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.

Thinking about SWASH as a community-engaged research project: the feedback

I’m writing a series of blogs about SWASH, a repeated cross-sectional survey of the health and wellbeing of community-connected lesbian, bisexual, queer (LBQ) and other non-heterosexual identifying women in Sydney. It is run by a collaboration of researchers (myself and colleague Rachel Deacon) and ACON Health (Australia’s largest community health organisation specialising in LGBTQ health). I’ve been involved for nearly a decade, but SWASH has been running as a community-engaged research project since it inception in 1996. Seriously, 22 years… that makes it an interesting case study. I’m blogging about how we do things and reflecting on why it matters that we do things the way we do. In the first blog, we had just completed the draft 2018 report and were about to present it to ACON staff. This blog is reflecting on that meeting.

Multipel covers from SWASH research reportsWe couldn’t present all the findings (we have ~50 questions) so we stuck to new questions, topics I know ACON is currently doing work around (breast health, AOD treatment service), and issues we’ve been tracking for some time (eg smoking).

New questions: this was the first time health promotion staff had access to local and timely data on suicidal ideation and self harm. We used the same questions as the Australian Longitudinal Survey of Women’s Health; the last time they reported on self harm and suicidal idealtion among LBQ women was over a decade ago. ACON have been asking for these questions for a long time. Rachel and I have said no, concerned women may not be in a safe place to deal with whatever these questions brought up – they may be answering the survey at a large community event during the day or at an evening event where they might consume alcohol or drugs. ACON asked again this year, arguing strongly that we need to normalise asking questions about mental health. Staff developed a support card to give to everyone recruited and trained the survey recruiters to be aware of these issues. And the outcome was data that could support and inform ACON’s work; high quality empirical data that could convince stakeholders of the need for targeted work. It is hard to overstate how difficult it is to get recent data on many health issues for lesbian, bisexual and queer women in Australia.

Repeated questions: We spent quite a lot of time talking about a lack of change in a health screening behaviour we’ve been tracking for several years; this behaviour is core business for ACON. SWASH captures data directly from the people ACON’s work targets, so knowing which section of the community is not engaging in screening, including women we know are at increased risk because we also have that data, can feed directly into program development. We talked about changes in repeatedly presented questions such as smoking (down) or acute psychological distress (up), and findings that need further analysis. SWASH shows how intertwined sexuality and age are; bisexual identity is more common in younger women and lesbian identity more common in older women. So knowing if variations in psychological distress are explained by age or sexuality or both is important.

A feedback session with a community-engaged organisation is valuable market testing. If there is a lot of sensitively around an issue then we can be more thoughtful how we talk about it, even work directly with staff on language. If there is a community conversation already happening, we can help advance it by adding additional narrative to the report comparing our findings to the general population, discussing the findings in relation to other LBQ studies, or link the findings to policy or program work ACON is engaged in. Self harm is a great example; our conversation made think about the language we used in the report and how important it was to acknowledge that we don’t know how respondents understand the term (the question aims to capture suicidal intent and non-suicidal intent). Do the respondents reporting engagement in sado­masochism with blood (practices such as cutting, piercing, whipping or fisting) see these practices as self-harm? It is important that we frame findings safely, meaningfully and in ways that will engage people.

A feedback session is also about solidarity and accountability. Rachel and I can make decisions that alienate, enrage, enthuse, or interest the community, but we might never hear about it. Although our contact details are readily available, I can’t recall a single email from community expressing dissatisfaction (or satisfaction!). I have very rarely been bailed up in person and my ethics committee has never received a complaint. ACON on the other hand is super accessible via social media. Staff are accessible at community events and because they are also often members of the LBQ community, people can approach them when they are ‘off the clock’. It is ACON staff who have to defend, explain or take any flack for sampling, questionnaire or analytical decisions Rachel and I make. It is important that we hear community feedback.

