Why is grey literature not open access?

In case you didn’t already know, this week is Open Access Week. To celebrate, this week’s post is by Belinda Thompson,  a PhD Scholar in the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the Australian National University. This post originally appeared on the Open Access Support Group blog and I’d like to thank Danny Kingsley for allowing me to republish it here.

While there’s been much angst about the locking away of academic literature and sky-high fees for libraries to access academic journals, what about all the other sources of publicly-funded material? Why is so called ‘grey literature’ not included in the brave new world of open access?

In case you don’t know, grey literature is defined as

‘ … document types produced on all levels of government, academics, business and industry in print and electronic formats that are protected by intellectual property rights … but not controlled by commercial publishers i.e., where publishing is not the primary activity of the producing body.’ -  12th International Conference on Grey Literature at Prague, December 2010

As a PhD student working in a reasonably cutting-edge area, grey literature is my life-blood. And yet when it comes to some key sources who take money from public coffers for their work, getting access to material that should be public domain is tricky at best.

My area of interest - not-for-profit, non-government hospitals and large scale clinics in developing countries – has not generally been the focus of briefing papers and articles. But often these health facilities are included in documents for various reasons without being the focus. And given the dearth of directly relevant data, I’m prepared to take what I can get – or at least what I can find.

Government Double Standards?

While recipients of Australian Government funds for research now have an obligation to allow open access, the same can’t be said for government departments, which are encouraged, but not required, to make their work open access.

Try checking AusAID’s website for their list of advertising projects or FOI procedures and requests or this page on consultation arrangements. The links lead you either to a blank page or an announcement that the information will be added when it becomes available.

And that’s just scratching the surface of the problem. A significant amount of research is now outsourced to specialist consulting firms or hubs at academic institutions. What that means in practice is we have no idea how much information isn’t making it onto indexes on government websites.

As part of my research I went to AusAID looking for any information they might be able to contribute. I should stress the staff I dealt with were professional and went out of their way to check for me. But the end result was a direction to an outside body, the Nossal Institute,  a health knowledge hub for AusAID. After I found some useful reports on Nossal’s website, I went back to the AusAID publications area and searched for them using keywords from the title. Nothing. I searched under health. Nothing. The document register similarly yielded nothing.

So what happens to members of the public who don’t know AusAID has a librarian to ring and ask for advice? Or who doesn’t make the connection between AusAID and Nossal or any other body contracting to AusAID for that matter?

Your ability to track down information funded by the Australian taxpayer shouldn’t be dependent on how ‘in the know’ you are. Whether you’re a researcher or a tradie, these documents should be easy to access.

It’s in the Report

The sad reality is that even when you finally find the document you’re after, you probably won’t be getting the full picture. As anyone who has ever done research will tell you, there’s a lot that misses the final cut. What happens to that uncaptured knowledge?

When all the researchers were in-house, that institutional knowledge collected along the way stayed within the institution. But now, it dissipates out to a complex web of contractors and partner organisations. So what hope does anyone outside the organisation have of tracing detail that didn’t fit the word limit?

Make an Appointment

I imagined a world where I could ring the librarian, put in a formal request to get access to the library and come and thumb the physical pages, letting the Dewey decimal system lead me from one title to another and maybe even hit the jackpot with a title I would never have thought to search for. Or better still, in a face-to-face conversation with that gatekeeper of knowledge, the librarian might plant a thought that led me to the holy grail. Apparently not.

Along with the outsourcing of much research capacity, the AusAID library now resides off site, so even staff put in requests for books to be retrieved and brought in. While it makes sense for archival or rarely accessed material, there are some titles that could and should be read often. And yes, there are electronic books, but not everything comes in e-book format, not to mention the costs if every individual in an organisation paid for an e-book every time they wanted to read a few prescient pages.

While I’ve focussed on AusAID here, I gather from anecdotal conversations with departmental staff and fellow researchers that this experience is far from rare. I’ve singled out AusAID purely because of my recent interaction with them as a source.

