Last week my attention was brought to this article on the ethics of transcribing qualitative interviews by Julie Mooney Somers, an Australian academic. She raises some really important issues, which I wanted to both reiterate and build on, from the perspective of (a) my freelance business as a transcriber, and (b) my experience as a qualitative researcher. I’ll break this down into two posts – this one looking at the ethical, political and intellectual issues around transcription, and the next one will give some practical things to think about for researchers who are thinking about employing a transcriber (costs, contracts, alternatives, etc).
I have to say I agree with pretty much everything Julie raises in her post. It is really easy to see transcription as a repetitive, dull, and onerous task – and therefore not particularly skilled or intellectual, and pretty much values-neutral. That’s certainly how I first thought of it, when I was doing my PhD back in the day, and it wasn’t until I came to review the transcripts of my interviews that I realised how much more there was to transcription. I have just gone back to my thesis, and reproduce in full here a section from my methodology chapter where I talk about the transcription process:
I made the decision that my interviews would be fully transcribed so that I could return later to everything that was said and decide during post-fieldwork analysis what issues were particularly important from the interviews. As I had conducted the interviews in a language that was not my mother tongue I arranged for the transcriptions to be done by native speakers, primarily due to time constraints, but also because although my spoken Romanian is good I was not sure that without the visual, non-verbal cues that take place in a face-to-face interaction I would be able to capture everything as accurately as a nonnative speaker. I had specified that I wished the transcriptions to be word-for-word, so that I could make the decisions on the interpretation and significance of the data; however on listening to the interviews once they had been transcribed it soon became clear that (particularly in the case of many of the Moldovan interviews) they had been ‘tidied up’ considerably. Sometimes it was just that one word had been substituted for another of the same or similar meaning; at other times points that had been repeated in the interview were only transcribed once; and more seriously in many cases entire sections had been considerably paraphrased. In one case the very important point made by the respondent had been paraphrased in such a way that the meaning in the transcribed Romanian was exactly the opposite of what had actually been said. I had not appreciated before the event the extent to which “[r]esearchers who delegate transcription work to others become distanced from this piece of the process and often are not aware of the decisions made on their behalf” (Tilley, 2003:758). After discovering the extent of the problem, with the original transcriptions to hand, I completely retranscribed the interviews myself, a task that took a considerable amount of time and effort but which was ultimately a rewarding way to immerse myself in the data and remind myself of issues which had arisen. During this process I also noticed other themes emerging which perhaps had not been apparent during the actual interviews themselves, so although it was a laborious process it was ultimately useful. As Silverman (2001:164) highlights, the process of transcription is not merely “a technical detail prior to the main business of the analysis” – the very process of transcribing the interviews involved detailed listening, thinking and reflection which ultimately benefited my analysis enormously. It also meant that, as the researcher who had conducted the interviews, I was able to make “informed interpretive decisions [and] decide whether the transcript was representative of the taped piece transcribed” (Tilley, 2003:762).
It is also clear that, as with translation and the use of a second language to undertake the research, the process of transcription is not neutral or apolitical. I had initially approached the issue of transcription as “mundane, technical, [and] unproblematic” (Lapadat and Lindsay, 1999:67), but it soon became clear that the very act of transcription is an interpretive one in and of itself (ibid, p.81; Tilley, 2003) and the finished text is a representation of an event rather than the event itself (Lapadat and Lindsay, 1999).
Because during this research I was working abroad, using a language that was not my first language, I had had to make some decisions about transcription that – if I had really thought about it at the time – would have been my first indication that there’s more to this transcription lark than necessarily meets the eye. Firstly, I was aware that a couple of my respondents were known to the people who were doing the transcription, and I therefore made the decision to not give those recordings to the local transcribers, but wait until I was back in the UK and try and find a native Romanian speaker who could help me out. There was also one interview where an issue being discussed (which was very emotive, and contrary to the beliefs of the person doing most of my transcription) could have caused some backlash to my respondent, and so I held that one back too until I was in the UK and could be more confident that the person I eventually found to transcribe the interview would not know the respondent.
As detailed in the extract above, once I had received the completed transcriptions and realised the extent to which I still needed to work on them, that was a very salutory lesson. Firstly, about the utility of doing the transcription myself as the researcher (I was able to immerse myself back in the data, pick up on things I hadn’t realised at the time, remind myself of things I had forgotten, realise how often as the researcher I interrupted or mumbled over the top of the speaker, etc). However, in my case I have the advantage and luxury of a fast touch-typing speed, which means that I can be considerably faster at the job than many, for whom not only would this be a dull task but also really, really slow. Secondly, it really opened my eyes to the political and values-laden possibilities inherent in transcription (which, as a healthcare worker who has worked with interpreters, I would say is pretty similar to the issues around interpreting and translation). Now that I have started my own transcription business, I am often surprised at how often I have to make quite active decisions about what I’m hearing – the process is so much more than just putting words down on a page. Even seemingly simple things like punctuation require me sometimes to stop and think, and actively decide what to do – we don’t realise until we listen to a recorded conversation that we don’t talk the way we write. Is that pause indicative of a finished sentence, or would a comma or ellipsis be more appropriate? If I put a full stop here, does that even change the meaning of what the respondent was saying? (it isn’t usually that critical, but theoretically could be). How do I render the conversation on the page when people are talking over each other? (a huge issue when transcribing focus groups, but not unheard of in 1:1 interviews too).
