FAIR principles make your grey literature shine out

Eduard Mauri, expert at the EFI Mediterranean Facility, advocates for the use and respect of FAIR principles when sharing project results with the aim of guaranteeing a more connected, shared knowledge that reaches the end user.

Photo: Pexels / Ilona Lang (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The publication of scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals may be a well-laid path but unfortunately the same cannot be said for grey literature. Materials and research produced by organisations outside of the traditional commercial or academic publishing and distribution channels, such as reports, white papers, policy recommendations, practice knowledge materials, etc., are key outputs of nationally- or EU-funded projects. And under EU grant agreements, public project outputs must respect the FAIR principles: findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable data and metadata. However, these requirements may be difficult to respect depending on where this grey literature is published.

In practice-oriented projects, data usually gets all the attention (and not metadata), and small projects often lack specialised technical staff on open access, FAIR principles and intellectual property rights (IPR), not to mention long-term information hosting and maintenance. It is thus complicated to make this material FAIRly accessible to target audiences and, in particular, in multiple languages, as naturally practical material is best read by practitioners in their native tongue.

In forestry, many projects tend to create their own knowledge repositories. Coordinators may perceive needs that cannot be fulfilled if the grey literature is published in an existing repository and consider that an ad-hoc custom knowledge repository must be created to host the project’s results. Indeed, perhaps you recognise some of the following profiles championing the launch of yet another knowledge repository!

  • The exclusive: project visual identity or “exclusivity” in existing reservoirs cannot be achieved if using a third-party repository.
  • The navel-gazer: no other adequate topic-specific repositories exist or meet the project’s requirements.
  • The big-player: the project plans to publish a large collection of materials (e.g. dozens of factsheets on the same topic) that can stand alone as an independent repository.
  • The cookie-cutter: due to the large number of elements having the same structure and layout (usually a collection of factsheets), the publication process is faster if done via an on-line content management system that populates a database. The edition and review process happens on-line and publication of each element uses the same layout.
  • The reductive: if the grey literature is on practical knowledge for practitioners, it may be perceived that the end-users do not have strong requests for open access, FAIR principles and metadata.

While the creation of ad-hoc knowledge repositories does not necessarily hamper the quality of the content, it may mean that FAIR principles are difficult or impossible to achieve. Grey literature publication exists typically in four variations:

Image: Eduard Mauri / EFIMED in-house production

Not respecting FAIR principles will make your data more difficult to integrate in other repositories (e.g. when you can no longer maintain your own hosting and decide to transfer your data into another repository) or will hamper its reusability by future projects (e.g. in a compilation of practical knowledge on a given topic).

Therefore, just as authors plan in which scientific journal they will publish their article and prepare it to meet the journal’s requirements, grey literature should also receive the same care and attention, and be included in any project’s Data Management Plan.

Top tips for FAIR grey literature

Take your time to scout for high-quality knowledge repositories that will force respect of FAIR principles. Such platforms will require uploading your data accompanied by rich and robust metadata:

  • use international vocabularies and ontologies to describe your publication
  • generate a unique digital object identifier (DOI)
  • request use of a copyright license (often grey literature publications do not indicate their copyright license which constrains reusability).

By uploading your grey literature in a first-class repository, you will need to sacrifice some exclusivity, but at the same time you will gain, with access to the existing community as well as free long-term curation, hosting and maintenance.

What’s out there already?

  • If forestry and agriculture is your broad topic, you can try EU-FarmBook.
  • For organic food and farming, there is Organic eprints.
  • For nature-based solutions, check Oppla.
  • Finally, there is Zenodo, as a general-purpose open repository.

In addition, many of these repositories have an application programming interface (API) that allows you to query and visualise their content from your own project website. So, no excuses not to go FAIR and make your grey literature shine out!

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Eduard Mauri
Mr. Eduard Mauri is a senior expert at the EFI’s Mediterranean Facility. He graduated in forest engineering in Canada (B.Sc.A. and M.Sc.), where he worked from 2010 to 2015 in applied forest research and knowledge transfer. He pushed on in Europe, first at University of Girona (Spain) and then coordinating international projects for EFI from France and Spain.