In iGEM, Human Practices commonly involve the conduct of interviews from specialists in fields ranging from science to industry and ethics. However, as in any kind of research, a certain methodology has to be followed so that bias and misrepresentation of the results can be efficiently avoided. Therefore, we decided to formulate the basic structure of qualitative research methodology and analysis as a reference point for future iGEM teams. We present to you AIDA: our Approach to Interviews & interview Data Analysis!

Qualitative Research Overview

The aim of qualitative research is to collect and assess the opinions of people involved in a particular field or situation, on selected subjects. These enable a better understanding of social realities, which, as a rule, are not consciously known by the participants in interviews, but can be deduced by the researchers upon further analysis.

Why would someone prefer qualitative techniques instead of relying on all-time-classic statistical data and epidemiological methods? After all, the latter ones are standardized, precise and thus less prone to errors. What qualitative studies really offer is that they enable researchers to uncover previously unknown aspects of their study material, whereas other types of studies need a strong theoretical background prior to their planning. It could be argued that, in general, they have an exploratory nature. The personal viewpoints constitute the starting point for the construction of a grounded theoretical basis, which, subsequently, can be tested on the population level via quantitative approaches.

Despite the vagueness that can be presumed by such a description, qualitative research does conform to basic research principles. Most importantly, the term itself does not refer to a type of research, but serves the role of an umbrella-term under which different types of non-quantitative research can be categorized. These can be most appropriately distinguished on the basis of the research perspective that is employed when such a research is conducted. The perspective varies according to the focus group of the study, which can be single individuals, social groups or even cultural products, such as media and recordings. Each group offers different information to researchers, namely, individuals present their subjective viewpoints; social groups can be studied in order to derive information about social processes, and through cultural material underlying motifs can be deduced. These three areas are briefly described in the table below.

(Table 1. The main areas of qualitative research and a brief description of their theoretical basis, methods, and field of application. Adapted from Flink U., von Kardorff E. and Steinke I., A companion to qualitative research)

Considering the fact that most iGEM teams decide to organize interviews with professionals from a wide range of different fields, the main scope of this page will be to present an outline of the methodology interviews should follow so that proper data collection and analysis is ensured.

We will thereby analyze a few key points concerning the process of interviewing, specifically, types of interviews, prerequisites and preparation, and finally, transcript analysis.

Types of Qualitative Interviews

Focused Interviews
As the name suggests, this type of interviews revolves around a specific subject or topic of conversation, for example, an event, a cultural material or a social situation. Both the interviewer and the interviewee have prior knowledge on the discussion subject, and the discussion can be characterized as semi- standardized, since the interviewer has prepared a general scaffold of the interview beforehand. They have a number of advantages compared to other types of interviews, including the possibility of combining a reserved, non-directive management of a conversation with an interest in very specific information, as well as the opportunity for an object-oriented explanation of meanings.

Narrative Interviews
This kind of interviewing is employed in cases where the life-history of a person is of particular interest. They usually get initiated by a narrative-generative question provided by the interviewer, and then an impromptu narrative is being developed freely by the interviewee, with no intervention. Afterwards, there may be some follow-up discussion centered on specific key points of the main narrative, during which the interviewer can contribute actively. The opportunity this form of interview provides the researcher with is the expression of memories, thoughts and actions which would not otherwise be presented in the frame of direct questions. A separate form of narrative interview is the biographical interview, which seeks to gain access specifically to a person’s life events, and utilizes features of semi-standardized interviews.

Structure or dilemma-interviews
In comparison with focused and narrative interviews presented above, these are strictly regulated in regards to question guidelines and sequencing of questions. They are used particularly in the case when the analysis of the different stages in the making of moral judgments is the object of research. Participants’ reactions to different narratives are recorded and, from them, the structure of judgments can be deduced.

Clinical interviews
Originating from clinical and therapeutic practice in the form of medical history, they have also been incorporated in non-therapeutic instances as a means of in-depth research. They are applied mainly in psychology research, in cases in which the interviewer wants to delve into the inner workings of the interviewee’s thought and actions.

