Research publications have traditionally been thought of as books and journals, particularly refereed journals, writes Gerry White in DERN.


Specific books and journal articles are often brought to the attention of readers through lead articles in professional magazines or news media press releases. However, researchers investigating a topic explore much more widely than just formally published journal articles and books.

Considerable information is published by governments, research organisations, academia, business and industry that does not fall into the category of formally published commercial material. For example, reports, policies and conference documents can be difficult to find, informally published and sometimes inaccessible. Since the introduction of the internet, the volume of such publications has increased markedly but so too have the difficulties of collecting and cataloguing the information for preservation and archival purposes as well as  accessibility.

An excellent review of the issues and history of informally published information or grey literature has recently been made available. Electronic documents in a print world: grey literature and the internet begins with a discussion of the definition of grey literature as ‘information produced on all levels of government, academia, business and industry in electronic and print formats not controlled by commercial publishing’ (p. 143). Grey literature includes a range of semi-published documents eg technical reports, policy papers, research reports, and with the internet new terms such as ‘electronic publications, online publications, online resources, open access research, ePrints, digital documents and so on’ (p. 2) have come into use.

In coming to grips with the dimensions of grey literature three factors are usually considered. They are the ’nature of the documents concerned, the types of producers, and the means of dissemination (p. 2). The benefits of grey literature are its immediacy and publishing simplicity although questions of quality, authority and credibility remain although not always. ‘Often the decision to bypass conventional publishing systems was deliberate, based on security or commercial confidentiality, and the readership intended to be restricted or limited’ (p. 2), states the author. In other cases, bodies such as professional associations and interest groups published information as grey literature because of the costs or limited number of interested people .

The internet has made publishing electronically somewhat more attractive than print publishing. Files can be shared ‘between computers and groups of researchers and government … [and] …produced and distributed informally for sharing amongst a select group of specialists (p. 4). Grey literature has become almost a natural part of distributing information on the internet. In fact, email sharing could be considered a hallmark for exchanging information among project collaborators, and online group services have added a further dimension to consolidate the place of grey literature in research, public policy and reporting.

The importance of grey literature in researching a field cannot be underestimated because usually considerable information exists as informally published material. Countries such as the USA and UK have commissioned large projects to collect and preserve for public access, information such as ‘government scientific, technical and business information’ (p. 3.). Australia has begun efforts to collect and store online information through the National Library of Australia’s Pandoraalthough existing copyright restrictions prevent comprehensive projects similar to the UK and USA.

The article concludes, ‘Grey literature continues to play a vital role in the dissemination of research findings and government policy, a role that has greatly increased with the internet’ (p. 7).

Electronic documents in a print world: grey literature and the internet is an important document for researchers, librarians and archivists giving an articulate and thorough overview together with an historical account of the place of grey literature in information collections which are so pivotal to education and training.



Gerry White is Principal Research Fellow: Teaching & Learning using Digital Technologies, Australian Council for Educational Research

This article was first published on the Digital Education Research Network (DERN)

Read the full article on DERN (registration required)

Image: Flickr / Carla216



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