On boilerplate and cultural resource management archaeology

Boilerplate text helps make CRM report production more efficientBoilerplate helps make the cultural resource management archaeology world go around. It is the most efficient way of producing the technical reports we use to keep our clients in compliance with environmental regulations. It’s also a way we can reuse material we’ve already produced in order to keep costs low.

Because our reports are prescribed by the state, they MUST have sections certain sections to pass state historic preservation office (SHPO) review. Many of these sections are generic and many supervisors shun CRMers from “messing up a good thing” (i.e. something the company has already written that has passed SHPO review and does not need editing) by rewriting text that is part of standard operating procedures.

By definition, boilerplate text is standard language that is meant to be reused frequently. In cultural resource management archaeology, boilerplate is text that is frequently added to reports because they are part of required sections that must be included in every report. The wordage of these sections would basically say the same things regardless of whether they were written originally or not. Inserting this standard text into a CRM report saves time, money, effort, and helps assure the report meets regulatory requirements.

The entire scenario of complying with standard report rubrics by reusing text is rife with potential problems:

1)  It tends to generate bare-bones reporting. CRM is a business. There is incentive to be as efficient as possible on everything because this allows companies to keep their costs down and reduce overages. State-mandated report rubrics help provide a somewhat standard level of reporting by providing goalposts that all companies can aim for. Unfortunately, the combination of market forces and reporting standards means companies have incentives to do the absolute minimum. They will only write the report sections they have to and very little more.

2)  Rubrics lead to liberally using boilerplate. Using sections of previously written material that has passed SHPO review (A.K.A. boilerplate) allows companies to efficiently produce reports that meet state standards. I believe there is nothing wrong with using boilerplate as long as it does not stifle the research potential of a CRM project (more on this below) or result in redundant documentations of different resources.

Good boilerplate speeds the writing process. Bad boilerplate leads to mind-numbingly generic reports that nobody wants to read.

3)  Original research gets stifled. The worst thing side effect of reporting rubrics in a market-driven environment is the way it stifles original research. Creating new information is hard work. It is much more expensive to conduct original research, add it to a CRM report, have it edited, and get it through report production than it is to pluck some boilerplate from a previous report and slap it in the designated place.

Most importantly, only a skilled CRMer can efficiently and effectively produce original research. Skilled CRMers cost more money than entry-level CRMers, which is why junior CRMers rely heavily on boilerplate until they have the skills to conduct quality original research and writing.

While it may seem like writing within a rubric and/or using boilerplate is a bad idea, I argue that it is necessary for the perpetuation of the CRM industry. Before the adoption of rubrics, most CRM reports sucked. There were no standard and archaeologists just wrote about whatever they recorded (which wasn’t always the same thing), whatever they remembered, or whatever they felt was important. Each report was different and rarely did they ever cover all the same topics. If you’ve ever read a report from the 1950s or 1960s, you know what I’m talking about.

Good boilerplate dramatically speeds up the writing process, which, I argue, provides more budget for CRMers to do a better job on the parts of the report that have a higher research value. This means prefabricated sections need to be used strategically.

To use boilerplate or not to use boilerplate…

Boilerplate has a bad reputation even though it does serve a purpose and is regularly used by most CRM firms. It’s efficient and, for the right archaeologist, can improve their reporting by preventing them from re-writing the same material time-and-time again so they can make a bigger contribution to the archaeological record through other parts of the report. In the wrong hands, boilerplate adds to the library of flavorless, generic, jargony, flim-flam that is filling our state repositories daily.

In their book “Practicing Archaeology: An Introduction to Cultural Resources Archaeology,” Neuman and Sanford call boilerplate, “…written material that is used over and over again, with only slight modification.” After stating corporate qualification statements and several different report sections are routinely boilerplate, the authors explain the term boilerplate connotes, “…something that…is stamped out in a mass-produced way, with little thought” (Neumann and Sanford 2010:65). It seems like Neumann and Sanford are against using boilerplate, but on Page 128, the authors explain Phase I reports are routinely comprised of prefabricated boilerplate because it saves on labor. In their section on report preparation, the authors also acknowledge there is nothing wrong with information redundancy (i.e. using prefabricated written materials) when the redundant information is found in separate reports (2010:294).

One major problem with using prefabricated writing is the fact that it doesn’t always contribute to archaeological research. In “Archaeology by Design,” Black and Jolly warn against using boilerplate material in building a research design (2003:11). They state one of the reasons CRM has such a negative reputation is the fact that it is done in a hurry, frequently producing, “…boilerplate technical garbage that adds little or nothing to the archaeological record.”

