by publisher paywalls, the “all versions” feature can help researchers locate related working papers, article pre-prints, and the like. Researchers may find Google Scholar less helpful for recently published materials, as its algorithms tend to favour older content.

Federal Government White Papers and Green Papers
White papers are official documents presented by Ministers which explain the government’s policy on a certain issue. In contrast, green papers are issued by government to invite public comment on an issue prior to policy formulation. These two terms are also used interchangeably at the provincial level. This federal repository managed by the Library of Parliament includes links to PDFs of many of the papers and fulsome indexing information at the very least. For equivalent papers issued at the provincial level, there is no one repository, however searching via GALLOP, listed below, is a good first step.

GALLOP Federated Search Portal
GALLOP is a federated search portal covering provincial legislature libraries, such as BC’s Legislative Library. The scope of coverage is detailed here. Many of these libraries include download links to PDFs of some materials in their collections. Materials held by these libraries often include reports relevant to public policy or government-authored documents about the implementation of public policy.

University Repositories, Such as cIRcle at the University of British Columbia
cIRcle is described as “an open access digital repository for published and unpublished material created by the UBC community and its partners. Its aim is to showcase and preserve UBC’s unique intellectual output by making content freely available to anyone, anywhere via the web.” You can search the repository using the search box in the middle of the homepage, or from the advanced search form, here. During the SLA conference session on this topic, Jim Del Russo of Cornell University Library also shared this link to DigitalCommons@ILR, the repository at Cornell.

The sources we’ve listed above are an excellent starting point for a Canadian librarian or researcher; however, should you need to engage in international grey literature searches, we encourage you to consult a university research guide on grey literature from the country or area in question. For example, the University of New Mexico offers a grey literature lib guide with an american health sciences emphasis, while Curtin University in Perth, Australia offers an Australia-specific guide to grey literature. Another good all-purpose American lib guide on grey literature is this one, from the University of Michigan.

by Bronwyn Guiton & Lindsay Tripp

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