At our meeting we talked through methodological decisions and asked staff what they thought. For example, we’ve excluded some of our online sample for a solid methodological reason, we explained why, and discussed staff concerns about what this meant for those people who had filled in surveys. In another case, we said we can do x or y with good reasons either way, what do you think? Knowing what might be politically sensitive means we can include explanations to help community understand our decisions or the limitations of the survey, and prepare staff for community conversations. It also allows us to acknowledge the responsibilities staff as the bridge with community.

Doing research, learning from community

A few months ago I ran research capacity development on focus groups for staff at a peer-led advocacy and harm reduction organisation (Hi NUAA, you folks rock). I’ve delivered quite a bit of research capacity building in communities, but usually as part of a community-based participatory research (CBPR) project. This focus group training was standalone. It was a bit last minute and I hadn’t liaised properly so there was no projector in the room for my lovely PowerPoint presentation. It was just me and eight people for seven hours… Luckily teaching qualitative methods to hundreds of postgraduates and in community has given me nerves of steel! We worked our way through the slides in hard copy, covering the basics, and I told lots of stories from the field. They were a lovely engaged group and the sessions ran well.

At the end we ran a mock focus group – three people took it in turns to facilitate so we had seven ‘participants’. I said: play a character or yourself, embellish your own story or make it up, entirely up to you. The point was to get experience of facilitating a focus group and experience of being a participant (I do this with my postgrads also). I am often surprised at how few researchers have been research participants, it’s important to understand what it is feel like to be researched.

The mock group ran for an hour and the flow never faltered. We used questions for a future project so the organisation got feedback on their questions. The collective lived experience and knowledge in the room was deeply affecting. Mock group or not, we talked about some important, hard and confronting things (for them and me).

They were really good facilitators – this is not surprising. A group of skilled peer workers are going to be good at relationship building, at facilitating risky conversations with already vulnerable people, and they have the respectful persistence of people accomplished in peer-based health promotion. As peer workers they always occupy a space where they are ‘of the group’ but simultaneously slightly distant from it – there is something about this that makes a focus group work. My postgrad students have a predictable anxiety about bias (born from training in quant methods), and struggle with the idea of a real person with a history, experiences and ideas that they can’t simply leave outside. The peer workers were thoughtful about how to manage their own stuff when facilitating, they knew how to step aside and make it about the participants.

Co-learning is fundamental to CBPR. We researchers are good at articulating what the community is learning through engaging with us, often ‘hard’ and saleable skills. What we are learning from community is rarely formalised (unlike the ‘training’ I offer) and is often about learning how to do this research better with this community (i.e functional and limited). So let me give you an example of a fundamental lesson:

Every time I bring research methods and research ethics to community, my unexamined positions get challenged. Community imagines what you are telling them in their context, with their community. They see the holes and then push you to deal with it. The lesson this time was around relating ethically to participants in our research. I brought up managing a domineering/disruptive participant. This is text book stuff and I have lots of useful strategies that are all based on prioritising the research (i.e. shut them down, sideline them, ask them to leave). The peer workers understood a great deal about their imagined domineering/disruptive participant, including their history of exclusion and stigma. They felt a massive responsibility to be aware of past trauma and find a way to keep everyone in the room and engaging. Initially I tried explaining to them why they were wrong (thoughtful but wrong) and then I felt chastened. A few months later I’m still thinking about this gentle and powerful challenge to think about the ethics of participant engagement. This speaks to a chapter I co-authored about ethics in working with community researchers in sexual health; we drew on Mohatt‘s great account of CBPR to argue for “culturally-anchored ethical practice”. This is about making explicit the values represented across the team and developing a shared-position to work from. The consequences of this might be researchers’ throwing out received wisdom on how to do research.

Image by Brandon VK and used under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0)

NOTE: If you need access to a journal article or book chapter that is trapped behind a paywall, contact me.

Sex and the Country Women’s Association… Community-oriented research translation for LBQ women.