Design of Interview-based Research

A number of parameters should be considered during the planning of any kind of research, qualitative ones included, so that the investigator can effectively answer whatever questions he/she has posed. These touch upon most aspects of the research, from data collection to technique selection for data analysis. The components of research design construction are the following:

1. The goals of the study, which determines the form of the interview
2. The theoretical framework, which should act as the basis for the construction of the research design
3. Its concrete questions, the ones the researcher has noted beforehand based on the type of interview conducted
4. The selection of empirical material from the ones provided by the study’s participants
5. The methodological procedures
6. The generalization goals
7. The degree of standardization and control of both data collection and analysis
8. The temporal, personal and material sources that are available

We will briefly emphasize some characteristics of each of the above components, examining them in relation to human practices in iGEM.

Goals: A number of different goals may be pursued through an interviewing process. Most commonly the model utilized is the approach of grounded theory development. In many cases however such an approach may be unrealistic, as it may introduce biases and reduce the openness of the interview. Thus another common goal follows the model of detailed description or evaluation of current practice. The questions asked seek to assess the state and the efficiency of current practice without the risk of influencing positively or negatively the opinion of the participant. Lastly, the model of hypothesis testing has been described but not adequately characterized, therefore leading to lack of evidence regarding its efficient realization by qualitative methods. In the context of iGEM, the aim of practice evaluation seems to be most applicable, since it offers teams the chance to compare synthetic biology methods to current ones, though other approaches are not unlikely.

Formulating Questions: The pre-planned questions in qualitative research constitute one of the decisive factors in its success or failure. A number of considerations should be considered during their formation:

- Formulate questions according to your goal – they should not be the starting point but rather the result of the approach chosen for the study.
- Be as clear as possible – ambiguous questions may confuse the participant and lead in answers which are inconsistent with the scope of the study.
- Be neither too broad nor too specific – the exploratory nature of interviewing is an essential part of these studies, but should be within some pre-defined limits. This rule also implies that closed-ended questions should always be avoided. A simple yes-or-no answer has no value for qualitative data analysis.
- Classify - questions should be distinguished in regards to the extent to which they are suited to the confirmation of the study’s assumptions, and also depending on the cases where they can be used.
- Revise – in the course of the design the initial questions become more and more concrete and focused. Think of it as an act of evolution (just like the one MEDEA incorporates!).

Interviewing Process – Methodological Procedures: Each interview can be interpreted as an interpersonal drama, produced actively by both participants. The form of interaction is defined by the type of interview chosen by the researcher. Despite this variability, certain guidelines on the correct conduct of interviews exist, which will be discussed later on.

Generalization Goals: Prior to proceeding to data analysis, some decisions have to be made about the aspects that will be studied, first one being the generalization goals. These concern the extent of the analysis, which can range from thorough exploration of every possible facet of the target-issue to a comparison of individual cases. In the latter, a critical distinction of the comparisons being made should be considered, namely, what aspects are the ones being compared through the personal opinions of the interviewees (age, town, occupation of participants etc.). Comparisons can be regarded as more important to research than simple statement collection, that is, because they can indicate the presence of conflicts that can shed light on the studied phenomena.

Degree of standardization and control: The term control describes the how tight or loose the research will be. Tight research is characterized by narrowly restricted questions and strictly determined selection procedures (see paragraph Selection and sampling). This level of control is appropriate when the researcher lacks experience with qualitative data, or when studying narrowly defined concepts and relationships. Loose designs on the other hand are primarily determined by broadly defined concepts and utilize only slightly fixed methodological procedures. They can be of use in cases when experience has been acquired in the past by the researchers, and also when new fields are being investigated or when the theoretical background is underdeveloped, providing therefore ground for exploration.

Selection and sampling: This involves both the selection of eligible participants for the study as well as the selection of appropriate extracts from the material collected for further analysis. Proper preparation dictates that the selection methodology has to be selected beforehand, during the design. More information on this will be provided on the Analysis paragraph.

