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Editorís focus: Navigating the gray areas
May 2018
by Jeffrey Bouley  |  Email the author
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In movies, written fiction and television shows, I generally like my heroes flawed and I like my villains to be—if not at least somewhat sympathetic—characters to whom I can somehow relate. And, like most people, I’ve been known to tell “little white lies” or fudge things a bit to make me look good (or at least less problematic).
 
In other words, both in the real and fictional worlds, I am often comfortable in the gray areas. Most of us are. If we took the proverbial “black and white” approach to everything in life, we’d never be able to work in teams, make command decisions or compromise and negotiate.
 
Even in the vaunted arena of science, the gray areas are often navigated by researchers. And I’m not talking about the moral and ethical ones like testing out a teleportation technology on yourself and accidentally splicing your DNA with that of a fly (Sorry, I’ve had the 1986 film “The Fly” on my mind lately; must be time to rewatch it). No, I’m referring to what is known as “gray literature.”
 
The topic came to mind thanks to a news release I received, which noted that the ProQuest Dialog database has added the Northern Light database for real-time access to breaking information from life-sciences events. As such, users of the ProQuest Dialog professional search service can now reportedly access more than 2.7 million abstracts and posters from medical and life-sciences conferences around the world.
 
As the company noted, “It often takes academic journals months—or longer—to review and publish the critical information shared at life-sciences conferences. The ‘gray literature’ available in Northern Light—material not formally published or peer-reviewed—helps keep researchers ahead of the curve in a competitive industry. Drawing from more than 3,800 global conferences dating back to 2010, the database is updated daily and content is available within three weeks of being posted on conference websites.”
 
“Researchers realize that the information contained in conference papers and posters can be a window into the next significant innovation,” said C. David Seuss, Northern Light’s CEO. “With this content set, we are focused on helping to accelerate the ‘time to insight’ for pharmaceutical researchers.”
 
Now, before seeing that news release, I admit I hadn’t thought much about gray literature, even though I had occasionally heard the term. In fact, since I’m not a scientist and since we typically cite and mention peer-reviewed journals in DDNews stories, I wasn’t even fully cognizant of the breadth of what constitutes gray literature. I guess in my mind, I simply equated it with the increasing numbers of journal-style publications that lack rigorous (or sometimes any) peer review—journals that have become more commonplace because of the volume of scientific literature and the limited venues in which to publish it (whether online or in print).
 
And as I dove deeper down the rabbit hole to research this month’s editorial, I realized gray literature isn’t just non-peer-reviewed papers. It isn’t just conference papers and research posters. It is any literature (often scientific or technical) that is not available through the usual bibliographic sources such as databases or indexes. Working papers, committee reports, government documents, white papers, fact sheets and so many, many others.
 
As noted on the California State University Long Beach website: “Gray literature is an important source of information. Though not scholarly, it is produced by researchers and practitioners in the field. It can often be produced more quickly, have greater flexibility and be more detailed than other types of literature.”
 
It reminds me that our gold standards often aren’t so golden, whether they be peer review or randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies (a topic Randy Willis talks about in his “Out of order” commentary this issue). But even if the data and strategies used by life-sciences researchers aren’t always golden, neither are they tarnished simply because they aren’t the “gold standard.”
 
As pharma and biotech continue to explode—in part because of market opportunities but also because of scientific advances that sometimes feel like they are expanding at an exponential rate—some of these gray areas, whether in the literature or in study designs, are probably essential for not holding back progress. At the same time, as Randy warns in his own column, we need to be cautious when we rely on sources that are not rigorously reviewed or controlled.
 
Because gold standards are called such for a reason (even if they are flawed themselves in many ways), and walking in the gray areas too much and for too long probably leads us to the darkness more often than it does the light.

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