3.2 Modern grey literature

It is pertinent to dwell on these archaeological experiences and interpretations, as outside the discipline approaches to grey literature have continued to evolve (Schöpfel and Farace 2010). As previously noted, to the community that arose following Auger's publications, grey did not imply any judgement on quality of content but a characterisation of the non-commercial distribution mode (Mackenzie Owen 1997). Indeed, grey continues to be championed as a complement to traditional publication outlets across many disciplines (Seymour 2010b). However, in recent years increased access to grey literature via web-based dissemination, coupled with open access to previously subscription-based journals, has led to levels of 'grey' becoming blurred to the point of an existential uncertainty in the validity of the term itself (Schöpfel 2011). In addition, the concept of what constitutes the genre is constantly being re-evaluated, with one survey identifying over 100 different types, including websites and datasets within the classification (Pejsova and Vaska 2011, 10). Others have pushed this further to include the growing levels of online content such as blogs as increasingly relevant to both discipline-specific meta-analyses and scientific synthesis (Banks 2012; Rothstein and Hopewell 2009). Prompted by the need to (re)establish what is grey in the modern world, the term is currently nearing its third official incarnation, with the most recent (proposed) Prague definition suggesting that it:

'... stands for manifold document types produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats that are protected by intellectual property rights, of sufficient quality to be collected and preserved by library holdings or institutional repositories, but not controlled by commercial publishers i.e., where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body.' (Schöpfel 2011).

The inferences for archaeology are clear; what we consider our 'grey literature' is but a drop in the wider semantic ocean. Indeed, it is illuminating to compare archaeological perceptions to the classifications of those outside the discipline. A search on OpenGrey – the database of 700,000+ bibliographical references of paper grey literature produced in Europe – reveals some diverse archaeological sources catalogued by the British Library, for example:

The last two 'published' sources in this list would strike us as contentious; however, as neither is controlled by major commercial publishers, they are technically 'grey literature'. Indeed, a report from the British Library shows the extent to which grey is very much in the eye of the beholder, with familiarity or ignorance of the resource dictating opinion as to its status (Tillett and Newbold 2006, 71). Thus it seems that for quite some time the archaeological community has been producing a wide range of grey materials aside from developer-funded unpublished fieldwork reports (cf. GreyNet n.d.). Examples include documents produced or funded by national organisations (e.g. Landward Research Ltd 2014), local societies/community groups (e.g. Amadio et al. 2007), or reports on grey literature itself (e.g. Museum of London Archaeology 2012). In addition to these reports, there is also the wide range and large number of online sources that increasingly play a prominent role in the dissemination of information and opinion (Jeffrey 2012) Clearly, the reality of archaeological 'grey material' is far larger and more diverse than traditionally envisaged.

Where then does this leave those documents generated through development-led investigations? In my opinion, while they are clearly a type of grey literature as covered by the Prague proposal, the application of this term in respect of reports from commercial investigations has perhaps outlived any original usefulness. Not only is it semantically limited, but it is also a disciplinary relic that, while once understandable in the wake of the publication crises in rescue and PPG16-funded projects, has become a cultural misnomer. When the term entered the lexicon in the mid-1990s it was in relation to the accessibility of hard-copy reports within research archives, produced to much-debated criteria and against a background of publication anxiety (Jones et al. 2001, 2.3.2-2.3.5; Richards and Hardman 2008, 27-28). However, nearly 20 years since that point - and 25 since the advent of PPG16 - there is perhaps less unease about the 'unknown unknowns' lurking in the disciplinary closet. The Archaeological Investigations Project (AIP) and OASIS have done much to catalogue and disseminate reports to the obvious benefit of the research community (Darvill and Russell 2002; Hardman 2011). In fact, by referring to information within the reports as 'grey', we are ignoring the role it already plays within informing the Historic Environment Records of the country (Newman 2010, 2). Indeed, to label these documents as 'grey literature', as understood in its traditional archaeological sense, is to ignore the fact that through HER database records, as well as access to physical holdings themselves, the information from these reports has always been accessible.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Development-led excavations, evaluations, watching briefs in England 1990-2007 as recorded in the Historic England Excavation Index. Data from the Excavation Index hosted by the Archaeology Data Service [Last accessed: 1 Sept 2014].