IMG_8859The CWA – Country Women’s Association are the largest women’s organisation in Australia and work to improve the conditions of women and children in the country. They’ve been around since the 1920s. They are an Australian institution no doubt, famous for their cookbooks and cake competitions. IMG_8854Their motto is all God, throne, country… For me, “the CWA” conjures up no-nonsense, white, entirely heterosexual ladies (excuse me my stereotyping). So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered my talk about lesbian, bisexual and queer women’s safer sex was to be at the Lismore CWA Tea Rooms.

Mostly, when I talk about community-engaged/community-based research it’s all about front loading: getting community involved in research development, in data collection and only occasionally in data analysis. But this community event was about research translation – telling an affected community what we have found out, giving back the knowledge we gained through them about LBQ women and sexual health. SWASH, our twenty year health survey, has generated a lot of data on sexual practice, relationships, risk practices, and screening, but it’s been a long time since we’ve shared it.

This was not a stuffy or even a shiny university research forum. The night began with some young local women singing – there was no cash, so they got paid in donated but new sex toys! There was a giant pot of tea, biscuits, and plenty of vegan and gluten-free hot food. image_542202361553653Home made signs and rainbow bunting abounded, with raunchy images from LBQ women’s safer sex campaigns stuck to the walls of the tea room. There was a table of information about local sexual health services and another table full of free viraclean for sex toys, condoms, lube, and gloves from the always awesome ILOVECLAUDE. My research finding were imperfectly projected on a bed-sheet. The lucky door prizes were sex toys and most people won something!

There was a lot of laughing, some whispered confessions and a lot of generosity in the room. One older woman told me about the first time she’d seen a dental dam, and her complete confusion about how exactly it would help. Another told me about the first time she’d received instruction about safer sex for sex with a woman many years ago: a bucket of warm soapy water beside the bed to wash your hands between orifices/bodies. Women talked about where to find a safe GP, where to get safer sex supplies, and how you might start a conversation with a lover about preventing STI transmission. There was a lot of frank conversation about what we do, what we know, and what we aren’t sure about. What women didn’t know or didn’t feel sure about resonated very strongly with Ruby Grant’s recent research with queer young women in Tasmania, Jen Power’s earlier work with lesbian and bisexual women in Victoria, and some of my own work with younger LBQ women in Sydney (more citations at the end of this blog). .

We had a sexual health doctor in attendance (Dr Kate Bolam from Choices Clinic) and women posted anonymous questions throughout the night for her to answer. Several questions came in response to my presentation. I doubt anyone would have asked about the risks involved in oral sex and menstrual blood except I told them three quarters of LBQ women said in the last 6 months they had performed oral sex during menstruation without a barrier (Juliet Richters published this SWASH analysis ). image_542429492779593If they’d read this in a research report, I wonder what they would have done with the uncertainty this produced for them? How would they have gotten answers to questions about their own practice – should they avoid oral sex, try to get dental dams (your best bet is ILOVECLAUDE), or use a tampon (apparently provides little protection). There is a serious dearth of good quality and relevant sexual health information for LBQ women (see citations at the end of this blog). The event gave them the means to take the research findings and apply them to their lives and their practices.

I can take little credit for the event. ACON asked me to participate. The amazing staff at ACON Northern Rivers are deeply connected community people and so could judge the level, the tone, and how to make it work for local women rather than for an out of town academic (no one in the room was likely to cite my work in peer review, there was no local dignitary to shake my hand for the local paper’s photographer, no formal evaluation. I left feeling pretty convinced that community-oriented research translation needs community partners taking the lead.

At the end of the night I realised just how appropriate it was that we held our event in a CWA Tea Room. Both the CWA and SWASH are about a group of people getting together and mustering scare resources in service of their community. Through the community, for the community, and by the community.
What do we know about LBQ women and safer sex in Australia? (let me know if you get stuck at a paywall)

Cox, Peta, McNair, Ruth (2009) Risk reduction as an accepted framework for safer-sex promotion among women who have sex with women. Sexual Health, 6:15-18.

Grant, Ruby, Nash, Meredith (2017) Navigating unintelligibility: Queer Australian young women’s negotiations of safe sex and risk. Journal of Health Psychology, 23(2): 306-319

McNair, Ruth (2005) Risks and prevention of sexually transmissible infections among women who have sex with women. Sexual Health, 2: 209-217.