It appears like using prefabricated writing is not the problem per se, but, rather, the overuse of generic prefab sections is where the problem lies. So, how do we get to a point where CRMers are properly using prefab sections that make a contribution to our craft?

What is good boilerplate?

Academia has the same pressure to publish or perish that CRM does, except we rarely acknowledge the pressure that comes with writing a CRM report. Both in CRM and academia, repurposing previously written materials speeds up the writing process and prevents us from having to reinvent the wheel on every single product.

You’ve probably all read an academic archaeologist who has basically written the same peer-reviewed journal article more than once. Each article addresses a different aspect of the same site and same project but large sections of the text have been only slightly changed. I’ve read some authors who have written article versions barely different from their own book chapters—creating multiple publications from the same project. Each of these renditions has sections, whole pages in some instances, that are barely different from each other.

When a professor does this, it is considered a contribution to archaeological research (unless they go too far and wade into the waters of self-plagiarism). When a CRMer does it, we consider it “boilerplate technical garbage that adds little or nothing to the archaeological record.” The real problem is the frequency of use, lack of eloquence, and genericness of CRM boilerplate. CRMers need to start properly using good boilerplate or no boilerplate at all.

Archaeologists use boilerplate. This is a fact. While I am as guilty as thousands of my fellow CRMers of using sh*tty boilerplate in my technical reports, here are some suggestions on how we can continue using boilerplate but in a responsible manner. In my opinion, CRMers are better off using boilerplate with the following characteristics:

–Well-written, nonfiction text. The best boilerplate is clear, succinct, precise, and grammatically correct (the Hamburger Technique is a simple template for constructing paragraphs in this manner). One sign of bad boilerplate is shoddily built paragraphs cobbled together from the original sources in such a way that you can tell it’s not original work.

Similarly, our reports are nonfiction which means they should do their best to omit subjectivity. We are trying to report what is known or what can logically be inferred, so approximations and value-laden or unsupported statements should be avoided.

–Modularity. If you write each paragraph properly, it should be easy to move paragraphs between documents as long as you make sure you’ve created logical transitions that flow well. You can always tell bad boilerplate because it has abrupt, jerky transitions with clauses and sentences that don’t seem to fit.

–Born from original research. Once upon a time, boilerplate was original research. The reason it’s been and reused is because it was good to start with and has passed SHPO review. One way you can recognize proximity to original research is by seeing how many of the references in each paragraph cite specific page numbers (ex. Black and Jolly 2003:11). The pagination will be removed from passages that have been repurposed or generalized from previous documents.

–Specific to the project area. One major complaint about boilerplate is the way it gives a “shout out” to every scholar who has ever written about any subject even remotely related to the project. You know what I mean; those pages of “laundry list” paragraphs that are intended to demonstrate breadth of knowledge but basically sound like an Oscar’s speech thanking everyone under the sun.

Use a table to show “previous research.” Use the text to demonstrate your command of that research as it pertains to your project.

Quality boilerplate is targeted to a specific place on the earth as it pertains to the research design in use for your project. Not everything that has been previously done matters for your project. For example, detailed household density research conducted at a large Hohokam village has little to do with your Phase I survey located 50 miles away in a craggy, mountainous location where you are very, very unlikely to find a large Hohokam village. Sure, you want to demonstrate you understand what has come before you; but, more importantly, you want to show that your research design and research questions are tailored for the type of project you are undertaking. That means you don’t have to give a “shout out” to every single scholar that lives in your state unless what they’ve done matters to what you’re going to do. Don’t worry about their feelings. They’re grownups. They can handle you not bowing down to their authority on every single project.

–Incorporates current research. Bad boilerplate is five to ten years behind the times. Sometimes dated material happens because nobody has done a project near your project area in a long time. Sometimes it happens because companies are simply “cut ‘n pasting” boilerplate between reports without paying any attention to recent developments.

Boilerplate must be frequently rewritten to incorporate new discoveries. In the process of fine-tuning your boilerplate for the project at hand, you should be incorporating new discoveries wherever relevant. That means you will have to be paying attention to what’s going on in your field. You need to read archaeology journals, other CRM reports, and relevant dissertations/theses so you can remain “in-the-know” with what’s going on in your neck of the woods (NOTE: You will not be paid for this “extra work” most of the time, but you are the expert. Sacrifices must be made even if it means missing the most recent “Game of Thrones” episode.)

–It was written by someone that knows what they’re doing. The best boilerplate was written by an experienced CRM scholar who has gotten numerous documents past SHPO review and has invested significant time and effort into expanding their knowledge of the archaeological record of your project area. Additionally, this scholar must have a good command of CRM-style technical writing. Boilerplate written by junior scholars can be improved by a thorough editing and revision by a knowledgeable co-worker. Either way, good boilerplate is good technical writing. This remains true regardless of who actually wrote the text.

