5. Conclusions

Perhaps inevitably, any discussion of the 'grey literature situation' has shades of optimism, concern, and ambiguity. Foremost, and perhaps controversially, I would suggest that the archaeological community begins to move away from the trend of describing the outputs of planning-led investigations as 'grey literature'. Although a type of grey literature as described in modern library definitions, the wider term describes all materials not controlled by commercial publishers. These include outputs traditionally viewed by archaeologists as published and those not considered literature at all. The term may be of more use to non-discipline specific curators and librarians rather than fieldworkers and academics. Although it may have some use in referring to the traditional published/non-published dichotomy in fieldwork archaeology, the latter is actually a multi-faceted corpus that represents different forms of document (and information) from different types of event: primarily a large volume of small reports simply reporting the presence or absence of archaeological deposits. These outputs are not 'grey' as understood by the original use of the term by Alan Vince and others in reference to the research archive produced by larger excavations, but essential assessments fundamental to the planning process. Even for larger excavations, it seems that the advent of online dissemination has provided an alternative publication route that may not be journal- or monograph-based, but is still generally of a good quality and a product of a mature field discipline. In addition, semantic quibbles notwithstanding, the interpretation of the phrase still pertains to the more negative aspects of the idiom that are, in reality, becoming redundant. Given these modern developments, the use of the term 'grey literature' seems more and more like the relic of an obsolete vernacular.

The challenge for those interested in 'grey literature', or whatever the preferred nomenclature, is evolving from simple access to fieldwork reports and the amalgamation of the results into the research paradigm. Conversely, the opportunity for research could be the areas that have not been heavily investigated through the planning process; engaging, understanding and explaining the gaps in distribution maps and the potential sites not in any literature. Last (2012) described this as holistic research that can be carried out by all industries within the archaeological culture. However, the marked disparities in digital coverage, including those potential gaps created by community groups and academics that are under-represented in the online corpus, makes this vision far from straightforward. Indeed, if current trends continue the online information base may well become dangerously skewed, inadvertently presenting a distorted view of a dataset that is already subject to the biases of planning-led investigations. Rather than breaking new ground and moving away from traditional collecting patterns (Darvill and Russell 2002, 53), there is a potential danger of simply revisiting densely investigated areas and perpetuating biases that are now based on the visibility of online data, as opposed to the visibility of monuments.

This is assuming, of course, that reports can be found efficiently, and that they can answer specific research questions. As online libraries such as the ADS continue to grow, we have to ensure that they are developed to suit a widening world of online resources. Simply cataloguing reports and isolating them from their wider (and more detailed) context while initially helpful, is arguably not embracing the potentials of online access. While we should unreservedly celebrate online dissemination and nationwide syntheses as advances from the bad old days of backlog and epistemological uncertainty, this is not a time to stand still. As the volume of online fieldwork reports increases, and as the web becomes an acceptable dissemination route for many (but not all) excavations, researchers are going to be presented with more and more data. Future questions may well revolve not around the physical accessibility of reports, but rather which reports can help answer specific and – it is anticipated – increasingly specialised questions. Indeed, while the old categories and perceptions of grey literature may well be becoming obsolete, we must be careful not to replace them with colourless online inventories that catalogue much but explain little.

At the time of writing the institutions and mechanisms for transferring and curating archaeological information are currently under review, or being re-evaluated in the light of national strategies (Boldrini et al. 2015; OASIS 2014). Initial signs are that existing mechanisms of accessing data will remain relatively unchanged, and that effort is made to emphasise the role of the HERs as the primary source of information on archaeological monument and event data. The OASIS system will likely form a significant part of this mechanism, so it is imperative that the benefits of using the system, in tandem with redesigns to allow a greater level of participation, are championed. This is especially true of the research community for it is this body of fieldworkers that often go under-represented in recording systems (Evans 2013). In recent years there has been a noticeable increase in academic engagement with development-generated data; this should extend to engaging with the recording mechanisms themselves. Indeed, by building upon the strengths of these systems, it is possible to envisage a more integrated national system than currently available, with events and associated reports recorded in detail by HERs and, in some cases, linked to the ADS archives via a Digital Object Identifier (Hardman 2011). Accordingly, events and sources should be part of any future national data portal, querying not only monuments but their investigative history and the sources available. As the recent Rural Settlement of Roman Britain Project has shown, these are now the types of question being asked by researchers (cf. Holbrook and Morton 2008; Allen et al. 2015). A capacity to allow a more sophisticated interrogation of the evidence base, alongside the evidence itself, should be a minimum requirement, and it is perhaps illustrative that the cursory analysis of investigative trends reported here is limited by the gaps in coverage of our current national systems. Such a potential system would enable future research to be based on initial analysis of the investigative and recorded sources – identifying areas or themes that were under-represented or corpuses of material that offered new perspectives on particular issues. The current wave of syntheses have, understandably, been based on catching up with the data; the works of the next decade should use the data to push agendas forward.