McNair, Ruth, Power, Jennifer, Carr, Susan (2009) Comparing knowledge and perceived risk related to the human papilloma virus among Australian women of diverse sexual orientations. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 33: 87–93.

Mooney-Somers, J, Deacon, RM, Klinner, C, Richters, J, Parkhill, N (2017) Women in contact with the gay and lesbian community in Sydney: Report of the Sydney Women and Sexual Health (SWASH) Survey 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016. Sydney: ACON & Sydney Health Ethics, University of Sydney.

Power, Jennifer, McNair, Ruth, Carr, Susan (2009) Absent sexual scripts: lesbian and bisexual women’s knowledge, attitudes and action regarding safer sex and sexual health information. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 11(1):67-81

Richters, Juliet, Prestage, Garrett, Schneider, Karen, Clayton, Stevie (2010) Do women use dental dams? Safer sex practices of lesbians and other women who have sex with women. Sexual Health, 7: 165–169.

‘Except as required by law’: Australian researchers’ legal rights and obligations regarding participant confidentiality

Researchers’ promises of confidentiality are often easily and genuinely made. However, our experience in research ethics review (Julie through an NGO-run ethics review committee; Anna through formally constituted university and hospital human research ethics committees), in qualitative research and in teaching qualitative research ethics has led us to think about the limits of these promises.

Australian researchers generally rely on the National Statement (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2015) and Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) for guidance around ethical and legal conduct in research. For example, Chapter 4.6 in the National Statement notes that researchers may discover illegal activity and guides researchers and HRECs to consider what researchers might be obliged to disclose in a legal situation and how to best protect (and inform) participants of this threat to confidentiality.

The National Statement is currently under revision (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2016) and the review submitted for public consultation in late-2016 contains a proposal to include additional information on “Disclosure to third parties of findings or results” in Section 3 of the National Statement. Here the NHMRC explicitly state that: “There can be situations where researchers have a legal, contractual or professional obligation to divulge findings or results to third parties”. That is, researchers should concern themselves not only with the legal implications of revealing potential illegal activity, but any instance in which they may be asked to break participant confidentiality.

The recent review of the National Statement extends the NHMRC recommendations around potential data disclosure in a number of ways: it makes much more explicit that researchers (as opposed to HRECs or institutions) are responsible for understanding the risks to patient confidentiality: “researchers should be aware of situations where a court, law enforcement agency or regulator may seek to compel the release of findings or results”. Researchers are expected to anticipate legal risks to participant confidentiality by: identifying “(a) whether, to whom and under what circumstances the findings or results will be disclosed; (b) whether potential participants will be forewarned that there may be such a disclosure; (c) the risks associated with such a disclosure and how they will be managed; and (d) the rationale for communicating and/or withholding the findings or results and the relative benefits and/or risks to participants of disclosure/non-disclosure”. And, researchers should advise participants on legal risks to confidentiality and how they will be handled: “(a) have a strategy in place to address this possibility; (b) advise participants of the potential for this to occur; and (c) advise participants as to how the situation will be managed”.

For many researchers in health, legal risks are a very vague reality and legal intervention a remote threat. They may feel confident that their research does not and will not uncover illegal activity, or that their data would simply be irrelevant to a legal case. Or they may feel confident that they have taken sufficient steps to protect their participants’ confidentiality by following guidelines; researchers working in illicit drug use, for example.

Many Australian HRECs articulate the NHMRC guidelines on legal risks of disclosure to third parties by requiring that researchers inform participants that any data collected during research will kept confidential, “except as required by law”. In keeping with the ethical concept of informed consent, participants are thereby warned that researchers are not able to unconditionally offer confidentially. It has become clear to us that the intention of this phrase, to flag the legal limits of confidentiality, is not well understood by researchers (Olsen & Mooney-Somers, 2014).

