The ethics of transcribing qualitative interviews

Transcription is fundamental to (most) qualitative research. The transcript is (usually) the actual thing you analyse as data, rather than the audio recording of an interview or focus group. And yet it’s curious how little attention it gets. I run a qual methods course and I barely mention it. I’ve done a quick online search and I can’t find much in the methodological journals; ditto the textbooks I have on my shelf.

Nor does it get much attention from procedural ethics. This is pretty odd given the audio recording is arguably the most identifiable research material we generate – it is the one piece of research material with all the details in it, the names, the places, the details you’ve promised the ethics committee you’ll change in order to protect the participant. And it is in the participant’s voice. I’ve never been asked and have not seen any advice that I should address who’ll be transcribing, whether they signed a confidentiality agreement, how they will securely store the material, or if they will destroy the audio recording and the transcription.*

New PhD students get told to do their own transcribing. It’s good experience blah blah; it’ll get you closer to the data. To be fair, it can be a great way to get novice interviewers to really engage with their technique – there’s nothing like *hearing yourself* talking too much, repeatedly interrupting or umming, ahhing and stumbling your way through a tortured question. But give a qual researcher some discretionary cash and I’ll bet they spend it on transcription. It is the most boring and onerous of research tasks. I’ve seen PhD candidates do paid work just so they have cash for transcription. I’ve seen projects flounder because the researcher is totally over transcribing. I’m sure there are researchers who’ve left the last one or two or three interviews un-transcribed in order to get on with things.

And why not pay someone to do it? There’s is no guarantee transcribing your own material will produce a more accurate transcript – paying a professional means getting someone with superior skills. You may get there in the end but it will take several extra hours of your precious time. Chasing up a couple of unclear words marked up by the transcriber will still be quicker than doing the job yourself. You can even anticipate some of this by providing a list of jargon, abbreviations, medical terminology or common phrases used by the participants. Have you got the message that I think transcribing is dull, onerous work, and exceedingly time consuming so best left to the experts?

But, those experts are expensive. I’ve recently been quoted a basic rate of AUD$2-3 per audio minute. The price goes up for more than two speakers, speaker identification, bad sound quality, sometimes for English as second language and fine-grained transcribing (eg for conversation analysis), and a shorter turnaround. That’s AUD$150 for an hour long interview with 1 native English speaker, great sound quality and a week turn around. 10 interviews AUD$1500, 20 interviews AUD$3000, throw in a real (i.e. diverse) sample and well, costs spiral. I was once involved in a grant application that budgeted AUD$50,000 for transcription costs. That’s coming close to a full time research assistant. I  will hold my hand up to making decisions that should be methodological – how many interviews do I need, interviews or focus groups, how long do the interviews need to be – based on reducing the budget. There are projects I’d like to do but don’t because I haven’t got the cash for transcription. I’m sure I’m not alone here. Transcription is an entry level barrier to qual research.

Let’s review – transcription is vital to qualitative research, it’s a methodological and ethical blind spot, an onerous task, and it’s expensive. Hang on – it’s not expensive anymore! A North American company will transcribe for US$1 per min of audio (AUD$1.3), with a 12 hour turn around and 99% accuracy. And, they don’t charge extra for anything: multiple speakers – free, speaker id- free, superfast turnaround –free, and apparently no sales tax. To make this concrete, that AUD$50,000 budgeted for transcription – would have charged us AUD$13,000.

My research is generally funded by the public purse. I should reduce costs where I can (right?) and offers one hell of a saving. I can spend that cash on something else (like research translation) or not ask the public purse to give me so much money in the first place. I don’t know how big the research transcription market is but should all publicly funded research be using

I do have a slight misgiving about Australian public funds leaving the economy.

I also wonder about the transcribers. promote the fact that the transcription is done by people, not robots or computers. Their transcribers are unlikely faster than those employed by my local company. A good transcriber is looking at 3-4 hour’s work for an hour of audio – or longer if it is multiple speakers, crappy recording quality, lots of jargon, etc (i.e. real research data). My local transcriber charges me AUD$150 for their 3-4 hours of work; will charge me half this. I don’t know what my local company pays their freelancers (Google tells me typists earn AUD$28-35 per hour), but a transcriber gets US$0.4-0.65 per audio minute, that’s at best US$39/AUD$50 for their 3-4 hours of work. Really, I have no idea the margins for my local company or but it might be half the pay for exactly the same task undertaken by pretty much similarly qualified people.

My uneasiness is about paying so little with an expectation of a high quality product; a product that is fundamental to our work as qualitative researchers. Maybe if you won’t do it yourself or can’t afford to pay minimum wage, then you simply can’t afford to do qualitative research?

Be interested to hear what my qualitative research colleagues think. You using


*I found one archived document from Newcastle University (2007, amended 2015) that stated “Transcription should usually be undertaken by the researchers. (ii) If it is to be undertaken by other than the researchers (eg, a transcription service or research assistant) participants must be informed as this potentially compromises data security and participants’ privacy.” I have never heard of a research project informing a participant their data may be comprised because a transcription service is being used.


6 thoughts on “The ethics of transcribing qualitative interviews

Add yours

  1. Great post, Julie. You have a finely honed skill of finding the issues few others notice.

    Re services like the ones you mention – I’ve not used them myself, but have heard similar ones discussed in online academic forums. The key theme (if you’ll pardon the stretching of the term) is that you get what you pay for. Cheap does not always mean good value for money. To be clear, I am not talking about the service you mention (no defamation here, folks!); but there were many reports of transcripts that were full or errors or (more worryingly) a transcript about something else entirely, or a transcript that made no sense at all.

    Your ethics in transcription lens also brings to mind issues around possible transcriber distress. Sometimes the material we give them is pretty full-on; reports of significant personal morbidity, illness, lifelong quality of life impact. I remember a study I was involved with where we built this consideration into the study design: we paid medical secretaries to transcribe interviews with patients who had faced a morally difficult decision. We felt this group had both the necessary technical skill (transcription) and relevant professional experience (engagement with sensitive material) to mitigate possible transcriber harm.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. In reply to your comment about distressing content, I have a part in my terms and conditions (and request for details on how they want the transcription laid out, etc.) I send to all new clients where I explain what I need alerting about (in my case, as I work with a lot of music journalists and big services often refuse to deal with such topics, I’m OK with drug and drink references and swearing but please warn me of any issues such as violence, cruelty to animals, etc.). My academic clients are brilliant at warning me about issues and I haven’t turned anything down yet but I’m very glad they do this.


  2. This is really interesting to me as a transcriber who works on academic projects (as well as other things). If you’re worried about the ethics for your subjects, I’d say look for a transcriber who (like me) (but probably not me, I’m very busy!) has a statement, perhaps as part of their GDPR statement, about transcription in particular. Then looking at the ethics for the transcriber, I’d use an independent transcriber (good ones should have references or be a rec from a colleague) who isn’t being shafted by a big company (who will likely pay them half what you’re paying the company). I sometimes recommend new transcribers do low cost or pro bono work when setting up – just a few times – if that happens and they’re good, recommend the whatsits out of them – write them a testimonial, share their details, etc. Hope that helps, and I’m happy to answer questions or write a piece for you about this from my side!

    Here’s my GDPR and privacy statement


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