Locating the Hard-to-Find Geospatial Answers

May 16, 2018

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Every 60 seconds another project using geospatial technologies is completed. Well, maybe not quite that frequently, but it must be close to that, especially with the increasingly wide range of application areas. For many projects, the next step is to write-up the project and describe its process and outcomes, then share that writing with an interested audience. Many scholars want that publication to be in a high-profile academic journal, but these are typically owned by commercial publishers who rely on university libraries to pay expensive annual subscriptions, so access is limited to authorized users, the journals own the content, and much of the world is excluded from that knowledge.

Fortunately, there has been a groundswell movement toward open access for research. Publications such as the Journal of Remote Sensing & GIS, the International Journal of Geo-Information, Cartographic Perspectives, the Journal of Geographic Information System, Remote Sensing, and the Journal of Spatial Information Science are outlets for open access publications in our field. Often, open access journals require authors to pay article process charges once the journal has accepted them for publication. That’s the open access cost of doing business; nothing is truly free in this world!

For a great swath of geospatial projects, the singular goal of a publication in a traditional academic journal is not desired, required, or expected. There is a world of interesting and worthwhile activities being pursued and accomplished that are following a different trajectory. That’s the good news. The less good news is that it can be more challenging to learn about these activities, especially when their final summary publication is not online and/or has not been adequately tagged via its metadata to be readily discoverable.

As a category, gray literature is a prime example of this. Gray literature includes technical reports, conference proceedings, working papers, white papers, and the like that have been produced by government agencies or non-profit organizations, for example. Gray literature often adds a global perspective to the topic and could include details on data wrangling, methodologies, or outcomes that might have otherwise been omitted in other publication outlets. The thousands of theses and dissertations that are completed each year and turned over to university librarians are within this category as well. With current demands for reproducible science increasingly expected, gray literature serves an additional role as a source of research and activities that were not submitted or selected for publication in a journal. Why does this matter? Journals tend to publish studies that show significant results or successful interventions, and we have fewer ways to learn about all of the other results. 

The advent of the internet and online databases has been a boon for gray literature, perhaps now shifting the whole category to a lovely shade of off-white. If you are beginning with a basic web search, take control of the process to help refine your results from the beginning. Web searches ignore capitalization, so GIS and GPS will have the same response as gis and gps. Use double quotes for phrases as it will return only results that have that sequence, such as “GIS models” or “mapping floods.” The OR and AND operators are useful only when applied correctly: mapping AND flooding is going to return much more targeted information than mapping OR flooding. You can group sets of synonyms together using parentheses: “mapping floods” AND (surges OR inundations). If you want the search to return only PDF documents, or items that are housed at websites with a .org extension, you can indicate that as part of the search: mapping floods filetype:pdf or mapping floods site:.org.

The open web will point you to only a fraction of the gray literature – or any information – that has been posted online. Databases such as OpenGrey, ideal for finding European-based publications, or WorldCat, will produce deeper results more effectively. Portals such as WorldWideScience.org have built-in filters that enable searching for data or multimedia items as well as papers. ScienceResearch.com is another site that returns worthwhile results from geospatially-related searches.

Long ago, librarians with expertise in government documents were uniquely qualified to help someone discover and access materials produced by federal agencies or departments. Now, each agency is likely to have its own online collection of content, such as the Office of Scientific and Technical Information of the U.S. Department of Energy or the National Technical Reports Library of the U.S. Department of Commerce, or the published research of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Plus, there are cross-agency portals such as science.gov or data.gov.

Universities are becoming more creative in both what they share and how they enable dissemination of their items that have a geospatial component. Libraries typically play the key role here, such as how you can now find the posters presented at the University of Kansas via a collection. Other times it’s the academic program that organizes the theses or dissertations, such as the master’s projects produced by graduate students at the University of Redlands, or those completed by students who have earned the Master of Science in Geospatial Technologies from the European Erasmus Mundus program. In some cases, only an abstract might be available, but more often than not, you might find a final paper itself or a poster. Posters are an ideal format for capturing the efforts of GIS projects and one that may never find their way to another publication. Here are some ideas for how to share GIS posters from Brown University, the University of Alaska, and the University of Washington at St. Louis. The platform that I admire the most was developed at Tufts University as a means of highlighting the hundreds of annual posters published for their GIS Expo.

Items such as these that fall within the gray literature category can provide just as much inspiration and guidance as peer-reviewed publications in the most prestigious journal. Some gray literature may have undergone extensive external review and scrutiny, while other publications are authoritative in their own sense and not relevant for external peer review. Becoming a savvy reader is the path to media and information literacy.  Guidelines such as the AACODS checklist have been developed specifically with gray literature in mind:

  • Authority: Is the author credible?
  • Accuracy: Is it supported by documented and authoritative references? Is there a clearly stated methodology? Is it 'in line' with other work on the same topic?
  • Coverage: Have limitations been imposed and are these stated clearly?
  • Objectivity: Can bias be detected?
  • Date: Can't find the date? Rule of the thumb is to avoid such material.
  • Significance: Is it relevant? Would it enrich or have an impact on your research?

Regardless of where and how the information is shared, do a thorough job of completing its metadata records to allow it to be findable by others. It’s the golden rule for information exchange: do your metadata for others as you would want them to do unto you.


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