The National Statement details some aspects of human research that is subject to specific statutory regulation however stresses that compliance with legal obligations is not within the scope of the National Statement: “It is the responsibility of institutions and researchers to be aware of both general and specific legal requirements, wherever relevant”. Moreover, in the document we are directed that it is not the role of a HREC to provide legal advice. It is relatively rare for Australian HRECs to provide explicit guidance on the relevant legal obligations for researchers, including: how they differ across jurisdictions; what protective strategies researchers could employ to better protect patient confidentiality; or how to best inform participants about the risks of legal action (Some useful HREC-produced resources are Alfred Hospital Ethics Committee, 2010; QUT Office of Research Ethics and Integrity, 2016) Criminology scholars have (unsurprisingly) considered these issues in their own field (Chalmers & Israel. 2005; Israel, 2004; Israel & Gelsthorpe, 2017; Palys & Lowman, 2014).

We believe there are real risks to participants, researchers and research institutions.

Recent international cases of research dealing with illegal activity becoming subject to legal action include The Belfast Project/The Boston Tapes (BBC News, 2014; Emmerich, 2016; Israel, 2014) and Bradley Garrett’s ethnographic work with urban explorers (Fish, 2014; Times Higher Education, 2014) (See also Israel & Gelsthorpe, 2017). On the whole, legal action was anticipatable in these cases as they involved illicit activities and the legal action was driven by law enforcement interest. In some instances, researchers took extensive steps to protect participant confidentiality. In other cases the promise of absolute confidentiality seems a little naïve (and in our opinion, perhaps negligent).

Perhaps of more concern are cases in which legal action was instigated by interested others, not law enforcement. Of particular interest to us are recent cases of tobacco companies using Freedom of Information laws in Australia to obtain research data from Cancer Council Victoria on young people’s attitudes to and use of tobacco, and an earlier attempt to seek data on adults from Cancer Council NSW (McKenzie & Baker, 2015; Schetzer & Medew, 2015). As these cases do not involve illegal activity, it is much less likely that researchers could have anticipated the specific legal actions that undermined participant confidentiality. (The tobacco industry has taken these actions in other countries (Hastings, 2015; McMurtrie, 2002)).

Our point here is that the promise of confidentiality should never be casually made. Researchers have an ethical obligation to think through what “except as required by law” may mean for each particular research project. Although it has been argued elsewhere that as professionals, researchers should be provided the same participant confidentiality rights as doctors and lawyers (Emmerich, 2016), the current state of affairs is that research data is not (necessarily) safe from legal, contractual or professional obligation to divulge findings or results to third parties.

Written by Anna Olsen (Research School of Population Health, ANU) & Julie Mooney-Somers (Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, University of Sydney)
Neither of us are lawyers and, as such, our interpretations are as social scientists and HREC members. Interested lawyers and legal scholars are encouraged to contribute!

