Making grey literature slightly less grey

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Interview with Dr. Andreas Lütjen, Head of Acquisitions and Cataloguing at TIB, about the particular importance of grey literature

The 21st International Conference on Grey Literature, a renowned event that focuses on the topic of grey literature, is set to take place in Hannover on 22 and 23 October. The perfect opportunity to talk to Dr. Andreas Lütjen, Head of Acquisitions and Cataloguing at TIB – Leibniz Information Centre for Science and Technology, about grey literature, the importance and visibility of grey literature, and the role that TIB plays in acquiring grey literature.

Dr. Lütjen, grey literature is often defined as publications that are not available from bookstores, and that are hence often difficult to obtain. Grey literature is one of TIB’s special collection fields. What materials are covered specifically by the term “grey literature”, and why is it often difficult to get hold of such items?

TIB purchases and indexes grey literature in engineering subjects, as well as in architecture, chemistry, computer science, mathematics and physics. The library then makes this literature available for use by science, research and industry. Our grey literature includes conference publications from around the world, German and international research reports, East Asian and Eastern European journals and monographs, theses, as well as patent specifications and standards. Moreover, TIB acts as the depository library for the final reports of projects funded with public money from a number of federal ministries – such as the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) and the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) – as well as numerous other institutions and research facilities.

Dr. Andreas Lütjen, Head of Acquisitions and Cataloguing at TIB. Foto: TIB

In many cases, advance information about specialist conferences is only relayed to the relevant specialist community, which does not make it easy for us, as a library, to find out where and when such events take place. For acquisition purposes, it’s important to know the source of procurement in each case. Also, we are under a certain amount of time pressure, because often only a limited number of copies of the publication are available. Had TIB not proactively placed several standing orders, the publications would have been out of print even before being available for purchase. A standing order is an order for the next publication in a series of conferences or an advance order for a specialist society’s entire range of conference publications. And since the proceeds from selling their often high-priced publications is a major source of income for quite a few specialist societies, the financial aspect also plays a key role.

TIB is in a fortunate situation in this respect: given that it is a German national specialist library, funded jointly by the German federal and state governments, by acquiring grey literature, it performs a task of national significance. And the benefit is felt by science, research and industry throughout Germany and beyond. The investment necessary for this, in terms of TIB staff gaining expertise and specialist library knowledge for the acquisition and cataloguing of grey literature, and the relevant infrastructure will pay off in the long run. After all, besides permanently preserving its collections, TIB naturally ensures that they are freely accessible: the proverbial “great capital that silently generates incalculable interest”.

Grey literature, whether in the form of conference proceedings, research reports, expert opinions or theses, contains valuable information that is an important source for scientists and researchers. Conference proceedings, for example, often reflect the state of the art in that particular field of research. So why is so little attention paid to grey literature, and how can we increase its visibility?

TIB makes an important contribution to increasing the visibility of grey literature. Examples include: formal cataloguing in K10plus, an online database with around 200 million locations; recording conference authority records in the Integrated Authority File (GND); and the allocation of DOIs (Digital Object Identifiers) for German research reports, enabling them also to be found via DataCite. The fact that grey literature often receives scant attention nevertheless is also an issue of indexing depth. To find out which talks were presented at a conference, you currently need to refer to the table of contents of previously published conference proceedings. Thankfully, this can also be done electronically – all tables of contents are completely digitised in the context of “catalogue enrichment”, and made freely available on the internet via the K10plus catalogue. But it is a bit cumbersome. It is legally possible to digitise tables of contents, due to their low level of originality. TIB is keen to move beyond the provision of digitised tables of contents, which is why it is currently involved in a project to test the direct indexing of conference proceedings at the research paper level using a semi-automated process. We hope that this will make it much easier and quicker to access grey literature. As such, we seek to make grey literature slightly less grey, as it were.

To increase the visibility of grey literature, since 2015 TIB has supported the commitments laid down in the Pisa Declaration, which has been translated into 15 languages, including German, for which TIB was responsible: governments and organisations should promote grey literature. In the Declaration, they are urged to should show greater commitment to open access, give greater recognition to high-quality grey literature, and offer greater support for the collection development and digital preservation of grey literature.

Grey literature is particularly significant to TIB: in 2018, around 60 per cent of the library’s entire collection was grey literature, a considerable amount. Why does TIB specialise in grey literature from the fields of science and technology, and how does it go about obtaining such items?

