12 November 2013

Reflections on the Forced Migration Information Landscape: Grey Literature

Image credit/©Sarah R.2010: "RSC Grey Literature"
If you visit this blog often, you may have noticed a greater number of posts than usual over the past week! This was due to the build-up of information during my time in Vienna, where I was attending the launch of the second edition of ACCORD’s Researching Country of Origin Information: A Training Manual (more about this in a separate post). I was also invited to talk briefly about the work that I’ve done on Forced Migration Current Awareness. Since this presented a useful opportunity to reflect on eight years of disseminating information via my blog, I thought I would use it as a starting point for several posts this week about the forced migration information landscape and how it has evolved over the years.

The type of information I tend to highlight on this blog is what we generally think of as "grey literature," i.e., unpublished or informally published materials that fall outside the mainstream distribution channels that exist for commercially published items like books and scholarly journal articles.  For this reason, grey literature used to be quite hard to access.  If you were lucky, you might have been able to find an item of interest in a library.  The Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) library, for example, was known for its strong grey literature collection, which included a number of one-of-a-kind materials. In order to widen access to these unique items, the RSC initiated a project in the late 1990s to digitize grey literature documents which led eventually to the development of the Forced Migration Digital Library.  (Read this case study for more information.)

Today, of course, the situation is completely different!  Grey literature constitutes the bulk of what I reference: research reports, working papers, project documents, official publications, training materials, conference presentations, newsletters, operational guidelines, etc. (more examples of grey literature document types can be found on GreyNet). These items are generally made available through their producers' web sites and can usually be tracked down via a web search.

So is there any value in continuing to collect and provide access to these sorts of materials in a systematic way?  I would say yes.  The following examples might help to explain why.  Two types of grey literature documents that have become more readily available over the years are conference materials and masters theses/doctoral dissertations.  The former include the full-texts of individual papers, Powerpoint presentations, reports of conference proceedings, and archived webcasts and podcasts of the actual events. Yet while these are much easier to access today than in the past, they remain challenging types of resources to track because they are so widely dispersed across web sites. Moreover, the interdisciplinary nature of forced migration means that relevant papers could be presented at conferences that cover a wide variety of subject areas.  So one really has to know that a certain conference took place and then actively seek it out in order to determine whether any full-text materials of interest are available.

Theses and dissertations also used to be hard to access.  In the past, the print version would have been catalogued and shelved at the host institution's library.  Sometimes a digital version could be accessed through a fee-based database service like UMI (now ProQuest).  But increasingly, electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) are being made available through universities' Institutional Repositories (IRs).  These are online archives that have been set up to capture the intellectual output of an academic institution. Often, there is even an institutional mandate or requirement for the texts of these items to be made Open Access (OA) (more about this in a later post).

When documents are systematically collected and described from a central point, they are much easier to access.  This is equally true in digital and print environments.  Which is why it's easier for me to learn about ETDs than conference materials.  I find out about the former generally through Google Scholar and BASE.net, two search engines which index scholarly research resources.  But I don't have a reliable, automated way of tracking the latter.  Instead, I have to remind myself to re-visit conference web sites to see if conference documents have been posted, a much more time-consuming and ad hoc task!

Tagged Web Sites/Tools.

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