Alfred Hospital Ethics Committee. (2010, Updated September 2016). Alfred Hospital ethics committee guidelines: Research that potentially involves legal risks for participants and researchers. Retrieved from
BBC News. (1 May 2014). What are the Boston tapes? Retrieved from
Chalmers, R., & Israel, M. (2005). Caring for Data: Law, Professional Codes and the Negotiation of Confidentiality in Australian Criminological Research. Retrieved from
Emmerich, N. (9 December 2016). Why researchers should get the same client confidentiality as doctors. Retrieved from
Fish, A. (23 May 2014). Urban geographer’s brush with the law risks sending cold chill through social science. Retrieved from
Hastings, G. (31 August 2015). We got an FOI request from Big Tobacco – here’s how it went. Retrieved from
Israel, M. (2004). Strictly confidential? Integrity and the disclosure of criminological and socio-legal research. British Journal of Criminology, 44(5), 715-740.
Israel, M. (6 May 2014). Gerry Adams arrest: when is it right for academics to hand over information to the courts? Retrieved from
Israel, M., & Gelsthorpe, L. (2017). Ethics in Criminological Research: A Powerful Force, or a Force for the Powerful? . In M. Cowburn, L. Gelsthorpe, & A. Wahidin (Eds.), Research Ethics in Criminology and Criminal Justice: Politics, Dilemmas, Issues and Solutions. London: Routledge.
McKenzie, N., & Baker, R. (15 August 2015). Tobacco company wants schools survey for insights into children and teens. The Age. Retrieved from
McMurtrie, B. (8 February 2002). Tobacco companies seek university documents. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from
National Health and Medical Research Council. (2015). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007) Retrieved from
National Health and Medical Research Council. (2016). Public consultation on Section 3 (chapters 3.1 & 3.5), Glossary and Revisions to Section 5: National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007). Retrieved from
Olsen, A., & Mooney-Somers, J. (2014). Is there a problem with the status quo? Debating the need for standalone ethical guidelines for research with people who use alcohol and other drugs. Drug Alcohol Rev, 33(6), 637-642. doi:10.1111/dar.12140
Palys, T., & Lowman, J. (2014). Protecting research confidentiality: What happens when law and ethics collide. Toronto: Lorimer.
QUT Office of Research Ethics and Integrity. (10 Novembeer 2016). Participants and illegal activities. Retrieved from
Schetzer, A., & Medew, J. (20 August 2015). Cancer Council spends thousands fighting big tobacco over children’s survey data. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from
Times Higher Education. (5 June 2014). Place-hacker Bradley Garrett: research at the edge of the law. Retrieved from

This article was originally published on Research Ethics Monthly. Read the original article. It can be cited as: Olsen A, and Mooney-Somers J. (2017, 24 February) ‘Except as required by law’: Australian researchers’ legal rights and obligations regarding participant confidentiality. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

Why I always get an ISBN for my research reports

Mooney-Somers, J, Erick, W, Brockman, D, Scott, R. & Maher, L (2008). Indigenous Resiliency Project Participatory Action Research Component: A report on the Research Training and Development Workshop, Townsville, February 2008. National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW. ISBN: 978 0 7334 2647 6.

See that bit at the end, that’s my first ISBN. I can’t recall where I got the notion from, and I wonder now at my presumptuousness. I don’t think it was standard practice in my research centre to get ISBNs for research reports. But I had just come out of a horrid job that I’d stayed put in to get publications (it didn’t really work). I was in a new job and determined to get as much on my CV as I could. The first output was a report on a training workshop. I was thoroughly engrossed in the methodology we were using (participatory action research) and genuinely interested in how it worked in practice. So writing about our process was something I was into, but it was also a publication. The ISBN though, that was kind of surprising.

I’m now the proud owner of 7 ISBNs.

For those who don’t know, an ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number. It is a unique code assigned to your ‘book’. It is super easy to get one if you know how and a complete mystery if you don’t (typical university*). You don’t need one; I suspect most reports published by academics don’t have one. Let me tell you why you should use them.

An ISBN “makes your book more discoverable” says the Australian provider of ISBNs, Thorpe-Bowker. Unsurprisingly a unique code means no confusion about which title is your book if it also has its own code attached. Well. I’m not entirely convinced this is a big deal for academics (honestly, Google your intended title to make sure it is unique-ish).

The much more compelling reason?

An ISBN means your book exists, it gets listed in registries. In the case of the report above, I got a call out of the blue from a library network asking if they could buy (buy!) several copies. Seriously, how did they even know it existed? It had an ISBN.

And then there’s this…

Copyright Acknowledgement

And this


You see an ISBN means your work is published and that makes it subject to legal deposit rules (a quick look at Wikipedia suggests this is an international standard).

Legal Deposit is a requirement under the Copyright Act 1968 for publishers and self publishing authors to deposit a copy of works published in Australia with the National Library and when applicable, the deposit libraries in your home state. Legal Deposit ensures that Australian publications are preserved for use now and in the future. National Library of Australia (for more read this

In NSW a publisher (e.g. your university if they secure the ISBN) is required to send copies of published material to The National Library of Australia, The State Library of New South Wales and The NSW Parliamentary Library. And because the publisher of my work is The University of Sydney, I have to send a copy to them as well.

