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How Australia produces $30 billion worth of ‘grey literature’ that we can’t read

The inability to find information quickly impacts innovation and stunts collaboration. Pixabay/unsplash

How Australia produces $30 billion worth of ‘grey literature’ that we can’t read

The inability to find information quickly impacts innovation and stunts collaboration. Pixabay/unsplash

Australia spends more than $30 billion a year on projects which produce “grey literature” - documents which are produced by government departments, academic institutions, private companies and more. But despite all this effort, Australia lacks a standardised mechanism to curate and freely distribute grey literature.

There has never been a better time, than right now, to investigate opportunities into improving our country’s memory.

Government agencies allocate billions of dollars, each year, to research projects and programs. These activities produce research papers, conference papers and other forms of grey literature.

Examples of these agencies include The Australian Research Council and The National Health and Medical Research Council. These two agencies collectively allocated approximately $19 billion dollars in public funding to Australian research projects between 2000 and 2014.

Students in the higher education sector also produce high quality grey literature in the form of Theses and Dissertations.

Of course the public - inclusive of tax payers, business owners, teachers, farmers, researchers, students and more - can all benefit from free and uninterrupted access to all publicly funded knowledge and information.

The importance of grey literature

Given the context, grey literature is a very important source of information in this age of immediacy. It is also perfect for industry research collaboration due to its greater speed and flexibility of dissemination to a wide audience via the internet.

Unfortunately, Australia, unlike its competing international counterparts, has limited provisions for the digital curation or information stewardship of grey literature. At present firms mostly use their company web sites to store information and in turn, the Australian public are heavily reliant on commercial search engines to find information.

The inability to find information quickly impacts innovation and stunts collaboration.

Australia’s Ideas Boom

It is now widely known that Australia’s collaboration between industry and the research and higher education sector is the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries (OECD). In response, the Australian government has launched the national innovation and science agenda, with PM Malcolm Turnbull calling for an “Ideas Boom”.

The Ideas Boom promotes the collaboration between universities and industry in order to create more profitable, sustainable and export focused industries.

While there has been much debate about the flow-on effects from the Ideas Boom, contrary to what some believe, recent research shows that successful industry/research collaboration results in the increased quality and quantity of research output.

Unfortunately knowledge does not transfer through silo-ed organisations and institutions automatically. It also does not flow freely through the boundaries of firms or institutions towards the public.

Australia’s knowledge preservation

This raises concerns about the long-term preservation of Australia’s knowledge, which some think is compounded by the recent decrease in funding to the National Library of Australia which directly effected an online database called Trove which was designed to provide a single point of access to Australia’s openly accessible information.

Of course, Australia does have open access policies. These policies, amongst other things, mandate that publicly funded research be made available through university websites (also known as Institutional Repositories). However, individually searching (or even locating the URL for) each Institutional Repository in-turn is both inefficient and impractical.

Moreover, individually searching each of these systems world-wide would be bordering on impossible. This is part of the reason why information technology infrastructure and products like search engines have boomed (and made billions from advertising) during the last decade.

The gap in sustainable collaboration

A recent Australian Research Council funded Linkage Project revealed that Australia lacks a body that can advise and liaise on best practice for digital information production across government, education, civil society and industry.

The project titled “Grey Literature Strategies” identified a potential national efficiency impact of around $17 billion per annum in relation to grey literature accessibility.

Designing deliberate solutions

Last year the AMP Tomorrow fund provided an opportunity to make inroads into building an access portal into the global wealth of publicly funded information. The project artefact, which is in beta, has since harvested as much of the world’s publicly funded research as possible.

The free and ever expanding website, allows users to search millions of grey literature records. At present the interface has two modes: a traditional search engine results page, and a modern data visualisation software product known as Bookworm; the software which inspired the Google Books Ngram Viewer:

screen capture of openaccess dot xyz. openaccess

The artefact is currently in beta and will undergo further development and refinement in the knowledge that solving the problematic transfer of knowledge between industry, governments and academia requires more than meets the eye.

The Australian economy can benefit from the improved curation of, and access to, publicly funded knowledge. Designing and building digital curation infrastructure for grey literature would be of value to Australia.

The unprecedented amount of information which we currently see is, not surprisingly, ever increasing and the time is right to deliberately design a demonstrable system which would ensure the preservation of knowledge and assist in securing Australia’s position as a leading, but more importantly sustainable, industry-research collaborator.