Skip to main content

Lightning talk

Falling through the Cracks: Participatory Research and the Puzzle of Grey Literature

  • 26 September 2023 |
  • 16:00 |
  • Session 3 |
  • Sala Nouvel - Reina Sofia Museum

‘Participatory research’ encompasses a range of research activity ranging from ‘Citizen Science’ through to ‘Public and Patient Involvement in Research’ (PPI). The common thread is the sharing of control over the research process with non-specialist participants as both a research paradigm and as a form of engagement thereby acting as an active strategy for moving towards Open Research.

Research of this kind produces a large amount of materials associated with the research activities that fall into the category of grey literature. Zines using health-related magazines produced as an engagement activity, poetry written to spark off ideas with the participants, handbooks and guides used to educate and inform participants about the fundamentals of the work they are supporting. In many cases, these materials are seen as resting in an uncomfortable middle ground, somewhere between ‘data’ and ‘research output’.

Many of these materials are effectively lost. They are binned, deleted, or stored on personal computers. They are not published in journals nor archived in data repositories (open access or otherwise). This is a great loss for the wider community, as grey literature of this kind:

1. Documents the research process and the role of the participants in research.

2. May contain materials useful to future research projects.

3. Has historical significance, documenting the shifting approaches taken within various research paradigms.

While it is possible to expand the concept of data to encompass these materials, such an approach mis-represents their place in research (and participatory research in particular). As such, as part of our Participatory Research Service we are working with researchers and engagement officers to begin archiving these materials in a centralised, Open Access repository, associated with past and ongoing research projects at the University of Edinburgh. We are currently in the early stages of addressing this issue. In the interim, we are combining and adapting pre-existing services to facilitate their storage and access, and we are currently exploring longer term solutions to the problem.

The lightning talk will:

1. Introduce the problem of grey-literature loss in the context of participatory research.

2. Explain why it is important for researchers to retain these materials in the context of Open Research in general, but also in the specific case of Participatory Research.

3. Briefly outline the short and long term approach to the problem we are undertaking at the University of Edinburgh Library.


Neil Coleman

Neil is the Library Citizen Science Engagement Officer at the University of Edinburgh, UK. There, they are working with the OpenResearch team to develop new services to support and encourage researchers undertaking participatory research practices, and they are keen to explore how the Library facilities – including the vast and diverse collections – might facilitate this end. Neil joined the Open Research team in 2023, having completed a Master’s in Collections and Curating Practices, where their thesis explored the ways in which Citizen Science might be used as a tool for inclusion in museums. Prior to this, Neil was a researcher in the philosophy and history of science, specialising in inferential modelling, research methodologies, and the philosophy of cognitive science.