Not Always Black & White

We here in the library are often asked some version of this question: “How do I know I’ve done an exhaustive literature search?”

This always feels like a bit of a conundrum: how do you know what you don’t know?

perplexed luke - colour stylee - vancouver-epl1-17.5mm-f095-nokton-20131129-PB298374.jpg

Photo by Roland Tanglao. CC license here.

One tip for conducting a thorough search is to look at the ‘gray literature’ on your topic.  What exactly is gray literature you ask?  Typically, it’s literature which falls outside the realm of traditional/commercial publishing channels.  (Disclaimer: you will see this concept spelled both ‘gray’ and ‘grey’. Fear not, both are acceptable!).

As GreyNet defines it, this literature consists of: “…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 includes, but is certainly not limited to:

  • Conference proceedings & papers
  • Government documents
  • Reports of all sorts
  • Informal communication (blogs, emails, tweets, phone calls, etc.)
  • Clinical trials
  • And more!

In other words, gray literature consists of many of the works which have not necessarily gone through the formal publishing cycle, but which can still provide valuable information and perspectives on your research.

So, if this gray literature is not available via commercial publishers, how do you find it?

Magnified (8/365)

Photo by Jake Bouma. CC license here.

Great question! By definition, it is more difficult to locate than scholarly articles and books; however, there are some great resources out there to help you in this process.  Some of these resources are available within Fielding’s library, while others are available to you on the open web.

Here’s a sampling:

  • PapersFirst & ProceedingsFirst: These two databases are accessible within Fielding’s library (just follow the ‘databases’ link on the homepage and you will find them in the alphabetical list).  While the databases do not always link to full-text, they are an excellent discovery resource to help you find those conference papers and proceedings related to your topic.
  • GreySource Index: “provides examples of grey literature to the average net-user and in so doing profiles organizations responsible for its production and/or processing. GreySource identifies the hyperlink directly embedded in a resource, thus allowing immediate and virtual exposure to grey literature.” (from GreySource page)
  • National Technical Information Center ( as the largest central resource for government-funded scientific, technical, engineering, and business related information available today. For more than 60 years NTIS has assured businesses, universities, and the public timely access to approximately 3 million publications covering over 350 subject areas.

To discover more gray lit resources, check out the gray lit page of Fielding’s Literature Review LibGuide here.

Lastly, is this literature reliable?  Since it has not gone through the more rigorous academic publishing process, gray literature often has not been peer-reviewed. This does not make it less valuable, but it certainly requires that you pay close attention to your sources and check their credibility when necessary.  On this point, and on citing this type of research, you may find this blog post about gray lit on the APA style blog helpful.

As always, good luck with your research!

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