Does a cultural resource management report count as archaeology writing?

Is a cultural resource management report actually archaeology writing?I was recently informed that a CRM archaeology technical report isn’t true archaeology writing. It was a shocking revelation that came from somebody that has written dozens of cultural resources reports that instantly made me start thinking about the nature of our industry and the way we value our reports, which are the only true CRM product.

It is true that there are some marked differences between CRM technical reports and academic journal articles. But, the fact remains, we have to create both of these document categories which makes them both a form of writing. I believe my colleague meant that there are truer forms of archaeology writing that are epitomized by the academic journal article.

Before I tell you what I think about this dichotomy, I took a few minutes to compare and contrast CRM reports and academic pieces (i.e. journal articles, books, ect.).

Anatomy of an Academic Journal Article

In her book “Writing your Journal Article in 12 Weeks”, Wendy Belcher outlines three types of academic articles that get published in humanities journals:

1) articles that apply new data/ideas to existing research,

2) articles that expand upon old ideas/concepts, and;

3) articles that summarize the nature of existing research.

She explains that anything outside these three domains is unlikely to get published because these submissions will probably be considered “outside the journal’s focus” or will be considered too outlandish by the peer reviewers. This also seems to be the case with academic book articles.

These constraints are a result of the synergistic effect that happens between peer reviewers, journal editors, and the pace of scientific development. Science tends to move forward through a series of small discoveries rather than large breakthroughs because, whenever a revolutionary dataset is created, other scientists scrutinize the validity/truth of this data until enough smaller developments allow us to accept the breakthrough.

Journal articles and academic book chapters also have a scripted format which basically goes like this: “tell them what you’re going to say, say it, tell them what you just said.” The three article types and the scripted format are found in nearly every archaeology article ever written—both good and bad.

Anatomy of a Cultural Resource Management Report

Just like academic journal articles, CRM reports also come in principal types and have a scripted format. The two types of technical report are: 1) a data summary with some recommendations (survey and testing reports), and, 2) a data summary with some data synthesis and no recommendations (data recovery reports). (NOTE: sometimes a testing report may have some synthesis but not at the same level as a data recovery report.)

CRM technical reports usually have to be written in a specific format that has been determined by the SHPO. Most CRM technical reports have seven parts:

1) A cover page with Abstract— clients hate reading the whole report so the determinations and everything are usually placed right up front.

2) Introduction and project background—This is a picture of where the project location with a summary of what will be happening and why it needed CRM.

3) An archaeological and environmental background—Here’s where we summarize the history of the project location.

4) Methods—Here’s how we did the CRM and, perhaps, what we thought we’d find.

5) Results—Here’s what we found.

6a) Synthesis (data recovery)—Here’s what these findings mean for archaeology/historic preservation.

6b) Recommendations (survey and testing)—Here’s what we think you should do in order for your project to move forward.

7) References and Appendices—Additional information that backs up what we said in the report.

That’s it. That’s what our clients pay us to write.

Similarities and Differences between Academic and CRM Archaeology Writing

Both technical reports and academic contributions are both predictable and formulaic even while they are informative. The most important similarity between both types of archaeology writing is that they are grounded in data—either qualitative or quantitative. Archaeologists use newly collected or existing data to come to conclusions about human pasts. We write our findings in technical reports or journal articles in the aforementioned formats. Also, we use similar jargon and prose to convey this information. The punctuation and mechanics of a technical report and a journal article may differ, but both formats use similar sentence structure and sequences of logic to get the point across. The same skills needed that make a good academic journal author will also you make a pretty good technical report writer.

The main differences between technical reports and journal articles is the appropriation of previously written text. It is commonplace to use boilerplate in CRM technical reports (FYI boilerplate is previously written text that is “owned” by the company and can be used to help complete huge sections of a CRM report. In the industry, it is considered okay to use portions of company reports to complete other company reports but it’s considered plagiarism to cut ‘n paste sections of other company’s reports.)

Using boilerplate can be both a good and bad thing. Good boilerplate can dramatically shorten the writing time of a CRM report. Bad boilerplate can get your report bounced back by the SHPO. Accuracy of the text is the most important thing about boilerplate. Good boilerplate actually INCLUDES THE PAGE NUMBER OF THE ORIGINAL REFERENCE so you can go back to that report and see if the information on that page actually applies to the specific project you’re working on. Bad boilerplate lacks proper/specific citations, was written for a location outside your project area, and can make you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. It is a personal pet peeve of mine when archaeologists do not cite exactly where they found the information they’re writing about because it pretty much tells me that you don’t remember where you read that information or you actually did not read that document. Take ownership of your report. Make sure the boilerplate is good before you use it in your report.

Never use bad boilerplate because improperly cited references is a sign of sloppy writing, which makes me question your recommendations, synthesis, and understanding of archaeology in general. Furthermore, the SHPO might also question your validity and bounce back your report.

The use of boilerplate is one of the main reasons why my colleague said CRM writing was not true archaeology writing. Appropriating any existing text without proper citation is plagiarism in academia, a charge that can ruin your career. (Interestingly, the laundry-list, “shout out” citation—a long chain of citations without specific page notation that, supposedly, demonstrate your command of existing literature—is not considered inappropriate in academic writing even though it does not demonstrate you actually read those articles/book chapters.)

I feel like using boilerplate is considered cheating by archaeologists who write journal articles because they are forced to reinvent the wheel for every article; although, there are a lot of archaeologists that generously recycle previous work/ideas and cover their tracks so poorly that you can actually backtrack the specific passages where they rewrote what they’ve already published nearly word-for-word. Even though recycling previous articles is not considered boilerplate per se, it does the exact same thing boilerplate does– speeds up the writing process.

If boilerplate is the hinge upon which this whole thing revolves, I ask: Does the use of boilerplate make CRM reports less valuable than academic articles? Or, is there something else?

Indeed, there is. It’s the claim that CRMers do not do enough synthesis in their reports is another reason why some archaeologists do not consider CRM reports equal to an academic journal article. This claim is entirely untrue; however, there is a wide range in CRM technical report quality. Bad reports make it look like we don’t really care about scholarship and intellectual pursuits, which is the source of the devaluation of our reports.

If you’ve ever read a GOOD data recovery report, you will see that the best CRMers do an excellent job of synthesizing their findings. In fact, the synthesis chapters of larger data recovery reports are, oftentimes, better written and more informative than most academic journal articles. These synthesis sections are usually what CRMers reformat and submit to academic journals as articles. I know this from experience.

It’s all a matter of perspective

I consider both journal articles and CRM technical reports to be official archaeology writing. I made a salient argument to my colleague and, now, he believes that too. They are documents written for different reasons that have different goals. CRM reports are required by law and help guide our clients’ decisions. As such, they have to be written in a clear, understandable, jargon-free fashion. Because many CRMers are also archaeologists, the good reports make an attempt to further archaeological knowledge. Academic journal articles and books are written to expand upon what we know about human pasts. They are mainly written for other archaeologists and have a primary goal of disseminating information.

All archaeology writing has value. However, many of us tend to perceive academic articles as having more value than technical reports. Journal articles and CRM reports come in a range of qualities from excellent to good to bad (to very bad), but the value of these documents will always be in the eye of the beholder. Only archaeologists can determine whether a journal article is more or less valuable than a CRM report.

However, it is vacuous to believe cultural resource management reports do not qualify as archaeology writing. Especially since most archaeology is conducted in a CRM context and it does take original authorship to create these reports. Discounting this wealth of data basically discounts most of what we know about the past.

What do you think? Do cultural resource management archaeology technical reports qualify as true archaeology writing? Write a comment below or send me an email.

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