Grey Literature in the Marine Sciences: Recognizing Its Importance, Retaining It for Canadians

We have been pursuing research on awareness and use of marine scientific information, especially grey literature, at the science-policy interface for several years and have been focussing on the significance of enablers and barriers to information use. Lately, we have become increasingly concerned about recent federal government decisions to substantially reduce the number of government research libraries. This action inevitably will create hurdles (maybe insurmountable hurdles) to access to important scientific information. As researchers, we are concerned about the fate of the intellectual property of Canada pertaining to the conservation, protection, and sustainability of Canada’s marine ecosystems and natural resources built up over decades of research and considerable public funding, and maintained by libraries across the country.

A notable example of downsizing of libraries is occurring within the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which is reducing its departmental libraries from 11 to four (two of which will function as quite specialized collections). As a result, this large federal department will only be served by two fully-functioning libraries, one on each coast of the country (the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, British Columbia). Historic marine and fisheries libraries, e.g., at the St. Andrew’s Biological Station in New Brunswick, are slated for closure, leaving the fate of much irreplaceable grey literature such as historical and archival materials – expedition reports, annual reports, various working group reports, diaries, etc. – in doubt (more details about the St. Andrews’ Biological Station library are found at this link). Margaret Munro’s recent article (“Closure of fisheries’ libraries called a ‘disaster’ for science”) published in PostMedia newspapers earlier this month reports on widespread public concern about decisions being made about the potential loss of valuable materials and the significant reduction in access to scientific resources. Marine historians are particularly in angst over the impending losses.

The important role that libraries fulfil in research institutions cannot simply be replaced by the rapid developments in digital communication of the past two decades. Not only have libraries assembled collections of important materials that are unlikely to ever be digitized (e.g., consultants reports of environmental impact assessments, collections and papers and talks by individual investigators, reports produced in other countries, etc.), they are increasingly taking on a substantially enhanced role as repositories for rapidly growing scientific data files and research documentation that warrant full public access for the advancement of scientific discovery and application (see “The library reboot” by Richard Monastersky in Nature, 495 (28 March 2013), 430-432). The closure of libraries removes the resources needed for innovation and solutions to complex problems facing society. The haste to close libraries, weed and/or discard collections including monographs, and reduce the number of experienced librarians/information managers will negatively affect the work of research scientists and the ability of fisheries managers to make informed decisions at a time when issues at both national and international levels require serious action. Peter Wells addressed these matters in a recent editorial (see “Canadian aquatic science and environmental legislation under threat,” Marine Pollution Bulletin, 69(1-2) (2013), 1-2). Fiscal constraints, notwithstanding, additional sober evaluation is needed regarding the importance of maintaining research resources such as is provided through the libraries of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Maintaining valued collections and enabling access to scientific information is vital.

Over the past fifty years grey literature has been published in large quantities by many organizations, especially government bodies. Released outside of the marketing and distribution practices of commercial publishers, this literature can easily be lost in the mass of information that is growing rapidly every day, unless it is made readily accessible in a barrier-free manner. Grey literature is widely used in public policy and decision making, primarily due to the accessible language in which it is written. Moreover, scientific reports, many of which are published as grey literature, are particularly important for documenting and communicating research findings. These reports often contain more detail than is published in peer-reviewed journals, and may, in fact, be the only source of important scientific findings. These reasons alone account for the production of much grey literature historically and today.

Ease of access is a determining factor in whether information will be used. When it is not readily accessible, decisions will be made in the absence of relevant information. Digitization, Google, and open access have by no means solved this problem, and won’t any time soon. Thus, it is simply short-sighted to base policy decisions governing information use on the assumption that awareness and access are minor issues.

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