• Dr Emma Hewitt

7 Essential questions when hiring a transcriptionist for qualitative research data

You’re in the thick of a qualitative research project. You know you need to sort out a transcriptionist - it’s been on your to-do list for some time. However, your list seems to be getting longer by the day. You know it’s important to consider your transcription service provider carefully and not to just take their marketing hype at face value. Yet somehow the chore keeps getting pushed back. Meanwhile, your data is becoming more unwieldy by the day, and your deadline is looming.

We’ve simplified the task of commissioning a decent transcription service by making this list of key questions. These carefully considered questions can help you to get a much clearer picture of what to expect and minimise potential headaches down the line.

1. Are there any additional charges?

Some transcription companies headline fees that seem too good to be true, including discounts for academics. However, once you’ve been lured into contacting them for a quote or reading the small print, you find that the original figure is far from the reality. Additional charges are often added for additional speakers, transcription style, regional accents, faint background-noise, proof reading, time stamping, VAT… the list goes on.

Before you commission a transcription service, it’s vital to know whether all factors have been accounted for upfront, or whether additional charges can be added to the bill later. The last thing you want are any surprise bills once your money has already been accounted for.

2. How do they handle payment?

Be aware that some companies require payment of 50% of the final bill upfront and will only accept a limited range of payment methods, such as credit cards, PayPal, etc. This can be restrictive for academics or public sector employees, where access to funding streams go through formal payment procedures. It is important to check that you have compatible payment systems. It can be helpful to work with a transcription company that has experience in dealing with the payment processes of large bureaucracies.

3. Are they experienced in handling qualitative research data?

Transcribing is transcribing, right? Not so. There is a growing array of industries that require transcription services, and each industry has specific requirements and conventions for transcripts. Whilst there are many general transcriptionist services on the market, if you go down this route proceed with caution to ensure that they understand your analytical requirements. Do they have a clear understanding of the different transcription styles and can they supply samples? Is there flexibility to tailor their transcripts to any individual requirements you may have? If the subject of your data is particularly technical, ask how they handle the spelling of unfamiliar vocabulary. Do they have the capacity to handle bulk orders for large, ongoing projects and how can they support you in meeting your key deadlines?

4. How do they guarantee the accuracy and quality of their transcripts?

Many transcription companies claim at least 98% or higher levels of accuracy (I’ve even seen a promise of 200% accuracy). I would be asking any reputable transcription provider precisely how they ascertain these figures and how they guarantee them. For instance, is there a money back guarantee if you’re not happy with the quality of their work? Can they provide samples of their transcripts and references from previous clients? How do they deal with inaudibles or technical language in the data, and can they provide examples of these? You may well be willing to sacrifice a certain level of accuracy in the interests of a cheaper service, but this is something to consider carefully if you’re keen to proceed with your analysis quickly and efficiently. 

5. What is the turn-around time and scheduling structure for receiving completed transcripts?

These questions are particularly pertinent when you are dealing with a large, ongoing project. Simply asking how long it will take to complete the overall project may not give you enough information if you need to begin analysing your data before the end date. If a company leaves the timeframe open, this could signal delays in your project, which might be a deal breaker for you. It is also important to discuss how they will handle any ongoing data submission within the context of your final deadline.

6. What is their privacy policy?

Of course, confidentiality is a crucial aspect of any research project. Do make sure that they have a company confidentiality agreement that is signed by all employees who have access to your data. If you have your own confidentiality agreement, are they also willing to get their employees to give you signed copies of this? Are they fully GDRP compliant?

7. Who will be doing the transcription work?

You may want to know who precisely is going to be transcribing your data. If the company are offering transcription to be done at a very low-cost, it is highly likely that they are using automated voice recognition software or typing centres based overseas with transcribers not speaking English as their first language. This can make a considerable difference to the quality of your transcripts and you may later spend a considerable amount of time correcting or adding in extra bits.

Getting all the facts

Once you’ve done your initial research and found a company who appear to be a good fit, I would always recommend jumping on the phone with them to probe them further and get a sense of whether they are a company you can work with. These questions should ensure that you go into any arrangement with a transcription service provider with all the relevant facts and information and should help to ensure that you have a good experience. If you find the right service now it will save you much stress and frustration in the long run.

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