It may also be argued that the practice and reporting of fieldwork has changed to such an extent that historic perceptions and classification of grey literature are defunct. This is dictated in the main by the nature of archaeological fieldwork which, since the rise of smaller assessments in the 1980s, has been dominated by evaluations and watching briefs, rather than full-scale excavation that may be expected to produce a 'research' archive or an interim/post-excavation report of significant value (English Heritage 1995; Darvill and Russell 2002). Even a very broad overview of more recent statistics shows the extent to which this pattern has become embedded within the country since the advent of PPG16 in 1990 (Figure 1). It is also worth highlighting that the levels of partial/open excavation that may investigate larger areas or produce more results are not as large as may be imagined. For example, it is clear from the available statistics that levels of investigation are invariably cyclical, reflecting not only planning policy but also the impact of contemporary economics on the levels of development occurring in the country. However, when looking at the relative levels of evaluations/watching briefs and excavations post-2000, it is clear that while the former plateaus, the latter group seemingly drops to their lowest level since the 1960s (Figures 1 and 2). On the one hand, this may be a consequence of limitations in the coverage of the Excavation Index dataset, or perhaps the classification of 'evaluation' and 'excavation' (see Section 2). It is arguable, however, that the downward trend is not just a consequence of the data, but reflects a very real trend. If so, these figures may be a consequence of a larger, more coordinated, scale than of previous decades, but also of the decision not to undertake excavations as part of the mitigation for development. It certainly suggests that the vast majority of the reports produced by commercial archaeology simply fulfil the role of the fieldwork event to inform the archaeological mitigation within the final planning decision, and do not serve as 'interim' reports of larger works. Although all written materials are obviously of use to the researcher, it is debatable whether the majority of documents from these smaller investigations are really the type of hidden yet information-rich resources of popular imagination (see also Holbrook and Morton 2008, 56; Fitzpatrick 2012, 150). As Bradley (2006) noted in his research, the collation of nearly 20 years' worth of new discoveries from unpublished reports was undertaken by two individuals.

Figure 2
Figure 2: All excavations in England 1967-2007 as recorded in the Historic England Excavation Index. Data from the Excavation Index hosted by the Archaeology Data Service [Last accessed: 1 Sept 2014].

It is also clear that traditional disciplinary notions of both accessibility and the role of the fieldwork report have changed irrevocably with the advent of online dissemination. Even a cursory search of the ADS Library of Unpublished Fieldwork Reports shows the extent to which online documents have become a valid route for the dissemination of results from both smaller evaluative and larger post-determination excavations. Increasingly, it seems that for smaller excavations with results that do not require an Updated Project Design or a larger publication format, online 'assessment', 'archive' or 'data structure' reports appear to have become a de facto publication outlet across the country, for example:

All of these reports are produced electronically and specifically for wider online dissemination (via the OASIS system) as part of the reporting/archive strategy, effectively bypassing the old accessibility issues and altogether a different phenomenon to their earlier typescript predecessors. Indeed, it can be argued that the digital reports produced today have little in common with their counterparts from the early 1990s. As documents have become produced and disseminated digitally, presentation and content have evolved accordingly. For example, consider three excavation reports from the county of Lincolnshire and three reports by one organisation produced over a 24 year period:

Comparing these reports it is clear that, leaving aside the thorny and subjective concepts of quality of interpretation, as time progresses reports become relatively standardised, with very clear and detailed information on the site location, project codes (including museum accession numbers), methodologies, site plans, specialist finds reports, abstract of results and so forth.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Perception of quality of information within fieldwork reports as reported in the 2010 GLADE survey (after Hardman and Evans 2010, fig. 4.6.3).

The improvement in the quality of fieldwork reporting is corroborated by the results of an English Heritage-funded survey into the attitudes of the (UK) archaeological profession to 'grey literature' (GLADE), which in 2010 found that the majority of correspondents thought that the quality of information within fieldwork reports was satisfactory (Hardman and Evans 2010, section 4). The most common criticisms relate to signposting the location of the archive and the interpretation of results, especially in respect of the wider archaeological context, although it should be noted that those correspondents who felt that the interpretation was 'poor' were balanced by an equal number who thought that it was 'good' (Figure 3; Hardman and Evans 2010). The same survey also identified an interesting dichotomy in attitudes to the grey literature corpus, on the one hand those who thought it problematic:

and on the other, those who did not view these reports as an issue of concern:

These findings demonstrate a fascinating polarisation of views on access, undoubtedly dictated by regional experiences and sectorial perspectives (see Aitchison 2010). What they do suggest is that – at the time the GLADE report was written – a 'grey' report had become a valid method of publication in the literal sense of the term and through online access achieved a sense of immediacy in the dissemination of results. With increased access via the web it is tempting to look back to Auger's original focus on the relative benefits of 'non-white' publication, especially in contrast to the results of projects that may take longer to publish via traditional hard-copy methods (Holbrook and Morton 2008, 41). This is not of course to advocate that these publication methods be replaced, but rather that 'grey' reports are a fundamental facet of the dissemination strategies of modern archaeological practice. Furthermore, as the GLADE results show, these are fit-for-purpose documents that, through the checking and validation by Local Authority archaeologists and consultants that is inherent in the planning process, are effectively 'peer reviewed'. Yet this cautious optimism may also be balanced by the increased pressure on local government archaeologists in recent years (ALGAO 2013). This not only affects involvement in the planning process itself, but also the capacity for Local Authority archaeologists to check and comment upon reports (Rescue 2013). The ramifications for this on the outputs produced through commercial archaeology are serious; although there may always have been a difference in reporting strategies according to the requirements of Local Authorities, the quality may be affected by the lack of this 'peer review'. Indeed, from a point where increased use of web technologies has potentially created a new and interesting life for grey literature, the old fashioned factor of finance, and the options of Local Authorities in their choice of funding and structure, is potentially restrictive.