Digital technologies have made it easier for scholars to find and access information online—in fact, as the 2015 Ithaka S+R US Faculty Survey showed, nearly all scholars in the U.S. begin their searches for information using electronic resources these days. But these innovations largely focus on peer-reviewed publications and fail to capture other forms of information to an adequate extent, despite that more than 60 percent of scholars in the survey say that freely available online materials are an important resource.  While these free online materials include open access journal articles, they also include gray literature. In 2017 we examined the research practices of public health scholars as part of our ongoing Research Support Services (RSS) program. One of our key findings is that scholars in this field rely extensively on gray literature to inform their research, and yet have substantial challenges associated with its discovery and use.

This information is used by scholars to provide context and theory for projects, to keep up with the direction of research in their fields, and to steer them away from potentially duplicating studies in an environment that prizes originality. Gray literature acts as a complement to peer-reviewed literature and maximizes the breadth of information that scholars are able to obtain for their projects. It is especially advantageous for those working in fields so specialized that there is relatively little peer-reviewed literature, and it is also an expedient means of accessing important information that would otherwise not be available through a formal publication for years.

Despite the widespread use of gray literature by public health scholars, many say that they don’t actually know how it is defined; however, interviewees seemed to understand “gray literature” as encompassing policy briefs, conferences proceedings, white papers, reports by non-academic institutions and organizations, and, debatably, dissertations—in short, works not published through a peer-reviewed process. Traditional literature, in contrast, consists of publications that follow the conventional pathway of peer-review before being disseminated by a journal or book publisher.

Scholars did not discuss having trouble with accessing gray literature so much as having trouble finding it. One scholar mentioned that while search engines for gray literature do exist and are relatively comprehensive for gray academic and federal literature, “once you get away from the realm of the white paper…it gets much more challenging.” Google is able to capture many of these forms of non-peer-reviewed literature, but systematically searching for it is a challenge because it is rarely collected in one place and rarely preserved in any organized manner, if at all. This is even more problematic for items produced in hard copy—one scholar described needing information from a report, only to find that the organization that had published it had thrown it out once it was no longer relevant to their needs. This is why we recommend in our report (see page 32) that gray literature be aggregated to improve preservation and discoverability for public health scholars and scholars in other fields.

For those researching on or in regions outside of Europe or the U.S., gray literature may be their best resource. This is especially the case in Southeast Asia, which Richard Corlett describes as being an area of the world that is “underrepresented in the global scientific literature” but where “gray literature appears to be the most voluminous.” Ithaka S+R is currently fielding a project on the research practices of Asian studies scholars, which will be released later this spring, and the accounts from scholars in this field further reinforce our observations here.