Not all research is carried out within universities, or published in peer-reviewed journals. ‘Grey literature’ (for example reports and working papers) is produced in large quantities throughout the world by independent research institutes, think tanks, charities, international organisations and government agencies (as well as by universities).
Although the lack of both peer review and formal publication standards must be taken into account when evaluating this kind of literature, it can be an important source of original research and up to date information.
Grey literature is increasingly available online, but there are still problems with finding and using it, including missing identifying/contextualising information such as dates, unclear copyright status, and lack of a stable URL or permanent online location. Research published in the global South can already be hard to find as it rarely appears in Northern bibliographic indexes, so Southern grey literature is at a double disadvantage.
As part of our work to raise the profile of Southern-published research and make it more accessible to a global audience, the British Library for Development Studies has been building digital collections by digitising ‘grey’ material in our physical holdings.
We initially focused on series papers from research institutes and university departments in Africa and Asia which had little existing online presence. The first step was to negotiate with the copyright holders to license their material under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (By-NC-ND). This is a license that combines liberal reproduction terms with some restrictions on types of reuse.
Once agreements with copyright holders had been signed, we scanned our print copies of their publications, using optical character recognition (OCR) to make the text fully searchable. These digital versions were then uploaded as PDFs (with full metadata) to a newly created Digital Library on our DSpace repository platform.
Digital repositories have been developed primarily as a way to store and make accessible pre-publication versions of peer reviewed articles (known as ‘green’ open access or self-archiving). However, our experience at BLDS shows that they can also be an effective way of archiving and disseminating previously offline, dispersed or hidden grey literature outputs.
Since our first partnership agreement with the University of Nairobi in 2010, we have added a total of 2220 documents to the Digital Library. These documents originate from 15 different organisations based in Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. There are around 4000 downloads from the collection every month, and around 2000 abstract views (over 60% from the global South). The more Digital Library papers are accessed, the higher they are ranked in Google Scholar search results, and vice versa - a virtuous circle of discoverability.
The next phase of digital collection building involves inviting Southern partner organisations to contribute content directly to the Digital Library, with BLDS providing capacity support for local digitisation where needed. If you would like to know more about this project, please contact Rachel Playforth.
We are currently surveying users about our website, BLDS Digital Library and catalogue. The information that we collect in this way will assist us in developing our work so that we can continue to offer you an excellent service.
Rachel Playforth is Repository Coordinator for the British Library for Development Studies at IDS.