Understanding and using Grey Literature for your research paper
In the context of research, ‘literature’, as you may know, refers to published information about a given topic. In contrast, ‘grey literature’ is literature other than the more formal ‘academic’ forms of research papers, journal articles, books or conference proceedings. This article outlines some of the key details about grey literature and how to use it in your research.
Grey literature defined
Grey literature primarily comprises documents that are:
- produced by entities other than mainstream publishers and
- not necessarily available to all (i.e. they may be for restricted circulation only).
One more criterion, although implied and not defining, and not applicable to all grey literature, is that it often represents a transient or intermediate stage. Sooner or later, the contents of such literature are turned into mainstream publications. A common example of this is a preprint.
Grey literature: Examples
Examples of grey literature include:
To take a specific case, the World Bank, for instance, produces Technical Papers, Country Strategy Documents, Economic and Sector Work Studies and Working Papers, all of which may be considered grey literature.
Growing significance and use of grey literature
While grey literature was previously considered less important and rarely used, it is increasingly being considered a legitimate source of information. The following are the reasons underlying its growing significance:
- Advances in desktop publishing have meant that grey literature can be attractively produced.
- The creation of search engines has meant it can be brought to the attention of and accessed by many. (Learn more about improving research discoverability here: Maximise discoverability of your research through Titles, Abstracts and Keywords)
- The rise of digital publishing and the Internet means that grey literature can be easily and inexpensively distributed.
Furthermore, there is now explicit guidance on how to cite grey literature in all mainstream style guides. There have even been conferences and associations focused exclusively on grey literature. For example, the Twenty-Third International Conference on Grey Literature was recently held in December 2021 in Amsterdam.
Citing and referencing grey literature: Points to note
a. Accessing and referencing
As a researcher, you can cite grey literature and include it in your reference list so long as it is accessible to all. Nearly all the elements that make up a reference to any mainstream source – author(s) or the entity responsible for creation, year of publication or production, title and availability – are also applicable for grey literature.
b. Ensuring authenticity
Importantly, ensure that the grey literature you use comes from a trustworthy source: it is all too easy to be misled by slick production. The content is primary and should be prioritised, and the long-standing reservation that grey literature may not have been subjected to independent scrutiny and validation continues to hold true. It is up to you as a citing author to ensure that any literature that you use – mainstream or grey – stands up to robust, rigorous and ethical research standards.
c. Additional pointers
- Authorship: If no named author can be ascertained, treat the entity responsible for the publication as its author. For example, if the reference is a recent annual report of an organisation, the organisation becomes the author.
- Date: If the year of publication cannot be ascertained, use the abbreviation “n.d.”, which stands for “no date”.
- Publication type: Mention the type of publication if it has been specified, such as “working paper”, “technical report” or “handbook”.
- Identification number: Provide any identifying number; most of these documents are often assigned a number by the entity responsible for producing the document. For example, ‘Determinants of Bulgarian Brady Bond Prices: An Empirical Assessment’ by the World Bank is identifiable as Working Paper No. 2277.
- Referencing guidelines: Follow the guidelines in your chosen style/referencing guide to indicate that the source is grey literature. This might be done by a simple, differentiating adjustment of the way the titles of grey documents are formatted than those of traditional literature (e.g. italics for mainstream documents but normal type for grey literature; or title case for the former but sentence case for the latter, and so on).
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