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Section 1: Grey Literature Explored

1.1 The definition of grey literature

The term 'grey literature' is widely used to describe a growing body of documentation in a broad range of disciplines, both in hard and soft copy, which is not published in the traditional sense. A formal definition was agreed by participants at the Third International Conference on Grey Literature in 1997 in Luxembourg, 'that which is produced by all levels of government, academics, business and industry, in print and electronic formats, but which is not controlled by commercial publishers' (Farace 1998). The use of the adjective 'grey' is a reflection of the distribution mode; published articles or books are often characterised as 'white'.

There have been several other definitions and discussions of grey literature, most notably that of Auger (1989), but also those summarised by Mason (nd) and Weintraub (2000), who note that the term is synonymous with that of 'reports literature'. Collectively, these terms cover an extensive range of materials that cannot be found easily through conventional channels, such as bookseller or publisher (Sidwell et al. 2000). These include, for example, theses, scientific and technical reports, conference proceedings and official documents. Grey literature has traditionally been produced in paper form, distributed by the individuals or organisations that created it. These producers are based in a variety of sectors, both private and public, including industry, universities and government, with no formal infrastructure for distribution (Mackenzie Owen 1997; 1998).

Mason (nd) traces grey literature back to the beginning of the 20th century, when technical documents emerging from the aircraft and aeronautics industries were an important means of distributing results. Such reports literature was transformed into a major means of communication with the onset of World War Two, and ever since the production of scientific and technological reports has steadily increased. This is because such production has the advantage of great flexibility and speed, allowing those who write and issue reports to be concise, exact and focused (Mason nd). Additionally, should authors wish, there is opportunity to include detail that would otherwise be omitted from traditional publications. This might include original or raw data, so that others may access and potentially re-interpret the conclusions drawn.

Electronic publishing has created new models and opportunities for conventional grey literature, which takes on new meaning as authors create new products and release information in different ways (Gelfand 1998). There are now several choices for delivery and dissemination of grey literature, primarily via the World Wide Web, which force the information professional to become increasingly aware of a wider spectrum of information alongside traditionally published materials. Coonin (2003) maintains an annotated bibliography of grey literature, and some examples of grey literature on the Web are summarised in sections 2.1.1 and 2.1.2.

1.2 The importance of grey literature

Whilst a formal paper may follow the production of a grey literature report, these reports are rarely made publicly available (Anon 1999). Grey literature reports generally contain comprehensive, concrete and up-to-date information on research findings. Even when they have been officially published at a later stage, detailed information on techniques and results is frequently omitted. To obtain details of importance for research, grey literature is often the first and only source of information.

Weintraub (2000) concludes that 'it is an indispensable resource for an informed and enlightened public and will undoubtedly continue to serve as a necessary supplement to journal literature well into the future'.

1.3 The inaccessibility of grey literature

For the end user, the difference between grey and published literature is essentially the difference between open and restricted access (Mackenzie Owen 1997). Grey literature is generally created and distributed in order to disseminate knowledge rather than to sell for profit. In practice, therefore, it does not have the benefit of the marketing, publicity and distribution usually associated with commercial products. This causes difficulties in identifying and obtaining grey literature, owing to poor bibliographic information and control, non-professional layout and format, and low print runs (Auger 1989).

One of the many reasons that grey literature is not being published in the traditional sense is the cost. Publishing costs have been increasing at a much higher rate than inflation for many years. In addition, published works take some time to appear after they are written. The publishing industry is seen to be slow in adopting new technologies that might simultaneously reduce costs and increase accessibility, speed of production and delivery (Mackenzie Owen 1997; 2002; Gelfand 1998). In the scientific world especially, information and ideas are superseded and become out-of-date relatively quickly as research and experimentation progress. There is a need for this information to be made available rapidly and cost-effectively.

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