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Education: Grey Literature

Library resources for Education

What is Grey Literature?

Grey literature refers to a wide range of information produced outside the regular publishing model. It is usually published without commercial endeavour. This means that it may be difficult to find and can vary in quality. However, it can be a critical area of materials for research and that which emanates from official and academic sources is important to consider. 

In particular, grey literature can identify new, niche areas of interest not addressed by commercial publishers. In this sense, it can be more current; appearing more quickly than formal publishing which employs rigorous editorial and review processes leading to longer timelines. Grey literature can also identify authors and organisations which have not published in through the traditional commercial route.

Aligned to the positive value of grey literature, it is important to make employ good judgement when selecting it. The formal publishing model ensures a form of scrutiny in the peer review and editorial processes which includes expert feedback. Not all grey literature is subject to this so bias and reliability needs to be considered. Grey literature can also disappear quickly from websites which are not formally crawled so its important to keep a record in case it is no longer accessible or traceable in the future.

Types of Grey Literature

While conference papers may eventually be formally published in journals, this depends very much on the authors' intentions. Most conference papers in their original version are heard at a conference and at best published in the conference proceedings which is disseminated to the conference attendees. It can therefore be difficult to identify this category of grey literature. 

Two databases specialising in this material are the Conference Proceedings Citation Indexes, available for Science (CPI-S) and Social Science & Humanities (CPI-SSH). They are available through the Web of Science platform, clicking on the Editions drop down menu and selecting only the index you need. 

Other research databases specialising in other forms of literature, may include conference papers. To restrict search results look for the source type filter; often found on the left hand side of the results page. 

A dissertations or thesis is normally submitted as part of a higher degree or professional qualification. In academic institutions, a dissertation is usually identified as a part contribution to an undergraduate or post graduate taught programme while a thesis is submitted as the culminated research for a PhD. However the terminology is used in different contexts and the body of work also varies in size. 

Dissertations and theses will have extensive bibliographies and their discoverability helps guard against duplicate research.

Traditionally held in university libraries in print, they are increasingly in eformat and all formats are more easily discoverable through the a range of databases. The guide Finding Theses provides further details on how to search for this material held at Queen's University Belfast and elsewhere.

An official publication is one produced or issued by an official body. Official bodies include legislatures, central government and agencies, courts or judiciaries and any official bodies established by these entities which facilitate links with the main body through direct funding, reporting mechanisms or accountability. Source: National Funding for Educational Research

They can be statements of law and policy, government reports and statistics. They can emanate from local, national or international official bodies and it is more often than not the case that the publications are published out of obligation to inform countries and members of the activities of the official body and are therefore usually free. As a result, the material is considered to be grey literature and by it's formal nature is of significance to researchers across all subject areas.

The Official Publications guide provides more information on how to find and use this type of grey literature. 

Statistics collected, analysed and made available from reliable sources can provide critical evidence need to support your studies. They can be found in almost every subject area and are produced by many organisations and governments.

The UK Data Service / Archive provides access to the largest collection of social, economic and population data sets for research and teaching in academia.

The first time you use the service you'll be asked to register. After that, you will be able to log in to any of the data sets and surveys. A free online training programme is available.

Data is sourced from:

  • official agencies - mainly central government
  • international statistical agencies
  • individual academics with research grants
  • market research agencies
  • historical sources
  • other data archives worldwide

Official bodies often make their data freely available via an official statistics website:

Academic researchers and research institutions will highlight new projects, important communications, speeches, interviews etc. via forms of social media such as blogs and Twitter so it can be an important form of grey literature. However selection needs to be carried out cautiously. Blogs and Twitter feeds can be transient. 

Discovery Tools for Grey Literature

Many research databases though specialising in books and peer reviewed journal literature will include grey literature materials such as conference papers, dissertations, newsletters etc. To restrict search results, look for the source type filter; often on the left hand side of the results page. You can use your Subject Guide to identify the key databases for our discipline.

As libraries select and acquire the widest range of materials, so their catalogues will be the good place to discover grey literature, e.g. government reports, working papers etc.

You can search by author, organisational name or document title or more widely with key subject words followed by terms like report, paper, proceedings etc.

Large databases which search across hundreds of library catalogues include:

  • Library Hub Discover: Search and locate books and journals throughout the collections of the UK research and specialist libraries.
  • WorldCat: Search the collections of thousands of libraries worldwide. 

Thinking of organisations aligned to your research topic, it is useful to refer to their websites and look for the publications section.

This may include: 

  • Government Departments
  • Professional Bodies 
  • Research organisations
  • Think Tanks

A general web search will help identify relevant organisations but do be sure they are reliable sources.

Most websites will have a publications section though if not easily identified on the page, may be found in the 'Coroporate' or 'About us' area. Sometimes they are located at the bottom of the webpage.

Some sites will allow you to sign up for an RSS feed so you can remain up to date. 

The web archiving tools WaybackMachine is also worth using to track down webpages, books, videos, audio, software and images which are no longer live on the web.

Institutional repositories exist to make known the research activities of researchers and research organisations. This includes all types of research so grey literature can be found in these resources.

Different types of repositories include:

Institutional Repositories

These reflect the academic research carried out by academic staff and students. Queen's University Institutional Repository or Research Portal is called PURE.

OpenDOAR is the Directory of Open Access Repositories which allows you to identify, browse and search for repositories based on many features.

Subject based Repositories

These are collections developed over time with a focus on specific subject areas. They are sometimes referred to as 'pre-print' archives or repositories as they contain early versions or drafts of papers and reports. The Social Science Research Network (SSRN) covers a broad range of research disciplines including and beyond the social sciences. 

Grey Literature Repositories

There are also repositories specialising in archiving grey literature such as:

Grey Guide Portal - the Repository and Portal to Good Practices and Resources in Grey Literature which is part of the GreyNet International Grey Literature Network Service.

The advanced search options offered by general web search engines can assist in locating grey literature by focusing the search to return results based on: region, site/domain, terms, file type etc. This can either be carried out via the advanced search page e.g. Google Advanced search or by employing shortcut code within the general search box,.e.g. intitle:climate change filetype:pdf