Academic textbooks and journals are essential to completing your studies but they are often just one piece of a larger picture when you are investigating a topic. How can you describe the modern political landscape without referring to social media, understand the implementation of best practice in health care without consulting a clinical guideline, or evaluate the workforce inclusivity of a particular business or organisation without reviewing their diversity policy? This type of information has a place in any student’s research and it has a name – grey literature.
We use it every day often without realising to inform ourselves and the most up to date and reliable information often sits in the grey. If I’m deciding whether to switch from an Android phone to an iPhone I can find the most up to date technical specification of each in a product catalogue (grey literature) on the manufacturer website. If I want to research the differences between Android and iPhone users for a university assignment I will look for original research using Discover or a subject database. When I undertake the work for my assignment I may find that my broader understanding of the topic has been shaped by both types of source and that the content I create is richer as a result.
Referred to at some time in the past as ‘fugitive literature’ (a much more intriguing prospect though potentially casting doubt over the trustworthiness of such sources) grey literature may well have a research value but it has not gone through a commercial publication process. It is generally distributed by individuals or groups whose primary expertise is not in the business of publishing. This can create challenges in terms of how easy it is to find and retrieve the information. And because it isn’t endorsed by a commercial academic publisher or coming from a peer reviewed journal, some students might feel anxious about evaluating its quality and suitability for inclusion in their written work.
Don’t let this put you off – your librarians can help with a search strategy to capture grey literature and there is help on the library website. There are also lots of appraisal tools that you can use to critically evaluate grey literature as you would the commercially published and peer reviewed material. These range from generic checklists that can be applied to any type of grey literature such as the AACODS checklist, to the very specific – such as the AGREE II international tool for appraising policy and guidelines in healthcare. In fact, looking at the sheer volume of information that is currently considered to be grey literature you can hardly avoid including it in your work – a growing list can be found on GreyNet.
One example of grey literature that students do ask for help in locating often is dissertations and theses. The education sector produces a wealth of sources that come into the category of grey literature – think of all the teaching material produced by lecturers. This is also true of other major and well known organisations including governments who issue consultation papers, internal and official reports, press releases etc. I also mentioned a large technology giant earlier – commercial companies produce huge amounts of grey literature from brochures and factsheet to entire websites.
Finding and using grey literature is something that researchers ask us about regularly but it has the potential to raise understanding and the quality of work produced by students and staff at every level. I recently made a submission towards a professional qualification in which I self-referenced a post that I contributed to my employer’s organisational blog. The content included a photograph of music legend Tom Jones in a classic 1970’s suit with shiny gold medallion in glorious full view. The picture was very colourful but it was an example of grey literature nevertheless. The library does not accept responsibility for the use of cheesy pop images in submissions by students (and any subsequent grades awarded), however we do encourage you investigate the great grey yonder and are here to support you when you do.