Following on from my previous post, I want to use this post to think about some of the more practical issues researchers might need to think about when considering hiring a transcription service. Much of this I’ve learnt the hard way in this first year or so of my business, and I hope that people find it helpful.
DIY, or get somebody in?
A few times I have been contacted by researchers who have undertaken some interviews, started transcribing themselves, and then got completely bogged down in the task. As raised in Julie Mooney Somers’ blog post (here), sometimes grant funders may be reluctant to release a lot of money for transcription, and it may be tempting to see transcription as something that you can just do yourself, to save costs. However, I think it is worth having a think about that. As mentioned in my previous post, I charge £15 per hour of my time, and would expect to take between 3-4 hours (usually around 3.5) per hour of sound recording. I usually quote 4-6 hours, just to cover myself if the recording quality is particularly poor, or if it is a focus group with lots of different, not-always-identified speakers, but I only charge for the time I take. If you are planning on doing (say) 40 interviews of up to an hour long, this would mean requesting up to £3,600 (if I’ve got my maths right!). I actually think that’s a pretty reasonable amount, but some funders might question the need for it, or ask for it to be reduced. It might be tempting to pay a student the national minimum wage (currently £7.83 per hour for over-25s) to do the work instead, but if you decide to go this route, then it is worth thinking about how long will it take them? Most students, whilst they can find their way round a keyboard, are not 80+wpm typists. They may not have access to good transcription equipment, such as foot pedals, so the stopping and starting the recording could be slower. Therefore, they may take considerably longer to do the same amount of work, and so the savings to your budget start to shrink. In addition, if they are taking 6 or 8 hours to do a piece of work that would have taken me 3.5 hours, then as well as costing you £46.98-62.64 (instead of the £52.50 I would have charged) that is in effect a day that they are not able to work on their own research. If you happen to have a student who is an amazing touch-typist and who can do the work quickly and accurately, and has the time for it, then it can be really beneficial for both parties, and probably the ideal solution, but don’t assume that employing students will necessarily always lead to a huge cost-saving.
Also, don’t forget that if you decide to do it yourself, you are in effect taking away your time from other important tasks (analysis, writing, applying for grants, teaching), and that your time too is costly (and presumably more than £15 per hour, if you have a substantive contract).
Finally on this point, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is! There are automated transcription tools out there, some of them free, which can do a job up to a point. However, I have been told by a few researchers who have started off using them that they ended up being just as costly and time-consuming as they required so much editing and checking. They are great for people who simply cannot afford services like mine (particularly, as mentioned in the previous post, student researchers), but are not the magic free solution they are often touted as.
Who to choose? Agency or freelancer?
If you decide to go down the route of employing a transcriber, you will need to check with your university how much choice you have. Some friends of mine have regretfully said that they can’t use my services because the university they work for only have one preferred supplier (usually an agency – issues around these and the amounts paid to the people who work for them are discussed in my previous post and in Julie’s blog post). If you do have the freedom (and make that choice) to go with a freelance transcriber such as me, there are a number of things to think about.
* Recommendations. Although I do occasionally try to ‘advertise’ my services on social media, most of the work I get these days is repeat business from people who know my work, or recommendations from others who see a discussion about transcription and say “I used Jackie for my transcription and she was great”. I absolutely recognise that taking a chance on someone whose work you don’t know is a risk, particularly when public money is involved, so if you can find someone who comes recommended then that is obviously ideal. As a researcher in the past I mainly went this route, but occasionally did use people who had cold-contacted us – this was only if we were overrun with files that needed transcribing and our usual transcribers didn’t have enough capacity. If you do need to use someone whose work you’re not familiar with, I’d recommend a trial period first – so maybe give them just one or two files to start with, and see how they go with that, before making the decision to take them on for the rest of the project. I’ve had a bit of work that way too, and am always happy to do the odd one-off job as well as work for my ‘regulars’.
* Are they registered with your university as a supplier? This is a HUGE issue for freelancers. In these days of GDPR etc, universities don’t just pay on receipt of invoices. Many have a purchase order system, so they need to have provided the transcriber with a purchase order before they can send in an invoice, and they won’t do that until they have registered that person as a supplier. To make things even more complicated, each university has different requirements as to what makes a supplier GDPR-compliant, and often require several forms to be completed and returned to them before you can get set up as a supplier on their payment system. One thing I have discovered over the past year or so is that, depending on the finance department, this can take a LONG time. Practically, this has led me to having no work one month (despite the researcher having the sound files ready and waiting for me to start on them), because the process of filling in forms and getting them approved took so long. It has also led in one case to me not being paid for months and months (most places do get there eventually, but it is time-consuming and stressful to have to keep chasing). This has led to many researchers being very embarrassed and angry on my behalf, but feeling quite powerless. Therefore, something that you can do practically as a researcher is start the process of getting your preferred freelancer set up on the university finance system early, in the hope that that will mitigate against payment delays in the future. If you have already got the work done and you’re trying to chase up payment for your transcriber, be aware that it can take a long time, so please keep your transcriber in the loop and let them know what is happening. If you can find someone efficient and helpful in the finance department, cultivate them! (and keep badgering them!)
The other big issue! My advice and plea to researchers would be to always include a budget for transcription in your applications for grants for qualitative research. This might sound really obvious, but I’m amazed how much research is started without this, with the assumption that the researcher themselves or a research assistant will do it as part of their job, and then it just gets more and more delayed, or important things aren’t done, because so much time is being taken up doing the transcription that could have been farmed out. Sometimes in desperation the transcription then will get farmed out a bit further down the line, but without a budget for it the researcher might well end up paying the transcriber from their own pocket.
I hope in these two blog posts that I have been able to show that as well as a valuable task, transcription is a skill and a good transcriber represents really good value to research.