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What is Grey Literature?

Gray literature is literature that is published, or produced, outside of the traditional scholarly publishing cycle. Gray literature can include: 

  • Government reports
  • White papers
  • Working papers
  • Technical notes 
  • Patents 

Finding Grey Literature in Google

Learning Google search commands can help you find Gray Literature when search in Google! Below are some particularly useful search commands: 

site

What it does: Searches within a specific site or domain. Useful for locating information from specific government organizations. Also useful for locating materials more generally from .gov or .edu domains. 

Examples: site:who.int or site:.gov

Notes: Be careful if searching for site:.edu. Not all websites that end in .edu are universities or other educational institutions, the domain can be used by anyone. 

Filetype

What it does: Searches for specific file types. Useful for looking for reports, white papers, working papers, or factsheets. 

Examples: filetype:pdf

Notes: There may be information you are missing if you limit to one filetype! 

Additional Examples

Example search: Lyme disease site:who.int filetype:pdf

What it retrieves: This search retrieves pdf files published to the web on the WHO website. 

Example search: bt corn site:usda.gov

What it retrieves: This search retrieves any information on bt corn on the USDA website. 

Who Produces Gray Literature?

Grey literature can be produced by a number of different agencies and/or individuals, from government agencies, NGOs, buisinesses, academics and academic organizations, and many more! Some important producers of gray literature include: 

  • The World Health Organization 
  • The Centers for Disease Control 
  • The United States Department of Agriculture 
  • The United Nations

Opportunities

What's so "greayt" about gray literature?

The name doesn't make it especially appealing, perhaps bringing to mind the image of dusty stacks of outdated reports with titles so arcane that one might be prompted to wonder if they were ever read, even when new. So why go delving into what can be daunting territory?

Depth and Breadth: A thesis may contain data that is never included in the journal article that is ultimately published using its findings. In other cases, a broader view may be what is wanted, in which case a government factsheet or institutional newsletter targeted to a lay audience may meet the searcher's need.

Timeliness: Results of studies may appear in gray literature 12 to 18 months before being published via traditional channels.

Flexibility: Rather than waiting years for the publication of a revised edition, authors, editors, and Web content creators can update information when needed, a factor that reinforces the timeliness of gray literature.

Accessibility: Although governments and industries often restrict the readership of certain types of gray literature (classified or proprietary information, for example), there is also a great abundance of gray literature that is freely available to all, either in print or on the Web.

Content reused from Gray Literature 101 by Patricia Bradley at University of New Mexico Health Sciences Library and Informatics Center. 

Challenges

What are the downsides?

It takes nothing away from gray literature to note that its use may involve some difficulties, including:

Location -- the flip side of accessibility: While there is a great deal of gray literature that is freely available, it is often produced for a narrowly targeted readership, without the goal of gaining a wide audience. This can make it hard to index and catalog, which increases the difficulty of finding it. Furthermore, one man's flexibility is another's instability; something that was here (on the Web) today may be gone tomorrow.

Verification/Validation: You may need to free yourself of the mindset promoted in some academic disciplines of looking only to peer-reviewed work published in "reputable" journals. There is a great deal of information produced by both commercial enterprises and government agencies which lies outside of the scholarly realm yet is of high value.

Citation: You may be quite familiar with the citation styles for books and journal articles but feel mystified when faced with the need to cite a white paper, newsletter, or dissertation. Most if not all of these are discussed and examples given in the APA and other style manuals. Also, feel free to ask a librarian for help with this. Don't let a citation question stand in the way of referencing a valuable resource!

Collection/Preservation: Although this may not initially appear to be an end-user issue, it will ultimately become one. Libraries and other information repositories are faced with the huge challenge of choosing, out of the vast expanse of gray literature, what should be collected and in what medium/format it should be preserved. Likewise, in the print world, storage space can quickly become a limiting factor in the retention of gray literature. Remember: GRAY does not always STAY.

Content reused from Gray Literature 101 by Patricia Bradley at University of New Mexico Health Sciences Library and Informatics Center.