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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Grey Lit (2023-02-27)

Fleuron from a 1799 edition of Samuel Butler's poem *Hudibras*, courtesy of wikimedia commons. This one of those times that the search engine algorithm let slip its origins in the work of insular u.s. based computer programmers. Fleuron from a 1799 edition of Samuel Butler's poem *Hudibras*, courtesy of wikimedia commons. This one of those times that the search engine algorithm let slip its origins in the work of insular u.s. based computer programmers.
Fleuron from a 1799 edition of Samuel Butler's poem Hudibras, courtesy of wikimedia commons. This one of those times that the search engine algorithm let slip its origins in the work of insular u.s. based computer programmers.

As so often happens, working on one article ended up revealing some intriguing material about a separate topic that is very much part of our world today, although it is not in fact very new. For the other article, for some time it looked potentially necessary to provide a formal citation for a reference to grey literature, which as the simon fraser university library helpfully defines as "...information produced outside of traditional publishing and distribution channels, and can include reports, policy literature, working papers, newsletters, government documents, speeches, white papers, urban plans, and so on." The author of this page (who may be the page owner, Janis McKenzie) also observed that grey literature is often produced by persons or organizations directly involved in the topic the literature treats, and that it is rarely peer reviewed. Since grey literature is not peer reviewed, it may vary significantly in quality. Now, unfortunately even peer reviewed work can vary significantly in quality, so we always have to keep our wits about us, consider the source and so on, but no matter what peer review does indicate that the document is part of a conversation and not primarily a marketing tool. Still, referring to such documents as grey literature troubled me, because it didn't really make sense. The obvious idea to take from the term "grey" is related to colour, and there does not seem to be such a thing even colloquially as black or white literature. That said, I have certainly heard expressions like "getting into his black books" implying not necessarily a literal colour but a sort of list of people that person dislikes or will eventually punish.

Then I turned my attention to a few of the additional links in the simon fraser university article, such as this one to GreyNet International. There the site declared the following woefully tautological definition on the basis of a 2004 survey, "Grey Literature is best described by the type of document it embodies." Honestly, I would be embarrassed to whiff on a question like whether as an analyst of the survey results or someone filling out the survey. The page gives a copious list of examples of documents considered part of the grey literature family, including reports, memoranda, manuals, speeches, questionnaires, government documents of all manner of kinds, datasheets, and yes websites. Websites are a tougher call though, because some are indeed peer-reviewed because they are part of academic projects with multiple contributors and go through a quality control and assurance process before release. But fair enough that a person cannot assume that such processes are happening even for academically affiliated websites with lots of cool bling attached, including GIS maps and Omineka instances. But the end result is that GreyNet International seems to be unclear about what its membership is working with, and I am sure that is not the intended result at all. Their about page is more forthcoming, and provides their working definition of grey literature, which is:

Grey Literature is a field in library and Information science that deals with the production, distribution, and access to multiple document types produced on all levels of government, academics, business, and organization in electronic and print formats not controlled by commercial publishing i.e. where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body.

This makes much more sense, and provides some good criteria for researchers and scholars to apply when gauging whether a potential source counts as grey literature. That is an important gauge to apply when sorting out how much work to put into assessing the item's quality, and therefore whether it makes sense to cite it at all in a more formal context. Still, this doesn't quote sort out why this material is designated as "grey." This isn't like "white papers" in the context of british parliamentary systems where the name refers originally to the white covers of these documents.

So I went back to my OED, to check on the meanings associated with grey, noting in particular "dull and nondescript; without character" ad "not accounted for in official statistics." And then things finally became clear. In my experience, the canonical examples of grey literature are government reports and reports produced by contractors for their employers. They tend to be formulaic in nature, and definitely not designed to be pleasing reading for an evening with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. Add to that the current general attitude of disdain for public servants, whose products are often treated as fusty, boring, annoying, and not worth the tax dollars supposedly paying for them, and the corresponding view of contractors as uncomfortably straddling the boundary between crooks and the honest but too busy to do a good job, and we have a recipe for expecting the least of these documents. At least manuals of various types can provide accidental entertainment due to the howlers produced by machine translation, although they are rarely very good otherwise these days for their ostensible purpose. The second definition is even more telling though, because yes, most grey literature is not officially counted anywhere outside of the immediate venue they were produced in and for. But that does not prevent the documents that fall within this category from being genuinely useful and accurate, and so they may end up being cited in documents in other categories. And of course that means at some point a librarian somewhere is going to get a frantic email, call, or visit from a scholar trying to find some item of grey literature out there.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2023
Last Modified: Saturday, June 03, 2023 01:22:59