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Why I audio record research conversations, and how I do it ethically

November 24, 2015

2013-08-12When conducting depth interviews or focus groups it is conventional for a researcher to audio record the conversations, with the consent of the respondent.  A lot of respondents are initially a little wary of this so I thought I’d explain what my needs are in relation to audio recordings, and what happens to the recording following the conversation.

There are several reasons why it is always my preference to audio record my research conversations:

  • Firstly, I can’t be bothered with making notes by hand.  It is boring and hurts my hand and generates a load of paper that I would need to securely archive or dispose of.  Linked to this if I’m not taking notes I can genuinely give respondents my full attention rather than trying to multitask.  This means that the respondent will feel listened to so hopefully they feel a bit more loved and appreciated.  And then linked to this, if I am listening to the respondent properly I am in a better position to probe for more detail and follow up points of interest which means I collect richer data.
  • Secondly, I need data.  Once I have had a research conversation the words become my data which I need to analyse.  An audio recording gives me a complete and accurate record of this data which I can use to look for key themes and pick out verbatim quotes that illustrate my points.
  • Thirdly, an audio recording gives me a source file to archive.  I can come back to it at any time if I want to check something.  In theory (and this has never happened to me) it would also be possible for me to ‘prove’ my source data to my client or to a respondent with a concern.

Once they have understood the gist of this, respondents almost always agree to be recorded.  I think there has only been twice in my career that a respondent has refused…

So what is the process of making and using a recording?

Well I don’t have any complicated or expensive equipment to make an audio recording, just a small digital recorder with a fairly powerful microphone.  I either use this in person placed on the table in front of the respondent, or if I’m doing the interview via a telephone call I will use the digital recorder alongside the phone on speakerphone.

Following a research conversation I plug my digital recorder into my laptop and transfer the audio file across into a password protected file labelled with some sort of anonymous identifier and the date (i.e. ‘Respondent 5 8.9.15’).  I then wipe the file from the digital recorder.

Typically I will listen to the recording once and make a partial transcription of key quotes along with some notes.  Occasionally I will have the anonymised file transcribed by a professional transcriber if my client has the budget.

Consent is absolutely paramount when it comes to conducting ethical research, and the Market Research Society Code of Conduct has a few things to say about consent in relation to audio recording.

B.34 At the time of recruitment (or before the exercise takes place if details change after recruitment), Members must ensure that Respondents are told all relevant information […] when and how the exercise is to be recorded.

B.35 Members must ensure that completed recruitment questionnaires, Incentive and attendance lists, transmissions or recordings or any other information or outputs that identify Respondents are not passed to or accessed by Clients or other third parties without the explicit permission of the Respondents; and Members must take reasonable steps to ensure that the information or outputs are used only for the purpose agreed at the time of data collection.

B.41 Members must ensure that Respondents, on attendance at a venue, are informed about the nature of any observation, monitoring or recording and Respondents are given the option of withdrawing from the exercise.

Please be assured that:

  • I will never record you without your consent, so I will always explain what I want to do then if it is OK with you I will tell you explicitly when I have switched my digital recorder on, and when I have switched it off.
  • The recording is for me: I will not give anyone else access to the recording unless I have told you so in advance and you have consented to this.





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