The Northern Libraries’ grey literature course took place in March 2019, delivered by Jo Hopper, organised by the Knowledge for Healthcare CPD Group and attended by librarians from all over the Northern region – it was a very informative course and I learned a lot from it.

Before I went on the course, my knowledge and understanding of what grey literature is was very rudimentary and I would have struggled even to define it accurately. Jo defined it as including materials such as conference papers, policy documents, think-tank papers, board papers, charities’ publications and patient information as well as Tweets, podcasts and blogs. I hadn’t considered the last three as grey literature before but Jo explained that this material is grey literature in the modern age. Blogs, podcasts and tweets can all be archived and they do influence scholarly debate.

Steve Collman, Community Outreach Librarian (JET Library) also found Jo’s definitions of grey literature to be helpful, commenting:

‘This course was very useful because it set out a definition of grey literature that I hadn’t heard before. I’ve always been unclear on the correct definition and therefore of how to search for/find it, but I feel more confident after attending this course. Along with the examples provided as sources, I feel able to use GL (if needed) in my searching or if someone specifically requests it.’

Jo explained that the defining feature of grey literature is that it isn’t peer reviewed and that it is published by an organisation/body whose primary objective isn’t making money from publishing. Therefore, a publication by a respected body, such as a national charity, would be considered to be grey literature as the main objective of a charity is not to publish commercially and such a publication would not be peer reviewed.

There was a lively debate about whether or not peer-reviewed open access journals could be considered as grey literature or not. Our consensus was that this is not grey literature because the main objective of open-access journals is publication (even if they don’t make a profit from it) and such journals are typically peer reviewed. The debate did show though that grey literature is not ‘black and white’ – different shades of grey are available!

Jo set the discussion of grey literature within the context of the current state of evidence-based medicine (EBM). She pointed out that EBM has recently been criticised for taking a standardised “one size fits all” approach and for not giving enough emphasis to the fact that an individual patient with many illnesses might not fit the “standard” advice given in a generic guideline. She also set the discussions around grey literature in the context of publication bias and delays in research being published. Material published conventionally is often much slower to be released than grey literature.

Generally the point was made that grey literature is different in the digital age as digitally-stored grey literature is more able to be indexed and archived than print grey literature and it can have a DOI. Therefore, grey literature is now more indexed and retrievable but it is still harder to find than conventionally-published material. Notwithstanding this important efforts are being made to make it retrievable and accessible. For example, the North Grey Literature Collection– lovingly compiled by Kieran Lamb, beginning with his time at the FADE library - is a very useful resource, particularly its Latest Items page.

Overall this was a very interesting and useful course and I would encourage colleagues to go to other courses in the future.

Rachel Steele,
Tees, Esk and Wear Valley