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Grey Literature

Start your grey literature search with this guide containing resources and strategies for discovering research produced outside traditional commercial or academic publishing channels.

What is Grey Literature?

Describing grey literature in its entirety is more challenging than outlining what it isn't. Grey literature encompasses various media, resources, documents, and data that diverge from the conventional academic or commercial publishing pathways, often termed "white literature." If a resource lacks publication in a scholarly journal, it likely falls within the realm of grey literature. Unlike white literature, grey Literature doesn't undergo peer review and typically avoids publication in books or scholarly journals. Today, most grey literature is disseminated digitally through PDFs, web pages, blog posts, and multimedia content. Unlike academic publishing, grey literature authors are not required to possess extensive field experience, though recognized experts or organizations often author the most credible pieces. Grey literature spans a broad spectrum—it's not necessarily always factual or nonfactual, nor is it constrained to a purely professional or casual tone.

As such, grey literature can be instrumental. This type of literature makes up most of the information produced and used daily. The following qualifies as grey literature: 

  • A local government's report on the city's water quality
  • The front page news story from a national news company***
  • An engineering PhD candidate's dissertation on keyword latency  
  • The state government's crime statistics from the last year
  • A pamphlet from the Forest Service on the history of a national park
  • A report from an international non-governmental organization (NGO) on modern slavery
  • A blog post from a well-known academic on a new theory concerning her field
  • Tweets from protestors involved in the Arab Spring demonstrations 
  • Court transcripts and other legal documents

All these items can be helpful in research, but using, evaluating, and finding good grey literature can be challenging. This guide is designed to help users understand and navigate the complexities of this special literature. 

***Some do not consider news grey literature because it comes from a commercial publishing system. Still, others do because it is not peer-reviewed or necessarily written by experts in the field. This guide includes news media as grey literature because it is not peer-reviewed and can be evaluated using the same methods as grey literature.

What is "Scholarly" and "Peer Reviewed"?

Scholarly sources (also referred to as academic, peer-reviewed, or refereed sources) are written by experts in a particular field and keep others interested in that field up to date on the most recent research, findings, and news.

When a source has been peer-reviewed, it has undergone the review and scrutiny of a review board of colleagues in the author’s field. They evaluate this source as part of the body of research for a particular discipline and make recommendations regarding its publication in a journal, revisions before publication, or, in some cases, reject its publication.

In essence, when a work is scholarly and peer-reviewed, the work of evaluating a resource is done by the publisher, and the resource user does not have to spend too much time evaluating it themselves. This is extremely useful as it ensures the information is factual. However, the process of peer review is far from perfect; it has its own set of biases and issues with diversity; it is a lengthy process, and scholarly and peer-reviewed works are often expensive to access.

When resources are not peer-reviewed, the work of evaluating the resources falls almost entirely on the user. Grey literature is typically only reviewed for accuracy by their organization, and the process varies widely from organization to organization if they have one at all. The users reading the information cannot be sure if anyone has reviewed the facts presented in grey literature and if the organizations' biases have distorted the facts.  

Activity: What is Grey Literature?

Use the interactive module below to test your knowledge of grey literature!

Activity: Grey Literature Drag and Drop