–Contributes to the archaeological record. Making boilerplate that contributes to the archaeological record is easier done if reports are written in such a way that they articulate with company-wide or regional research questions. Making a contribution to archaeology through historic preservation should be a cornerstone of CRM archaeology. True archaeological research has a research design and relevant questions it seeks to answer. It’s something I’ve said before (http://www.succinctresearch.com/the-biggest-difference-between-good-and-bad-cultural-resource-management-reports/).

Because it is reused so often, it’s important boilerplate is designed in such a way that it can be applied and reapplied to relevant research domains. Part of this is structural (i.e. how the text is written), but most of it is philosophical (i.e. a concerted effort on behalf of concerned archaeologists to make a contribution). If CRM is to be relevant to archaeology, it needs to make a contribution.

is using boilerplate stealing from ourselvesDon’t bite somebody else’s stuff.

Is using boilerplate plagiarism?

This is a big ethical question. It has no clear answer.

Plagiarism is taking ownership of someone else’s writing without giving proper attribution. Self-plagiarism is reusing your own work without stating that it has been previously used. We are all taught in college that original writing and research is golden. We aren’t allowed to plagiarize or self-plagiarize anything for a collegiate project, so reusing text in our reports can come as a serious shock when we start writing CRM reports. In the case of CRM boilerplate, we are technically guilty of self-plagiarism. But, this accusation depends on how you interpret the word “plagiarism.”

As boilerplate is widely used in the consulting world, our writing takes place in a murky grey area when it comes to plagiarism. The ethical conundrum surrounding the reuse of generic, industry-standard text is discussed in Michelle O’Brien Louch’s 2015 article “Single-Sourcing, Boilerplates, and Re-Purposing: Plagiarism and Technical Writing” (http://proc.iscap.info/2015/cases/3638.pdf). The article is based on a hypothetical situation where college students used industry-standard text in a class assignment, some of whom failed to cite the original source. Louch also talks about how most technical writing involves riffing off existing templates, previously written text, or using boilerplate text—which is technically plagiarism or self-plagiarism. In the end Louch decides the grading rubric should be adjusted to allow for self-plagiarism via boilerplate, which is an activity that students will encounter in the workplace.

Reusing existing text produced by your company IS self-plagiarism but it is okay given the redundant nature of many CRM report sections, SHPO reporting rubrics, and the nature of our industry’s need to keep costs low. Using boilerplate is not ideal, but it is the most efficient and cost-effective way of meeting our clients’ needs. We simply cannot rewrite every single report from the ground up because that would dramatically increase costs without significantly changing our recommendations. Some sections cannot be boilerplated (project results, recommendations, site records, synthetic sections, ect.) I recommend each boilerplate section be made specific to each project, which means it will have to be slightly adjusted each time you use it.

However, I remain unsure as to the ethicality of our widespread and liberal use of boilerplate in CRM. In academia, this practice is strongly discouraged but it does not seem to be shunned in consulting. Our clients probably do not care if we reuse stock text in our reports, but just because they don’t make us write each report from ground up does not mean it is okay to keep reusing our reports ad nauseum.

Continuing this practice is efficient but I don’t know if it’s ethical. I leave it up to you to answer that.

One thing is sure: It is unethical to take ownership of text written by other scholars or companies without giving proper citations. This is plagiarism. It is unethical and, if somebody finds out you did this, you will become a pariah in the CRM world.

Archaeologists use boilerplate. Period.

Whether its completing a grant application, writing a statement of qualifications, or portions of a Phase I survey report, archaeologists use boilerplate. It is part of our craft because we are expected to write a lot and we are human beings who live finite lives. Properly citing borrowed text is one way we can avoid plagiarism, but, when it comes to proprietary text written in-house, reusing prefabricated or previously published material is de rigueur for the cultural resource management industry. It would be great if we had the time and budget to write each report from the ground up but that rarely happens. Also, using boilerplate allows time and effort to be allocated to other parts of the project that have a greater potential to contribute to the archaeological record.

Mindlessly “cut ‘n pasting” boilerplate is the biggest problem with its use in cultural resource management. The best way to avoid this is by crafting high-quality, prefabricated boilerplate that addresses research questions that matter on a local level.

You are going to be forced to use boilerplate if you stay in archaeology long enough. The way you use this previously written text is up to you.

What do you think about using boilerplate in cultural resource management archaeology projects? Write a comment below or send me an email.


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