What is grey literature and why is it essential for policy?

APO houses the largest digital collection of grey literature on public policy – not just for Australia and New Zealand, but – as far as we know – for the world. So just what is grey literature and why is it a ‘must have’ for policymakers? APO Director, Brigid van Wanrooy, explains. 

APO is a truly unique and valuable resource. We provide a comprehensive collection of grey literature on public policy. ‘Grey literature’ is one of those concepts, that as a researcher, I was pretty sure I knew what it was, but if asked I would have struggled to provide a definition. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it simply as: 

‘written material (such as a report) that is not published commercially or is not generally accessible’. 

From this definition the value APO provides is immediately clear. APO takes something that is not ‘generally accessible’, and puts it in one place and makes it publicly available. And has been doing so since 2002. 

Grey literature is produced by a variety of sources from government departments, agencies, think tanks, research institutes, industry and non-for-profits – so it valuably provides a representation of a diverse range of views and perspectives, and tends to focus on public policy issues. 

While APO sources its material from across the globe, there is a focus on Australian and New Zealand public policy. So, here, in this corner of the globe, we are very lucky to have such a long-standing and unique resource. 

Evidence for policy versus ‘What Works’

I know from experience, governments tend to be preoccupied with the ‘what works’ movement – which advocates the use of rigorous control trial evaluations to determine the effectiveness of interventions. There is no question that when dealing with this kind of evidence – statistical analysis of the impact of programs on people – rigorous peer-reviewed literature is essential. 

However, I think this preoccupation is leading governments to neglect the much trickier and thornier issue of how to get more evidence into the messy policy cycle. This type of evidence can include the nature and impact of an issue, policy and legislative approaches, as well as stakeholder and community views. And this is where grey literature – and APO – can be most useful. 

Grey literature: Evidence for policy

While academic literature that is commercially published in journals and texts is fundamental to advancing knowledge, I argue that grey literature is more relevant and useful when dealing with the messy and often fast-paced public policy process. I have four reasons for this belief. 

1. Grey literature is current

The production of academic literature is often a long drawn-out process, often taking at least a year to have a paper peer-reviewed and published. Policy issues and the policy process move fast – and as we have seen demonstrated by the rapidly evolving COVID-19 pandemic – so does the need for research and evidence. We have seen this play out through more publicity for ‘pre-prints’ (academic papers that have not yet been peer-reviewed) and organisations quickly responding with policy documents, research reports and evidence maps

2. Grey literature provides diverse perspectives

Grey literature does not discriminate. It reflects a diverse range of perspectives. And no organisation is excluded from publishing their own work on APO. 

3. Grey literature provides thought leadership

Grey literature reflects the topical issues of the day that are of concern to public policy organisations – whether it be the government or advocacy groups or research institutes.

4. Grey literature is accessible

Reports from organisations involved in public policy are generally written in language that is accessible to the community it serves. 

That said, we shouldn’t forget that grey literature will often reflect the evidence being developed in the more formal academic sphere through peer review processes, and is often produced by academics themselves. 

So if you want the most up-to-date thinking and research on a public policy issue – grey literature – and APO – should be your first port of call.

Just a side note: APO extends beyond written material or ‘literature’ with a diverse range of resource types including podcasts, videos and datasets to name a few.