Serendipitous discoveries often fuel breakthroughs or important insights in research in the natural, health, and social sciences. This is true in the field of “grey literature,” particularly its use and influence, which has been a running theme of the Environmental Information: Use and Influence (EIUI) research program since its inception. Excellent reports are produced but are often lost or forgotten in the milieu of huge numbers of publications, informally produced but not catalogued or otherwise formally noted (e.g., with ISBNs, ISSNs, DOIs, etc.), despite their potential importance. Only relatively recently (since the mid-1990s) have publications been routinely digitized or born digital and made available online. Much of the older material may never be placed on the web and will remain largely hidden or even lost.
Imagine my surprise this summer when the hard-working Editor of the Canadian Society of Environmental Biology(CSEB) gave me a copy of a symposium report entitled, Decision-Making: The Role of Environmental Information. The report, informally produced and printed by the CSEB in 1984, contains the papers presented at the symposium at Red Deer College, Red Deer, Alberta, in March 1984. Nine papers cover environmental topics that were of considerable concern in Alberta at the time, e.g., energy projects, mining projects, water resource projects, etc. The preface of the report, printed in very limited numbers primarily for the attendees, states a theme quite familiar to followers of our EIUI research program, which began 20 years later:
Making good decisions depends on having good information. The decisions are influenced by the kind and extent of information available and how it is used. Understanding better the current role and importance of environmental information in relation to decision making is the focus of this symposium. An opportunity exists to improve the process and make better decisions, by exploring what information is needed, where it is applied, and how it is utilized.
Sound familiar? This report is noted on the CSEB website under “publications.” It is not available digitally; hence its distribution was very limited, primarily to attendees. However, a print copy is still available from the CSEB.
The messages here for EIUI colleagues and followers of our research: if one has a “novel” idea, it is likely that someone else or some other group has thought about it too. If the idea is important, it will likely surface more than once and be followed by serious questions and innovative research, such as we have pursued for many years in the EIUI program. Searching the literature on a topic comprehensively, especially the grey literature, is a challenging task. It is very easy to overlook potentially important documents, especially if their distribution is limited and often only within professional groups. Grey literature, such as workshop or symposium proceedings, should be documented and catalogued appropriately for availability to anyone conducting a rigorous search for pertinent literature. Grey literature can only have an impact if its existence is known!
Despite not previously noting the 1984 CSEB report, it is clear that the aims and objectives of the EIUI research program are largely novel, needed, and representative of a genuine concern about linking science, information, and policy and decision making more efficiently in the interests of the environment. Many original theses and papers have been written by our graduate students and our book on the science-information-policy interface (MacDonald et al., 2016) filled a niche in the coastal and ocean management literature. We should continue to explore questions related to the role of grey literature as much influential information flows in this form within governments, intergovernmental agencies, non-government organizations, and the private sector. Fortunately now, despite its quantity, grey literature is digitized and available on websites and easily searchable. Still, unless the publications include relevant metadata, e.g., appropriate title and keywords, unique identifiers such as ISBNs and DOIs, and dates of publication, they can be missed. Hopefully, insightful reports like the CSEB report will not go unnoticed now!
Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists. (1984). Decision making: The role of environmental information. A symposium sponsored by the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists Alberta Chapter, Red Deer, Alberta, March 17, 1984. 126 p.
MacDonald, B. H., Soomai, S. S., De Santo, E. M. & Wells, P. G. (Eds.). Science, information, and policy interface for effective coastal and ocean management. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group. 474 p. ISBN 978-1-4987-3170-6; 978-1-138-49083-3. [Open Access].
Author: Peter G. Wells