That’s an very easy way to get my work into the Parliamentary library.

A major struggle in one of my research area’s (lesbian, bisexual and queer women’s health) is the persistent charge that there is no evidence base. The charge is wrong; there is considerable evidence of disparities in health outcomes out there, but it is a hard perception to shake. So getting our biennial reports of the longest running (in the world) survey of lesbian, bisexual and queer women’s health on to the shelves of policy makers… That’s a win. You never who might stumble across them.**

*Your institution’s library should be able to help or look for the “Legal Deposit Officer”.

*I know, I know, policy-makers Goggle everything. I put them all online too – the University archive, this blog, and often twitter announcements. I’m all about covering the bases.

Putting my argument up front would have made my presentation better

I attended a workshop by Nick Hopwood on presenting qualitative research. It was full of tips and strategies – check out the storify – and useful frameworks; Hammersley’s framework for critical review of ethnography (reminding me again that I need to read Hammerlsey) and Kamler and Thompson’s framework for writing abstracts from their ‘Helping doctoral students write’ book (which I promptly ordered).

‘No’ by JDAC available at under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Full terms at
‘No’ by JDAC available at under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Full terms at

I’m a keen reader of Nick’s blog and have used his tips for conference presentations. For my last conference however, I failed to implement one: ‘turn it upside down’; that is, state my argument at the beginning rather than pull it all together at the end. This was because I love a good mystery novel and my co-presenter wasn’t keen.

At the workshop, Nick asked us to review a recent presentation in light of what we’d just learnt. I used this last conference presentation. And funnily enough, I could see how much better it would have been if I had turned it upside down. Here’s why.

The logic for turning the presentation upside down is that it helps you achieve your key motivation for presenting at all – give the audience a clear sense of your key take-home message. If someone pulls the plug on you 10 minutes in (maybe because the previous presenter rambled on), at least they know your argument. And Nick insists the audience is less likely to fall asleep. Luckily, I got the whole 12 minutes allotted at my conference presentation, and as far as I could tell, everyone stayed awake.

After the workshop three compelling reasons to ‘turn it upside down’ occurred to me.

First, if I’d made my big statement upfront then the audience might have been more engaged, curious as to how I’m going to convince them (i.e. the mechanism for ‘the audience is less likely to fall asleep’).

Second, it would have meant the rest of the content would be more likely to be relevant to that argument and not just self-justifying waffle about methods or demonstrations of how clever and well-read I am (no of course I didn’t do that).

The best reason I could think of? Making my argument up front would have given the audience time to digest it. Usually – and indeed in my case – the key argument is in the last slide or two. That gives them about a minute to catch it and process it before the chair calls for questions. This might be the reason for the measly post-presentation discussion at so many conferences. If I’d put it up front, they would have had a whole 10 or 11 minutes to think about my argument, in context, in relation to my data, and more importantly for engagement, in relation to their experience and knowledge of the phenomena. So I’m convinced by Nick’s advice.

But there is a problem. Putting your argument up front means you have to have one. I’m not being flippant here. How many qual presentations have you been to where the main game seemed to be to describe what participants said? You get to the end and think, well gee people really thought some stuff / felt some stuff / needed some stuff. But it can be a bit meh, you’re not sure what it all means, why it matters. I find this kind of qual research depressing; I am sure I have been guilty of it.

Making an argument is scary (people might disagree with you!). Arguments involve taking a stand, saying, this is how we should think about this phenomena. They require I work to persuade you, generally through presenting evidence, like my data analysis. If you think of it, data interpretation in basically an argument. I am claiming that mine is the best (or at least, most productive) way to understand what this participant means. Moving from description to interpretation can be a difficult things students to accomplish. It requires they develop confidence in their ability to interpret (not easy at all). Some tips I give my students:

Lyn Richards uses a great metaphor in her book ‘How to handle qualitative data’ for understanding the difference between data description and interpretation:

‘Somebody’s dead, they were shot and there’s a gun on the ground’ is the beginning of the detective’s questions. We hardly expect the enquiry to end with the facts of a dead body and discarded gun.

