How I obtained some great data after creating a lot more work for myself

I have been very lax at updating this year. I would apologise, but I’m essentially writing this blog for myself, so I’ve only myself to be disappointed by. Anyway, on with the rest…

After my Upgrade, I started planning how to embark on some actual tailored original research. I planned I would need a research trip to Denmark to visit the national State Archives to see what I could uncover there about the decisions made by a key state agency – the Danish Arts Foundation – around the grants offered for translators (and perhaps authors). I discussed my plans with a contact at the Arts Foundation who suggested I meet with some of the key decision-makers themselves and interview them about their work. What an opportunity! The meetings were scheduled for the end of April. But then came the paperwork, and this dull but nonetheless important facet of the project is what I’m documenting here. NB for any newcomers: This is all obviously applicable in the UK (where my research is based and therefore where my ethics approval requirements had to be met) but data protection, copyright law, etc differ slightly around the world.


Copenhagen in late April – my ‘commute’

My university – as all universities, I imagine – requires Ethics Approval for any research involving human participants. This could mean submitting a full ethics application for something as seemingly simple as a face-to-face survey of students on campus, or even perhaps any (non-anonymous) online questionnaires, as well as all the obvious scenarios that come to mind involving medical trials or sociological experiments.

So now I intended that my research would involve interviewing in person, one-on-one (or in fact one-on-many in one case). I intended to record the interviews using a digital audio recorder. Potentially a straightforward case, but I still had to complete and submit the ethics application form correctly and gain official approval from the chair of the university’s research ethics committee before embarking on any interviews. My ethics application form had to be approved and signed by my lead supervisor and Head of Department. My lead supervisor also had to use the university’s system to undergo a risk assessment. As part of the application I had to ensure I had appropriate information sheets and consent forms for the interviewees, and this was the part that took the most research to get right, but ultimately ensured I understood why the ethics application was an important part of the process. Incidentally, as you can imagine, this process took much longer than I initially anticipated, probably a few weeks or so piecing everything together!

Interesting aspects I had to work out:

Data protection

Data protection is to protect individual’s privacy; their right to a private life. That’s the privacy of the person being interviewed, but also of anyone else being discussed. To start off, I had to register my project with the university’s Data Protection Officer (an online process) and assure them that my audio files would be backed up to the university’s secure servers as soon as practical, and deleted from recording devices asap. It’s crap data protection if any ol’ person can find and listen to the raw recordings.

My plan was to interview people about their job role in their workplace, which on the surface should not present any data protection issues – after all, information about their job title etc is in the public domain, and we would not need to discuss personal or confidential matters. On the consent forms, I covered myself with the following statement, which demonstrates the reading up and subsequent thought process I had to go through when considering data protection (however in hindsight, it probably should have been slightly extended to explicitly cover ‘any personal data about you or anybody else‘):

Data will be held about the your name, job title, professional contact details, and the place and time of the interview. Interviews will be about the your work and therefore no personal data will be intentionally recorded, for instance I will not request information about your age, ethnicity, sexuality, and personal contact details. If any such personal data is inadvertently discussed during the interview, I will ensure it remains confidential by omitting it from the final report, unless I gain express permission from you to submit the full unedited transcript in my final report.

In the event, there was only one very minor occasion during the five interviews where I will have to adhere to this statement, and it makes for an interesting demonstration of why this stuff is important. In idle conversation towards the end of the meeting, the interviewer and I were chatting about {a person} and how we established that {the person} had probably lived in {a country} for a while on the basis that {the person} had had {a child or children} in {that country}. This part of the interview I will simply omit from the eventual transcript as it is not directly relevant for my research nor is it appropriate to to include such personal information when that person was not in the room to consent to this information being shared. Of course, this is only the kind of personal information that would naturally be shared all the time in conversation between two colleagues (e.g. me and the interviewee), but things get complicated once it’s recorded, and it’s not okay to reproduce this kind of conjecture about someone’s personal or family life, even if you think that the subject of discussion probably wouldn’t mind one jot! In addition, the more I think about this issue, I (and others, I’m sure) have concluded that it’s better to simply redact anything that might be considered personal information as it is risky, not to mention unfair to those involved, to break data protection protocol. Heck, even my heavily redacted statement up there makes me nervous as it is borderline identifiable in my opinion – it is near impossible to ensure anonymity in the very small field in which I am studying!


Again, a line on my consent forms does the talking here:

Copyright of the audio recording and eventual written transcript is jointly held between the interviewer and interviewee. In this case the researcher kindly requests that the interviewee agrees to transfer copyright to the researcher in order that the recording and transcript can be used for other related purposes, for instance academic journal articles or conference presentations. You can request to be consulted on every occasion this material is used outside the remit of this PhD research project, and the researcher will endeavour to do this.

Copyright is an important consideration as a researcher. I plan to transcribe most of the interviews for my PhD thesis, so I could have just gained consent to use the material for this purpose alone. But perhaps I’d also like to submit them in whole or part as part of journal articles or even book chapters. I don’t actually know yet, but I do know that if I hadn’t got express permission – a transfer of copyright, no less – from the interviewee at the time of interview, it would have been a hell of a lot more complicated to use the material in any other form in a year or so’s time. Maybe I’d even have to contact them again back-and-forth for some sort of permission, which looks less than professional and risks them overthinking it and withdrawing consent. My last line was to cover this kind of hesitation or reluctance (of which there was none, but you never can tell beforehand); no one has opted to be kept informed so far.


Gaining consent in practice

I presented the information sheets and consent forms to interviewees at the start of our meeting. The participants kept the information sheet and one copy of the consent form for themselves; I have a signed and dated copy of the consent form from every person I recorded. None of the participants sat and read through both sheets word-for-word, but all had a skimread and broadly understood the purpose of the consent form – I explained it was necessary because I was recording the interview. Everyone was speaking to me in a professional capacity and they had already received information via email about the purpose and scope of the meeting, so really it wasn’t necessary for them to read all the information in depth as they consented by agreeing to attend the meeting, and as conversation got warmed up we always got round to discussing my research project and the purpose of this specific research trip anyway. I’m not trying to deflect accusations that ‘no one reads these things anyway before signing’ (because they did albeit briefly!), but it is just to reflect that it was a necessary formality that did not stilt the conversation – in fact, it provided a useful opener for me to discuss what was about to happen and make switching on the recording device a little less awkward – and it provided me with paperwork that ensures I can use the data in a different form in future, beyond the boundaries of my thesis.

Not me, but another Nelle living a parallel life in Odense

Not me, but another Nelle living a parallel life in Odense…