Resources: As is the case with research in general, the availability of resources plays an important role in the final design. Time, personnel and technical support have to be calculated during the construction of a realistic plan, especially when they are limited, as is the case for many iGEM teams.

The Interviewing Process

The responsibility of shaping the “interview-drama” lies in the hands of the interviewer, who must set up the time and place, produce the appropriate atmosphere and initiate conversation. The interviewer should introduce himself and familiarize with the interviewee, so that the interview takes place in a calm environment and the participant feels relaxed to open his thoughts and opinions. It is important that the interview is recorded or that notes are being taken, always after permission by the participant has been obtained. The choice of anonymity should also be offered in any case.

In the beginning, just after the recording has begun, a few clarifications concerning the scope of the study, the involvement of the participant and the expectations from this interview have to be made. Then, the interviewee should introduce himself so that a recorded documentation exists. It must be noted that participant should feel free enough to show different aspects of their personalities and not only act according to their official roles. Consequently, the interviewer should show understanding, pass no judgment and interactively promote such changes of role during the conversation. However, no personal example or reaction should be employed. This has been described as the dual role of the interviewer, which combines empathy with a certain distance, crucial to understanding the meaning horizon of the interviewee’s terms.

During the development of the interview, a few possible obstacles must be taken into consideration. Firstly, the phrasing of the questions must be concise and easily intelligible, and also be incorporated into the flow of the conversation; otherwise the participant may feel alienated. They should not be asked in the form of research questions, which means, asking for theoretical categories. Instead they should seek to engage the counterpart’s life-world. Another important obstacle may arise from topics of discussion that can be a source of embarrassment or fear to the participant. In these cases, once again, the interviewer must show respect for the counterpart’s dignity but not try to protect him/her. On the contrary, the interviewer should try to access the topic through a different way, which would be acceptable by the participant. In this case, the attitude of the interviewer is of uttermost significance, because it enables the participant to understand that there is no danger involved in exposing his/her thoughts.

Finally, when all the points of the question plan have been adequately discussed, the interviewer should wrap up the interview and offer the interviewee the chance to add or change any of his/her statements. Afterwards, the process may reach a closure, and the recording can be finished.

The whole procedure is presented briefly in the figure below:

Analysis of Semi-structured Interviews

The first step towards analysis of the results is the transcription of the results. This is an scientific theory in itself, because each interview should be written down as faithfully to the original recording as possible. Even pauses and sounds (sigh, cough etc) may have a particular significance to the researcher. We will not elucidate further as this subject is out of the scope of this manual.

Different methodological procedures are recommended for the various types of interview data collected. Interviews in iGEM generally follow the focused interview format, justified due to the fact that most commonly the opinions of stakeholders on synthetic biology or various aspects of a team’s project constitute the central subject of the interview. Even the analysis of this specific category though can vary depending on the goals, the questions, the methodological approach, but also the available resources. Therefore, a general strategy will be presented here, open to modifications.

This analytical strategy consists of five stages:

1. Setting up categories for the analysis: In response to the material, the researcher should list the themes which will guide his search.
2. Creating an analytical guide: the categories must then be brought together following a logical order into a guide, and afterwards be tested and revised
3. Coding the interviews: The transcripts from the interviews should be coded according to the analytical guide.
4. Producing case overviews: On the basis of the coding, a case overview for each interview must be produced.
5. In-depth analysis: Beginning from the overviews, the researcher may select individual cases for further analysis.

We will describe each step in more detail below, while also provide our own example later on.

First of all, an essential step is the intensive and repeated reading of the transcribed material. During this procedure, the researcher’s own theoretical prior knowledge and the research questions guide his/her attention in the reading of the transcripts. For each interview, the researcher should note the topics that occur and the individual aspects of these that can be related to the context of the research goals and questions. It is important that the researcher does not try to fit the material to his/her own theoretical assumptions by reducing the analysis to a search for specific locations and passages to serve as proof of their points, but rather to stay open to different interpretations. From these topics, the draft categories for comparison of individual cases can be defined.