TIB was founded in 1959 with the aim of “meeting the special literature needs of technical research and technical practice as a central technology library of the Federal Republic,” as TIB’s first Director, Wilhelm Grunwald (1909-1989), put it. This was and remains impossible to achieve without focusing on grey literature. More than 60 years ago, the stakeholders with a say in library policy realised that there was a great need for this in the cooperatively organised system of West German literature supply. The library of what was then the Technical University in Hannover had a locational advantage – thanks to the timely relocation of its collections at the end of World War II, it lost only a little of its technical and scientific collections, which even back then were already outstanding. The newly established TIB was able to build on a solid collection that has been growing since 1831.

For years, TIB has maintained long-term relationships with specialist societies in Germany and abroad, and placed standing orders with them. From the federal ministries for which TIB acts as a depository library, the library receives German research reports as compulsory additions. But even here, there is sometimes a considerable need to communicate with the authors, or to advise them. Despite being required to submit their research reports to TIB, grant recipients often need to be constantly reminded, and some may take ages to comply with this requirement.

The example of grey literature published in East Asian and Eastern European countries shows how important it is that staff from the Acquisitions and Cataloguing teams have the necessary language and intercultural skills. For years, employees have been developing these skills for the East Asia and Eastern Europe departments.

Moreover, the excellent cooperation within the library with TIB’s Scientific Service ensures that both established and recently added conferences can be monitored continuously. Together, the Acquisitions and Cataloguing teams, and especially the “Grey Literature” team and the “German Research Report” team, support TIB’s ConfIDent project. This project involves developing a conference platform “that can be used to enable the permanent accessibility of the metadata of scientific events, which are made available at the highest level of quality possible via automated process[es] and specialist curation.”

Everybody’s talking about digitisation. Libraries play an important role in the digitisation process – what’s the status of digitisation of grey literature?

If we look at the collection of German research reports alone, there were 282,000 printed research reports compared to 86,000 electronic research reports over the past 60 years, whereby the latter have only been published since the start of the millennium. Taken together, TIB has exclusive possession of around 90 per cent of these two types of publication in this segment. The proportion of digital information relative to TIB’s entire collection is, of course, very small, meaning that a lot of work still needs to be done with regard to obtaining rights to make content available in digital form. But let us not forget that international right holders are frequently involved when it comes to grey literature, and we often have to be content with being able to offer publications in printed form. Even so, the proportion of electronic publications has also increased slightly in the area of grey literature. For example, 58 per cent of German research reports were submitted in digital form in 2011, increasing to 80 per cent in 2016 and 88 per cent in 2018.

Finally, let us come back to the 21st International Conference on Grey Literature, which is being held in Hannover. On the subject of open access, demands for free access to scientific information are increasing. The topics of open access and grey literature will both be addressed at the conference. How do you assess the importance of open access in grey literature, and what needs to be done to increase the proportion of open access grey literature?

In light of the Pisa Declaration, I believe the best way to establish open access more firmly is to introduce compulsory fees and to provide research funding. Moreover, open access enables academics to make their results known to other experts in a quick, barrier-free way. So it would be particularly helpful if more right holders were to publish their findings under CC licences.

Returning to the start of our discussion, however, I would like to emphasise that the era of open access does not mean that TIB’s tasks are complete. It will still be necessary to gather sources relevant to science at a central – virtual – place along the lines of a library collection, and to make them accessible via appropriate research portals, as is already the case with the TIB-Portal. More than 86,000 German research reports and 8,518 conference publications can be searched and accessed freely online via this portal at present. Random sampling for the 2017 year of publication revealed that TIB has almost 23 per cent exclusive possession in the Architecture subject department throughout Germany. In fact, the figures were 52 per cent for Materials Science and 58 per cent for Building and Construction. The significance of open access for TIB’s collections is particularly evident from these statistics. Another key matter – as was already the case in the era of printed information – is sustainable storage, which TIB will continue to reliably ensure in future. The Central Europe Workshop Proceedings (CEUR-WS), an important resource in computer science, is an excellent example of this. The open access publisher and editor CEUR-WS started cooperating with TIB in 2018 to ensure the digital preservation of its conference proceedings.

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Sandra Niemeyer

... ist Pressereferentin im Team Kommunikation und Marketing