The expanding horizon of Grey Literature

Prof. John Mackenzie Owen

University of Amsterdam


Grey literature is a term used to describe information products which are created and distributed in order to disseminate knowledge (ideas, facts, opinions) rather than to sell for a profit. In practice, and for that reason, grey literature can also be defined as information which is not marketed and distributed by commercial publishing organisations. The term ‘grey’ stems from the fact that such information is not publicised and not available through the traditional channels of publishers and booksellers. Grey does not imply any qualification, it is merely a characterisation of the distribution mode. In fact, a large proportion of grey literature is distributed in both modes: ‘grey’ in the form of pre-prints, ‘white’ in the form of a published article. The quality is often identical, the main difference being that ‘white’ literature has a quality stamp provided by the publisher and its embedded peer review process.


In this paper I shall focus on the distinction between ‘grey’ and ‘white’ literature as a difference in distribution modes. I shall argue that both publisher strategies and developments in the area of digitalisation and networking will result in an increasingly marginal role for the publishing industry and in a future information environment in which ‘grey’ will be the predominant distribution mode,


Traditional grey literature


Grey literature has become a specialised branch of the information profession due to a number of characteristics which differentiate it from published literature:



Over the years, therefore, the field of grey literature has evolved into a universe of its own, with specific work methods, vocabulary, systems and activities such as this international conference.


The future of publishing


Grey literature always has to be defined in contrast with published literature. In looking at the future of grey literature, it is therefore necessary to analyse how the publishing industry will develop. Such an analysis points to a number of severe problems, especially in the area of scientific publishing:



The general perception amongst intermediaries and end-users is that the traditional balance between quality, revenue (to the publisher) and value (to the user) no longer exists. Creators and intermediaries are now starting to resist the business strategies of publishers, and are beginning to think about new distribution models in which there is no, or at least less need for publishers.


It is therefore becoming necessary to re-engineer the communication process. The traditional concept of an information chain, consisting of authors, publishers, intermediaries and users, is no longer valid. Digitisation and networking provides many opportunities for developing new communication modes. The current strategy of publishers will probably lead to an increasingly marginal, and few outside the publishing industry would appear to feel sorry for that.


The future of information distribution


Publishers’ commercial strategies are not the only reason for a shift towards new distribution models. A number of other developments point in this direction, most of them related in one way or another to digitisation and networking:



What this means is that digitisation and networking provide authors and end-users with a mechanism for distributing and acquiring information without need for the professional institutions in the information chain. What this leads to is an information world in which ‘grey’ literature is the predominant type of information. If the traditional institutions, such as publishers and intermediaries wish to survive, they will have to adopt new roles. These roles can no longer be defined in terms of traditional functions such as packaging and distribution, or storage and retrieval. They will have to be found by offering solutions to problems which are inherent in the new information world.


One example of this is a role for publishers in quality control. There are many problems in this area, due to the fact that the traditional peer review process is embedded in traditional publishing procedures. There is, as yet, no viable equivalent for the digital world. This is an area where publishers could become involved by developing solutions for peer review of digital objects which are useful and logical in a networked environment, e.g. involving rating systems and electronic refereeing.


The role of the library sector


In this paper I have argued that both publishers’ strategies and IT-developments will reduce the importance of the traditional information distribution chain significantly. I have also argued that this will therefore reduce the importance for information distribution of the traditional institutional parties in the information chain such as publishers and information intermediaries. Libraries are, as information intermediaries, an important component of the information chain. I would now like to say a few words on their future role.


The most important consequence of the emerging role of digital information products and networked distribution is that libraries will have to move from functioning as acquisition-oriented memory organisations towards service organisations supporting and facilitating access to information on the network.  In addition, there are many opportunities to move towards the production and distribution side of the information cycle.


Of the many things libraries can and should do under these circumstances, I find the following the most important and challenging:



European information policy


the European Union has contributed greatly towards the development of the information sector through its R&D programmes. However, these programmes are aimed at existing, traditional economic sectors and are, in this case, highly biased towards the traditional information industry.  This sector benefits not only from R&D programmes, but also, perhaps especially from legal protection. This is due to the final objective of many EU activities, which is to increase job creation in the information industry rather than to increase the added value of information to the economy and society at large.  In short: the financial and competitive position of a relatively small economic sector (the information industry) benefits from European R&D subsidies and legislative activities, but this does not by definition lead to a better and wealthier information society.


I have argued that at least the publishing sector will in future become a less important player in the information field: their strategies are unacceptable to authors and users, the role of ‘grey’ literature is becoming far more important, information production and distribution is becoming embedded in other industries. There is therefore a need for change in the European information policy.


European information policy should focus on the role of information and information distribution in society and its added value to the European economy and for the competitive position of both industry and the academic sector. Focusing on the relatively small and diminishing role of the formal information industry and equating the information sector with the publishing industry is a strategic mistake in view of the way the information society is developing.


Subsidising the publishing industry (through R&D programmes) and strengthening their legal position (through legislation in areas such as copyright and database protection) is not helpful in the long term. Instead, support should be given to creators and users of information, and to developing and sustaining a European information environment capable of competing with the rest of the world.





In this paper I have argued that a number of developments is changing the information scene on an unprecedented scale. One consequence of these developments is that an increasing proportion of information available to users on digital networks will have the characteristics of what we traditionally have called ‘grey’ information. The expected situation is described in more detail if Table 1:














Relative volume









Speed of production and delivery









Cost of information



Low, decreasing



High, increasing






Global, unrestricted



Limited, restricted



Quality control



Provided by innovative technologies



Organised through traditional peer review process



Long-term archiving



Problematic due to volume and technological ageing



Problematic due to legal restrictions and technological ageing


Role of libraries



Loss of traditional roles

Opportunities for new services



Problematic due to legal restrictions



Role of publishers