Published on 12 May 2023, by Helene Gorring

Repositories, KLS research, Resource Discovery

About user research on research repositories and grey literature

Towards the end of 2022, HEE commissioned user discovery research specialists Lagom Strategy to help us dig deeper into what NHS stakeholders and staff really need when it comes to repositories and grey literature.

What did we already know?

  • grey literature can be as valuable as formally published research in informing practice in health and care
  • many local NHS and healthcare organisations are now maintaining or creating institutional repositories
  • the concept of a shared NHS repository, whilst compelling in theory, threw up challenges in practice when piloted by six KLS in partnership with the British Library; the pilot project report includes useful learning
  • knowledge and library services (KLS) staff have developed great experience, knowledge and skills in this area, some of which was shared at a Repositories Community of Practice meeting in December 2022 which was attended by an impressive 132 KLS staff from across the UK
  • designing and maintaining grey literature solutions which meet individual and organisational needs and are sustainable is difficult; nationally both NICE and SCIE have made difficult decisions to stop their grey literature collections/search services

What did Lagom’s user research involve?

  • 8 stakeholder interviews with key decision makers across health and care
  • 18 in depth one-to-one user interviews
  • 2 one-to-one user needs sessions
  • analysis of 118 responses to a user needs validation survey

The team took care to include stakeholders from a good range of types of organisation, and users in a diverse range of roles, including clinical, non-clinical and commissioning.

What were the main findings?

For users, the benefits of making grey literature more accessible are clear. Grey literature tends to capture recent, readily applicable evidence from practice, and can be easier to consume than formal research. Access to grey literature generated by other organisations and practitioners can reduce duplication of effort, save time and resources, and improve the quality of care.

Stakeholders and users are aware of the limitations and risks of grey literature – especially in relation to quality, and organisational reluctance to share when research is negative or service improvements have not been successful.

Participants consider that current ways of finding grey literature are inefficient. They also see organisational change in the NHS resulting in useful documentation getting lost. 

Some consider that a national repository would be an ideal solution – but others see the challenges that would be associated with this.

A recurrent theme amongst stakeholders and users is the need for cultural change and users support and guidance to help staff effectively apply the learning captured in grey literature. There is clear appetite for guidance on how to appraise and grade literature and contextualise research – and acknowledgement that this is an area where knowledge specialists could really help.

Finally, and not surprisingly, there is a general expectation that artificial intelligence will contribute solutions in this area, in the future if not immediately.

The highest ranking user needs

Over the course of the research, a 33 user needs were identified, articulated, iterated and validated. Amongst the highest ranking are:

  • to be able to access grey literature without paywall restrictions
  • to easily search multiple repositories so that I can find information in one place
  • to have access to grey literature of all different levels of quality, so that I can assess whether I want to use it
  • to easily determine the relevance of a grey literature document (e.g. by viewing a synopsis) so that I can decide whether it is useful to me
  • to know that a repository is kept up to date, so that I can be confident I am looking at the latest research

The full report includes more detail – plus plenty of quotable quotes! We hope that in an addition to providing useful food for thought for healthcare knowledge specialists, the report will be useful to anyone wishing to make a case for, or specify requirements for, a repository solution, whether locally, at ICS level, regionally or nationally!

If you are interested in this topic, feel free to sign up to the dedicated NHS Repositories discussion list.


Helene Gorring


KLS Development Manager, London and South East

Knowledge and Library Services