In her book ‘How to write a journal article in 12 weeks‘, Wendy Laura Belcher draws on a similar metaphor when talking about making arguments in papers:

Present evidence that supports your case, cross-examine evidence that doesn’t support your case, ignore evidence that is irrelevant to your case, and make sure the jury always knows whom you are accusing of what and why.

So, write the lawyer’s brief not the detective’s report. Can you imagine a prosecuting barrister standing up on front of the judge and jury and not telling them who they think did it? Or, to return to my topic, holding the punchline for the end? I would speculate that if you give the argument up front the audience starts doing some of the work for you – they know where you’re going so they are looking for the links. Hey’ that’s four reasons to put your argument first.

Last piece of advice from Wendy Laura Belcher to relieve you of some argument making anxiety:

Arguments don’t need to be unassailable or bullet proof, just interesting.

Sexual risk and health care seeking behaviour in young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in north Queensland

The Indigenous Resiliency Project was part of the International Collaborative Indigenous Health Research Partnership (ID: 361621), a trilateral partnership between the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Health Research Council of New Zealand. There were parallel projects in Canada and New Zealand; together we aimed to examine the role of resilience in protecting Indigenous populations against sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections.

In the qualitative arm we conducted community-based participatory projects with two communities. Check out the findings below:

In 2010 we used the qualitative work as the basis for community surveys. Again, researchers worked closely with community, in this case the Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Service. The cross-sectional survey covered location of usual residence, recent and past sexual activity, alcohol and other drug use, history of selected health outcomes and health service utilisation. We trained five young local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in research ethics and survey methodology. These peer researchers collected surveys from Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people aged 16 to 24 years at the Townsville Show, sporting events, shopping centres, a health service open day and a NAIDOC parade and community event.

Check out what we found: Scott, R, Foster, R, Oliver, L, Olsen, A, Mooney-Somers, J, Mathers, B, Micallef, J, Kaldor, J and Maher, L (accepted 22/10/2014). Sexual risk and health care seeking behaviour in young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in north Queensland. Sexual Health

Note: this is a pre-copyedited, author-produced PDF of the accepted article; I’ll post the link to the definitive publisher-authenticated version as soon as it is released.

Lesbian and bisexual women and Pap smears – some good news but concerns remain

I attended the Australasian Sexual Health conference in Sydney to share our recent analysis of data from SWASH on Pap smear testing rates for lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women. The work was initiated by a medical student from Scotland, Catriona Douglas, who did an research internship with me earlier  this year. We looked at changes in testing between 2002 and 2012, comparisons between LBQ women and the general population in NSW, and predictors of test attendance among LBQ women in NSW. This is what we found:

Sexual Health SWASH pap smear poster FINAL print

Citation: Douglas C, Deacon R, Mooney-Somers J (2014) Pap smear rates among Australian lesbian and bisexual women: some good news but disparities persist. Poster presented at Australasian Sexual Health Conference, Sydney. Download the poster here.

We’ve just started to get some media interest.

Gay New Network (SX magazine in Sydney)


Research into teaching: Identifying the attributes of a graduate ‘qualitative researcher’

My colleague Assoc Prof Stacy Carter and I have just been awarded Research into Teaching seed funding from the School of Public Health, University of Sydney to conduct a project “Identifying the attributes of a graduate ‘qualitative researcher’”. The seed funding will be matched by funds from the Qualitative Health Research program, and the project will be conducted in 2015.

Our plan is to conduct interviews with students past and present, employers and PhD supervisors so we can review how well the Master of Qualitative Health Research (MQHR) curriculum meets the learning needs of students and those who employ or supervise them. We’ll explore how University of Sydney graduate attributes (scholarship; global citizenship; lifelong learning) are expressed in the MQHR, and identify any unique attributes for the QHR graduate… that’s where we’ll identify attributes of a graduate ‘qualitative researcher’.

Why not start us off: What attributes does a qualitative researcher need?