Afterwards, a guide for analysis and coding can be compiled from the draft categories. This contains detailed information about each category, and includes different versions of them as well. With the aid of the guide, the transcripts should be coded, by relating particular passages from the texts to categories. This enables the classification of the material and, furthermore, the comparisons between passages belonging to the same category. In short, the categories that were established from the material in the previous stage are now applied to the material. The labeling should be formulated very carefully, so that overlapping is avoided. If, in any one interview, there is no material for a particular category, or too little to be able to decide on a descriptive label, the label ‘unclassifiable’ is given. If this happens regularly with a particular category, this may suggest that the formulation of this analytical category and its descriptive labels was inadequate and that it should be deleted or revised.

A recommended variant of coding is called consensual coding, which involves two members of the research team taking part in the process. At first they work independently from each other on the same interviews, and later on, they compare and discuss their classification. In case any differences emerge, they have to agree on a consensual solution.

When the coding is over, quantification surveys of the material have to take place. This procedure involves the clear presentation of results in the form of tables, which serve as an overview of the material. This way, the researcher can calculate the frequency of specific opinions, in accordance to the set categories, and, even though these do not constitute a result per se, they can be thought of as a qualitative database. Additionally, the researcher can perform cross-reference tables between different extracts and use them in case study comparisons. Also, under each category, a general overview of the results for each individual case should be briefly presented, in order to contribute to the transparency and verifiability of the qualitative study. Ideally, each case should be presented in a single line.

Finally, after the material has been organized, detailed case interpretations can follow. The goal of this final stage might be to discover new hypotheses or to test old ones, to find new aspects of a theoretical concept or challenge a preexisting one. It depends on the initial goals of the researcher. Most commonly the method to achieve that is to compare the data organized in tables; however there are also other traditions, such as the hermeneutic one.

Qualitative research is a vast field, only rarely employed by researchers working in natural sciences since it is sometimes considered an inconsistent form of study. On the contrary though, nowadays, human practices have become an integral part of science, therefore, scientists should try more and more to employ new forms of understanding the world.

Click below to see how we analyzed and organized the data collected from the four interviews we carried with the help of the AIDA protocol!

Conclusions from our AIDA example

When referring to synthetic biology we’re talking about a broad definition which includes principles from biotechnology and engineering.

It’s a tool that can undoubtedly have beneficial uses. Nevertheless, some potential problems should not be overlooked. Preventive measures, like laws regarding specifically this scientific field, can potentially be necessary on a global level as more synthetic biological applications emerge in our daily lives in the future. So, as synthetic biology becomes more well known, factors, like scaremongering, should be eliminated, and there should be good communication of science through various ways.

In Greece there is a general interest for science, but more time is needed so as Synthetic Biology can be better known and accepted. The problem is that the greek system regarding research lacks mostly an organized and goal-oriented structure. Regarding our project, we realize the need to carefully think and take into consideration harmful side effects, like environmental ones. Industrializing it has to do with many factors that we should think of.

Our Interviews

Below you will find our interviews with Dr. Mollaki of the National Bioethics Commission, Dr. Matthiopoulos of the Omic-Engine, the Greek Infrastructure for Synthetic Biology, Dr. Vavitsas, Synthetic Biology Researcher, and Dr. Papalois, Director of the Experimental Research Center of the Greek pharmaceutical company ELPEN. All videos were recorded with the interviewees’ consent and we have selected and written down the most important parts of each interview. We relied on our AIDA protocol to handle and organize the great amount of information we had collected!

You can download the pdf here!

You can download the pdf here!

You can download the pdf here!

1.Flick,U., von Kardorff, E., Steinke, I. (2004) A Companion to Qualitative Research. London: SAGE
2.Cristancho, S., Goldszmidt, M., Lingard, L., & Watling, C. (2018). Qualitative research essentials for medical education. Singapore Medical Journal, 59(12), 622–627. doi:10.11622/smedj.2018093
3.DiCicco-Bloom, B., & Crabtree, B. F. (2006). The qualitative research interview. Medical Education, 40(4), 314–321.