This post is adapted from an email I wrote in response to a question about the best way of obtaining a transcription of an audio file.
Good transcriptions/captions are incredibly useful in a variety of situations, and due to ADA compliance, they’re increasingly a necessity. People usually don’t think about this ahead of time, and I try to encourage people to build captioning into research budgets and grant applications whenever possible because costs add up. The more footage you have, the more likely you’re going to have to get someone else to do it, and even just 10 hours of audio could cost you $1000 to have transcribed by a captioning service.
Some of you may be tempted to rely on YouTube’s automatic captions. By way of example, here’s a video we put up where all of the speakers speak quite clearly:
But (as of late 2016) the quality of the YouTube automatic captions—although clearly they’ve made huge progress over the years—still means that they serve no real purpose other than their comedic/entertainment value. They’re good enough only to get a very general idea of what’s going on, and that’s about it. And this is with clean audio and clear speakers with a standard American English accent.
- It’s not accurate enough for ADA compliant captions or for hearing impaired people to find useful.
- It’s not accurate enough for a native English speaker to watch the video with the sound off.
- It’s not accurate enough for non-native English speakers to use increase comprehension or to use with automatic translation services.
- It’s not accurate enough for a production transcript for an editor to find clips to use.
- It’s not accurate enough to provide useful search capability.
- It’s not accurate enough as an alternate way of archiving audio content.
- It’s not accurate enough to use the transcriptions in a thesis, dissertation, or journal article.
- It’s not accurate enough to do a qualitative analysis of the text.
- It MIGHT be accurate enough for some degree of SEO, but it’s certainly not ideal.
- It’s inaccurate enough that if you’re going to take these captions as a starting point and then go back and edit them, you’re not really saving yourself much time.
- Inaccurate captions can also detract from the user experience because users end up focusing on the errors instead on your content.
- It’s inaccurate enough that it makes it difficult to impossible to repurpose the text to other contexts (blog posts, tweets, emails, etc.).
The best transcription software out there still works best when it’s had a chance to learn a particular speaker’s voice, which takes time and means you have to correct the software as you go so it can learn from its mistakes. This is fine when the same person is transcribing their own voice over and over again, but it’s not so useful for just a handful of interviews of each speaker.
I say all of this not to put down YouTube (again, I’m actually really impressed it’s as accurate as it is) but in support of the idea of paying human beings to transcribe it for you—preferably people who are experienced in doing so, but almost any person is going to do a better job than software.
Whether you’re going to hire a service or pay an undergrad to type something up for you, some things to consider, all of which can help determine which route you take:
- The fairest way to compare services is to be sure you’re paying per minute of interview, not per minute of time spent transcribing, which will vary from person to person.
- Are volume discounts available?
- Are educational discounts available?
- Try to find a service which guarantees a certain level of accuracy (generally, it’s not going to be usable for most purposes if it’s less than about 97% accurate). Is the provided quality/level of accuracy good enough for your needs? Is it good enough to attach your name and Penn’s name to the final product?
- Do you need just a transcript? Or timed captions?
- Do you want an “interactive transcript” like what com does with their instructional videos?
- Find out what output formats they provide. (is it just straight text in a .docx file w/ a periodic time code stuck in? Timed captions SRT? DXFP/TTML?) The degree of accuracy you need for the timing of the text will partly determine what file format you need. Some are convertible to others.
- Some services will transcribe a few videos for free first to see if you’re happy with the service.
- How fast is the turnaround time they offer? (Generally you pay less for slower turnaround, but it can be useful to be able to pay extra when you need it the next day) A service is going to provide much faster turnaround time than an individual can because they have many transcribers working for them.
- Does your school have an existing relationship with a captioning service?
- Do your captions need to be ADA compliant? (Both Penn State and Netflix have had lawsuits against them because of the lack of captioning. Check with your School/center/department to see if there’s a policy regarding captioning you’ll need to follow.)
- Do you need a HIPAA compliant service or is the material otherwise sensitive or confidential?
- Can you build the cost of transcribing into your research budget or grant proposal?
- Do you need all of your raw footage transcribed (as you would if you were editing a documentary)? Or just the final edited version (as you would if you were simply trying to meet ADA requirements)?
- Are they a Penn-approved vendor? Can you pay with a purchase order?
- Do you need transcription in a language other than English? (English and Spanish are pretty easy to find, but there are services that offer transcription in many other languages as well, sometimes at a premium cost.)