And now the good news…

I was preparing to be less than glowing about the World Bank’s open access. I started by writing that the World Bank had an obligation, given their highly specialised research, to make all their reports accessible for free.

As a frequent user of the site in the past, when I started searching the site again I went straight to the publications catalogue. I was appalled that it still cost $100 to get a report as crucial as African Development Indicators. The best they seemed to offer on the online bookshop was a ‘geographic discount’ for developing country purchasers.

What I missed in the catalogue was the announcement on the inside cover page that ‘most publications are now available for free online’. I ended up stumbling on to the Open Knowledge Repository area of the website which is well designed, easy to search and remarkably had the vast majority of reports published by the World Bank available to download free.

There are some exceptions in the open access policy. Open access only applies to external research when that research was commissioned on or after July 1, 2012 which presumably leaves some research still being undertaken now exempt from the rules. However given the volume of current and historical material available free it seems the Bank has worked hard with its authors to get their consent to publish full reports online.

My one criticism is that this needs to be better flagged on the site, and particularly in the online bookshop. Over-familiarity with the old site led me to miss these changes – like many researchers I can be guilty of being a ‘mongrel reader’ and skipping straight ahead if I think I know a website well. The ‘read and share this’ button looked to me like a clunky piece of advertising rather than an invitation to download the research.

So the upshot is that global organisations like the World Bank, with their multitude of stakeholders, are making huge gains rapidly, while Australian government departments are still lagging behind. It’s time government departments similarly made significant inroads into genuine open access.

What are your thoughts on Open Access? Do you have questions about it? Interested to hear your views in the comments.

Related Posts

Read more about open access issues on the Open Access Support Blog

The academic writers’ strike


9 thoughts on “Why is grey literature not open access?

  1. Hi Belinda
    You sort of touch on a problem I encountered in my Masters program – the availability of internal data. I required two lots of disaggregated non-identifiable population data – a racial split in two areas. One lot I got after some difficulty, the other I didn’t. I almost got the other lot, until someone high up in the relevant government department realised what I wanted, and that the look of this data set was bad – for government. The decision not to release the required data set was also framed for me as a decision generally not to release departmental data to researchers as a rule.
    I was still able to draw conclusions via data from another source, but the impact was certainly minimized.

  2. Hi Belinda,
    I’m also encountering this issue with government departments, but as someone who has worked in the departments where I am conducting the research, I can also see why there are restrictions. The only flat out refusal I have had so far is when a department had destroyed the file I wanted to view. The application process to access internal documents in government departments means that researchers are identifiable and accountable for what they do with the information they find and take i.e. if they steal the research conducted by staff members of a particular department there is a paper trail – and yes, I have seen that happen with a colleague’s research being published by an academic who had access to files he had created (there was no acknowledgement). My colleague hadn’t had a chance to publish his research but had been planning to.

  3. And there’s another thing. Government departments change their names, and thus their URLs, very frequently. For example, the department responsible for Higher Education has changed 8 times since 1987, and with each change there has been a complete change of web address. Trying to find ten-year old reports is a nightmare – they are usually there, but you can’t search by the URL you had five years ago, and even the name of the report often doesn’t help. I have found my Uni’s librarians invaluable for this work – I don’t know how they do it, but somehow they usually find what I need. I know it’s probably not deliberate, but it is a real problem for researchers. An index of all reports available on a department website and their current URLs would be a big help.

  4. Shifting cultures where obfuscation and obscurity have been the norm for a long time can be hard. Though it would be great to see the balance shift from ‘because of the privacy act’ to ‘because of the freedom of information act, subject to the privacy act’. It would be far less costly, overall, if disclosure (FOI) were the norm for government, rather than secrecy.

    Sadly, I fear the new Australian Federal government is embracing secrecy over accessibility; the few avenues I had have closed down – publicly and privately … thus my research has to move in a different direction (yet again).

    Openness and transparency might well ‘draw attention’ to ‘negative’ things, but it also enables better contextualisation of positives as well. And better opportunities to learn, and to respond, as well.

  5. Pingback: Grey Literature: Ketika Bahan Pustaka Abu-abu | Made Hery Santosa

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