Transcription for PhDs – don’t leave it too late

If you’re doing a PhD with qualitative research interviews, then it’s very likely that you’re going to need to transcribe them or have them transcribed. That might be something you know in the back of your mind, but perhaps you’re thinking you might as well get all the interviews conducted first and then worry about the pesky business of transcribing them.

Having worked in transcription for the past ten years, and also having done a PhD of my own, I can assure you that is not the best way to go about it! There are quite a few hoops you’ll need to jump through before you can get the transcription done, and the sooner you think about, the easier it will be.

Let’s tackle those hoops one by one – and if you have any thoughts on things I haven’t covered here, feel free to comment.

1. Ethics

If you’re doing qualitative research you’ve probably already discovered that ethics is  minefield! Your ethics committee may well tell you that, for purposes of confidentiality, you should transcribe all the interviews yourself. That’s fine if you’re a fast touch typist and you’ve got enough time built into your schedule to spend between four and seven times as long transcribing as the length of your interviews, but that might not be the case. Supposing you’ve conducted 20 one-hour interviews; transcription is going to take you at least 80 hours, or maybe more like 140 hours if you’re not expert (nearly 3 weeks of full-time work), which  could perhaps can be better spent doing something else… like analysis!

If the ethics policies allow you to outsource your transcription, they will probably have quite a number of provisos regarding data safety, and quite rightly too. You will need to make sure that your audio/video can be sent to your transcription service safely, so using an encrypted website, or sending by post on a passworded data stick for example. (All files sent to us via our website are encrypted.) You might also want your transcription files passworded on return, names of participants (and perhaps any personal names mentioned, or even place names) changed in the transcript, or blanked out, and perhaps return of the files through an encrypted website too, rather than email, to give an extra layer of protection.

The level of protection needed will depend, or we can hope that it will, on just how confidential the data is likely to be. So highly personal information, such as research into domestic violence, might require all of the above, whereas interviewing people about the culture of their business organisation might be rather less critical.

Here at Penguin Transcription we can assure you of complete confidentiality and are happy to discuss any ethics-related concerns with you. We have been working with researchers to provide transcription for ten years and have an excellent track record, as our testimonials show.

2. Type of transcription

It may seem obvious that if you’re taking the trouble to record all your interviews and get them transcribed, you want a ‘full verbatim transcription’ so that you don’t lose a single, precious word. However, unless you are working in counselling, psychology or linguistics, and actually studying the way speech is used, you are probably better off with what we call intelligent verbatim transcription.

Verbatim will include every single ‘um’, ‘er’, incomplete sentence, cough, laugh, sneeze and filler (such as ‘y’know, or know what I mean or kind of, often repeated many times in each sentence). As Phil Bayliss (2007) points out in his paper ‘Tinkering with Transcriptions’, downloadable from this page, not only is this type of transcript hard to read, but if you need to send it back to your interviewee for checking, they might find it downright embarrassing!

Intelligent verbatim transcription still includes exactly what’s said, including emotions such as laughter (although we’ll leave those out if you don’t want them), and (again, unless you’d rather not) we would type ‘I’m gonna get another one’ rather than ‘I’m going to get another one’ if that’s what’s said, but we leave out all the ums and ers and fillers and false starts and interruptions, making for a transcript that’s easier to read, easier to analyse, and not embarrassing for the interviewee.

Not only that, but it’s substantially faster to transcribe than a full verbatim text, and therefore also cheaper! So if you’re looking for affordable transcription services, consider intelligent verbatim.

3. The practicalities of recording for transcription 

There is a lot to think about, even at the recording stage, relating to transcribing your interviews later. There’s an article here about choosing the right recording equipment for your needs, and you will also need to give some thought to sound file types. We’re happy to discuss any of this with you, even before your project starts, at Penguin Transcription.

Then there’s the seemingly obvious stuff, such as don’t put the microphone too far from the people speaking, don’t stick a batch of papers on top of the recorder by mistake and try not to eat while talking as it will make you hard to understand! (I say ‘seemingly’ obvious because over the ten years I’ve been transcribing I’ve come across all these problems and more.)

Sometimes, for all sorts of reasons, recording in a noisy cafe, or a room with the TV on in the background, screaming kids or the washing machine going full tilt, is unavoidable. If that’s the case, so be it, but if you can avoid anything like this, it’s well worth doing, as the transcript that comes out at the other end of the process will be of much higher quality, with far fewer ‘inaudible’ markings etc.

4. Outsourcing transcription

As yet there is no transcription ‘magic bullet’ that allows you (or us) to feed your audio into a machine and get typed text out. Speech recognition is of no use in an interview or group context, as it needs to learn to recognise different voices.

It takes a fully trained and competent transcriptionist around four hours per hour of recording, depending on recording quality, so for an hour’s worth of transcription you need to pay for four hours of a transcriber’s time. Just something to bear in mind! And that time will increase for verbatim or if there are significant issues with the recording e.g. background noise.

Outsourcing transcription is not just about price, however; it’s about quality. At least it is if you don’t want to waste too much time going through and redoing it!  I won’t pretend – we’re not the cheapest out there. (We’re also not the most expensive!) The reason people keep on coming back to us is that we can provide the quality transcription they need. We have recently had two customers leave us because they found a cheaper alternative, and come back within a month because the cheaper alternative was not working out.

However, there are things that you can do to help us, and that will keep the costs down! Have a look at my article on finding an affordable transcription service, for some advice on this.

I hope this post has given you some food for thought, rather than cause for panic, and if you’d like to discuss any transcription requirements with us, please do give us a call on 01953 880206 or fill in our quote request form here.


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