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Gray Literature: Beyond Peer Review

Gray Literature

What is it?

Gray literature is an important source of information that consists of government, academic, and business information that is shared outside of traditional academic publishing channels. It generally isn't peer reviewed.

It includes:

  • working papers or pre-prints
  • government/NGO publications
  • technical/industry reports
  • conference proceedings/posters
  • presentation slides
  • newsletters
  • dissertations/theses
  • blog posts
  • oral presentations

Why use it?

  • It provides access to new ideas and perspectives.
  • It allows you to broadly explore a topic and understand the less formal conversations happening around it.
  • It may help counterbalance publication bias (the increased likelihood of reporting positive results).
  • It may be more current than peer reviewed material, since it may not be peer reviewed and authors may be able to update it.
  • It may provide a more comprehensive view of emerging research areas.
  • Government agencies, non-government organization, and businesses are often important stakeholders in research issues.

"Peer review" refers to the process where researchers submit a paper they have written to a journal. The journal editor then sends the article to the author's peers, other researchers and scholars who are in the same discipline. These reviewers determine if the article should be published based on the quality of the research, including the validity of the data, the conclusions the authors' draw, and the originality of the research. While peer review is important for validating research, it also takes a great deal of time.

Initial Tools

Google

When performing a "what is out there"-style search, Google will return the largest number of results. However, it will also return a lot of misinformation and irrelevant material. For more control over your search results, try the Google Advanced Search or searching with the following terms:

  • site:*.edu or site:*.gov
    This tells Google you only want search results from websites with a .edu (educational) or .gov (government) address. It doesn't guarantee the material is useful, but it can help narrow your results to material that's more conducive to research.
  • filetype:pdf
    This tells Google you're only interested in PDF files. The PDF format is commonly used for articles, handouts, syllabi, and organizational documents.
  • "phrases in quotes"
    This tells Google you want the exact phrase contained within the quotes. It's helpful when searching for specific concepts that include common phrases

For example, the search for [site:*.edu filetype:pdf "social emotional learning] (without the square brackets) will return all of the PDFs that Google has indexed from educational websites that contain the phrase "social emotional learning".

A Google search box that contains the search string: site:*.edu filetype:pdf "social emotional learning"

Google Scholar

Google Scholar contains journal and conference papers, theses and dissertations, academic books, pre-prints, abstracts, technical reports and other scholarly literature that's available on the internet. It also contains material from the OSU Libraries database subscriptions if you sign in with your ONID. For more information on Google Scholar, check out OSU's Google Scholar LibGuide

As with Google, using the Advanced Search or using search strings like author: provide more focused results.

A Google Scholar search box with the string: author:fox

Databases

Databases dedicated just to gray literature do exist. For example:

  • OpenGrey.eu: A directory of grey literature produced in Europe.
  • OpenDOAR: A global directory of open access repositories

However, gray lit is often stored among peer-reviewed articles. Many of OSU Libraries' databases contain gray lit.

Most databases provide advanced search tools or a "refine search" option to limit your results to specific formats or document types. For example, some databases allow searches specifically for conference proceedings, dissertations, or government documents. Another way to look for gray lit is to filter out everything marked "peer-reviewed". These are a few databases that contain a mix of gray lit and peer-reviewed articles:

The Theses & Dissertations guide has more information on theses, dissertations, and ScholarsArchive@OSU.

Evaluating Gray Literature

Gray literature is usually not peer reviewed. It may not be appropriate for certain assignments or research activities. Moreover, academic disciplines place different amounts of value on gray literature. When including gray lit in your research, consider these steps: 

  • Pay attention to the types of sources referenced in your field. Do your peers mention blog posts? Dissertations? Government reports? If so, that's a good sign you could do it too.
  • Is the depth of information appropriate for your research? If you're looking for three peer-reviewed articles, gray lit probably won't help. However, if you're performing a broad exploration of a topic and its ongoing scholarly conversations, gray lit may be just what you need.

Critically evaluating any source is important, but it's especially important with gray literature since you don't have the safety net of peer review. Who created the literature? What are their biases? Are they respected in their field?

For more information on evaluating information, check out the SIFT method or the CRAAP test.