What is grey literature?: A CILIP webinar

July 1, 2020
Clare Brown

Grey literature is hard to categorise, occasionally elusive, and users value it more than we can imagine. So when CILIP announced a webinar presented by The King’s Fund, I jumped at the chance to learn the latest in grey literature management. Although TKF works with health information, the topic of grey literature is relevant to everyone in information management; legal, financial, education, science, etc - and suppliers of current awareness platforms. 

Deena Maggs and Kathy Johnson shared some of the what’s and why’s of their experiences with this problematic and ubiquitous mass of material. But first, what is “grey literature”?

grey literature

How do we define grey material?

Deena and Kathy described it as “material not published in the normal way”. For example the reports that TKF itself produces would be classified as “grey literature”; TKF is not a publisher in the official, traditional sense. To further explain, I found an excellent article which attempts to list the different types of grey material - here is their table for reference:

examples of grey literature

Deena and Kathy explained that grey literature provenance is important, and their standard of provenance may vary according to what they are using that grey literature for. One librarian says podcasts, vlogs, blogs, Tweets or Facebook postings can be a great place to locate valuable information not found elsewhere. But is social media grey material? 

This remains a somewhat ‘grey’ area (sorry). Social media is a perfect example of why librarians are currently attempting to preserve, archive, and manage an unprecedented amount of information. For instance the Library of Congress documented the first 12 years (2006-2017) of Twitter, however in 2018 they decided to acquire tweets on a more selective basis. Official Twitter accounts are one thing, however many personal tweets are definitely more ephemeral in nature.

The AACODS checklist is designed to enable evaluation and critical appraisal of grey literature. The acronym Accuracy, Authority, Coverage, Objectivity, Date, Significance helps information people assess and examine material so that they can decide whether to include it in literature reviews, research packages and whatever else the end-user has requested. 

Read more about adding the right sources

How do we use grey literature?

Finding and making use of grey literature has posed a problem for both information people and end-users for many years. Your end-users are relying on your expertise to find, and ensure its quality. Once information people have ascertained that the documents in their library feeds fulfils the AACODS criteria, it can be used in a couple of ways. Deena and Kathy explained. 

  • Literature searches: These arise in the general course of library and information business. As the team said, “how wide we cast our net in the sea of grey depends on the nature of the topic and what our user is interested in.” 
  • Alerting services: Current awareness alerts are predominantly made up of grey literature. This supplements articles from the news and trade press. Then as valuable material is identified, it gets added to the central library database

This is where the team discussed the need for a content aggregation system to handle grey literature from official and unofficial sources. News monitoring platforms like Vable are designed to handle incoming content in many formats, from RSS feeds, emails and internal documents. 

Information overload? Click here for a simple solution

As an aside, we have already noted the ephemeral and transient nature of grey literature on the internet. This means that teams have to monitor web links and ensure material is properly archived. This is standard library and information practice because Library Management Systems, news monitoring platforms, intranets, etc., all rely on active and healthy URLs.

What challenges has COVID-19 posed to health information provision?

COVID-19 has caused an upheaval in health information provision. Although end-users in all professions and industries need current peer reviewed articles by experts, healthcare and medicine is a special area. In these extraordinary circumstances, keeping track of all explanatory “sense making” material, as well as peer reviewed scientific articles, has been overwhelming. It’s also been made more challenging by remote working and ‘a blizzard of information on COVID-19’. 

Seeing the bigger picture is crucial to any industry. This is why a broader selection of news and trade press sources have been incorporated into health information provision and their current awareness. Experts need to see issues in their wider context to predict future events. The team reported that this is a relatively new development in health. 

Horizon scanning is a process to identify potential trends, opportunities, new technologies or threats that could impact on your area of interest. Identifying these helps teams to plan for the future by taking advantage of such developments or being better prepared for them when they occur.

In health this could be identifying new and emerging medications, technologies or interventions that could be beneficial to your service or change practice and policy. It could be workplace planning or new drug developments. Knowledge for Healthcare 

It will be a while before the broader impact of the pandemic on the healthcare systems is understood. In collaboration with the various health and broader social care agencies, they have been contributing to various projects. TKF team has been collating research (including grey literature, published articles etc) on the effects of health emergencies. For instance those caused by terrorist attacks, environmental and natural disasters, as well as the various outbreaks of MERS, SARS, and other epidemics. 

Their pages on Leading through COVID is designed to provide support to health and care leaders, whether people are are working in the NHS, social care, public health or the voluntary and independent sector. They review it regularly with user input to ensure it is practical, helpful and works for everyone. .

Learn how Public Health England freed up their time for curation

Appraising resources and recognising experts

The TKF information team is anxious that they maintain quality over quantity by applying strict appraisal criteria to the type of information that they disseminate. The team outlined a number of questions to consider when appraising grey literature and it can be applied to material from:

  • Is it associated with a reputable organisation?
  • Is it in association with recognised expert, and identified in other sources
  • Has it been cited by others?
  • Is it representative of work in the field?
  • Is it balanced in presentation? Even if it’s an opinion piece. 
  • Does it enrich or add something unique to the research
  • Is there an awareness of bias in the evidence - both positive and negative?

For example in 2007 the sponsors of the UK Association for the Study of Obesity included Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s. For information people at that time, they had to ask how reputable was the literature ASO produced, what sort of message did it send?

As a handy guide for all librarians, information people and researchers, there is a hierarchy of evidence. It encourages you to take a top-down approach to locating the best evidence; you start with the most reliable published material, and if that is not available, you work your way down the pyramid.

hierarchy of evidence

As every information person knows, there is more to information than just books and journals, which is why we recommend quality databases, reputable free and premium sources, and large quantities of advanced “judicious Googling.” Information overload isn’t going away anytime soon and we have more information than we can manage. This is apparent when you look at the growing list of information sources.

Listening to this webinar reminded me how important information people are, regardless of industry or specialism. Our mission is to anticipate and supply what the end-user has requested, without preconceptions or prejudice. People's lives and livelihoods can depend on us to work effectively and efficiently within the challenging information ecosystem we inhabit. 

Can anyone think of a better term than "grey literature", or is that here to stay?