Public Policy Forum Blog

We're gray here at the Forum

Attention policy wonks--here's a new word for you: "Gray literature" is the term of art for publications from sources like the Forum, which produce reports that are not easily found from centralized indices or catalogues. Here's a more official definition:
"Gray or grey literature has long been considered the proverbial needle in the haystack. It is commonly defined as any documentary material that is not commercially published and is typically composed of technical reports, working papers, business documents, and conference proceedings. The greatest challenges involved with these items are the process of identification, since there is limited indexing, and acquisition, since availability is usually marred with uncertainty. Added to this is the absence of editorial control, raising questions about authenticity and reliability."

For public policy analysts, gray literature is where new, sometimes outlandish, policy ideas can be found; where independent analyses can reveal alternative results; or where partisans can highlight favorable statistical outcomes while ignoring inconvenient ones. The burden is on the reader to decide whether the source is reliable. (Although it should be noted that in today's world this burden is the reader's even if the content is from a mainstream publishing house, newspaper, or peer-reviewed journal.)

Because there's rarely anything black and white about policymaking, the value of gray literature outweighs its limitations for those of us interested in public policy. There are a few online resources where gray literature producers are catalogued. A good place to start is Britain's Grey Literature Network Service. In addition, the New York Academy of Medicine's library website list hundreds of organizations that publish reports. Finally, DocuTicker offers a selection of publications from government agencies, NGOs, think tanks and other public interest organizations.

For our part, until the late 1990's the Forum provided our reports to the Milwaukee Public Library and are catalogued there. Since 1997 we have made most reports available on-line via our website. To ensure you don't miss out on any new findings, become a member; members of the Forum receive copies of our printed reports and are emailed notices when on-line reports are released.
Author: 
Anneliese Dickman