I like to think that, as someone who has undertaken qualitative research at a pretty high level, I can make informed and intuitive decisions about what I am hearing, and do my best to get those down on the page as accurately as I can. In those cases where I’m really not sure (beyond the unclear words which I will just mark and timestamp and expect the researcher to check themselves), I will always get back to the researcher if necessary and say ‘listen to this bit again – this is what I think they were saying, but I’m not 100% sure’. I remember one interview where the interviewer had laughed at something the respondent had said, which was a totally natural part of the conversation (I would have laughed too), but it then obscured a couple of words, and so I couldn’t actually tell if they were saying that they had done something or they hadn’t. Either way would have been making a really important (but opposing) point, and I simply didn’t feel that I could make a decision one way or another, and had to get it back to the person who was one half of that conversation to make that call.
An issue which wasn’t mentioned in Julie’s post (although I gather that subsequently it has been raised) is the responsibility of the researcher towards the transcriber. She talked extensively in her post about the ethical dilemmas of informing interview participants about the possibility of third party transcription, and I will direct you back to her post as I agree fully with what she says. However, there is also of course the issue, particularly in sensitive research, of the impact of listening to the interview on the transcriber. I am always grateful when a researcher sends me a file and includes in their email a note to the effect that this interview was a bit full-on, we discuss XY&Z, so you might want to brace yourself. Ultimately of course it is my responsibility to manage my feelings, and to speak out if an interview topic is more than I can handle (not that that has ever happened!) – and it has more often been the case that it’s been the unexpected, seemingly simple topics which have struck a nerve in me as I listen, and I’ve had to pace myself to manage the process well (eg by working on a different interview for a bit and then coming back to the difficult interview later). But I do think that that is an important issue for researchers to bear in mind – to what extent do they have a responsibility towards the transcriber to ensure that their wellbeing is considered too?
Although this isn’t primarily meant to be a pitch promoting me and my service, obviously I do have a business and am happy to discuss working with researchers and seeing how I can help support their research. I can’t finish this post though without acknowledging the ethical complications of funding for services like mine. The fact is, although I believe my rate for transcription is pretty reasonable (£15 per hour of my time, and I would expect to take between 3-4 hours per hour of recording for a 1:1 interview where the sound quality is reasonable; longer for focus groups and recordings with lots of background noise, etc) and compares well with agencies and other services providing transcription by an actual person rather than a bot, I am well aware that my service is probably out of reach of most postgraduate researchers, unless they happen to be working on a project which already has specific additional funding allocated for transcription. In those cases it is completely understandable that student researchers turn to the free or low-cost automated transcription services available online, and these might be a useful first port of call for them. However, it does need to be said that in those cases the researcher will still need to go through and listen and check and edit – as I understand it, many of those services are not great when it comes to things like punctuation, differentiating between speakers, or coping with people talking over each other – so it may end up being almost as time-consuming as doing the transcription themself. I’d also like to reiterate Julie’s point about transcription agencies, which whilst they may be charging less (so represent good value for the public purse), are still using people who will probably end up being paid considerably less for the same service (it is one of the reasons I chose to take my chance and go it alone). Whilst my transcription business is only part of what I do, and therefore I am under less pressure to bring in the money than others, it does need to be borne in mind that that the £15 per hour I charge is gross – I have to do a yearly tax return, and pay both tax and NI from that. That £45-60 I get for transcribing an hour-long interview might seem a large amount of money to the person paying it, but for me it represents half a day’s work, of which, once I’ve paid my costs (insurance, taxes, NI, etc) I will get to see not much more than £30. £15 per hour might sound a lot, but believe me I am not making my fortune this way! What I am doing is getting the satisfaction of a job well done, of being able to work for myself (and all the flexibility that that provides), of being able to support good research with a good-quality service. Just don’t think that what I’m doing is mind-numbing and basic – I hope this post has gone a way to show that there is so much more to transcription than getting a word from sound file to page.
Lapadat, JC and Lindsay, AC (1999), “Transcription in Research and Practice: From Standardization of Technique to Interpretive Positionings”, Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp.64-86.
Silverman, D (2001), Interpreting Qualitative Data: Methods for Analysing Talk, Text and Interaction (2nd edition), London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Tilley, SA (2003) “”Challenging” Research Practices: Turning a Critical Lens on the Work of Transcription”, Qualitative Inquiry, Vol. 9, No. 5, pp.750-773.