Findings: Discourse-based interview special issue

Guest editors Neil Baird, Bowling Green State University, and Bradley Dilger, Purdue University
Composition Forum, Summer 2022

Lee Odell, Dixie Goswami, & Anne Herrington (1983) created the discourse-based interview (DBI) to explore tacit knowledge: the practical, implicit, incompletely articulated knowledge which guides writing choices (Polyani, 1958), often as values shared among communities (Swales, 2004). Writing researchers engage DBIs by reviewing relevant texts to identify important writing choices, then asking participants to consider and discuss alternatives. Our review of recent scholarship employing the DBI has revealed a range of approaches to developing questions and conducting interviews, many using technology not available in 1983: screencasting (Swarts, 2009); electronic comparisons of texts (Olinger, 2014); and computer-based corpus linguistics (Lancaster, 2016). Nearly forty years after Odell, Goswami, & Herrington wrote, we ask: how has the DBI changed? How and why it is still widely used? What is its future? How can digital tools improve its accuracy and effectiveness?

Key source

Odell, Lee; Goswami, Dixie; and Herrington, Anne. (1983). The discourse-based interview: A procedure for exploring the tacit knowledge of writers in nonacademic settings. In P. Mosenthal, L. Tamor, & S. A. Walmsley (eds), Research on Writing: Principles and Methods (pp. 221-236). Longman.

Research methods

Our research design has two parts:

Literature review and citation analysis. Using Proquest and Scopus, we have cataloged over 100 dissertations and 250 articles that cite Odell, Goswami, & Herrington. From these sources, we have developed a list of themes we are refining through iterative analysis:

  1. Definition of tacit knowledge
  2. Explicitly articulated methodological concerns
  3. Methods used for forming questions asked in DBI itself
  4. Media or technologies as object of study, and/or used to stimulate recall
  5. Engagement with time in methods
  6. Types of interviews
  7. Duration of interviews
  8. Scholarly lineage or influence (mentors, cited sources, etc.)

Semi-structured interviews with researchers. Based on our review of the literature, we have identified researchers in writing studies who have used the discourse-based interview and/or taught others to use it. We have reviewed twelve scholars to date, including Odell, Goswami, & Herrington, asking questions that investigate the themes above, but also engaging “meta-DBI” techniques where we pose alternatives to articles researchers. We are currently recruiting additional researchers, especially those working in fields such as applied linguistics, disability studies, and writing centers.

Our interview process includes careful member-checking. Because pseudonyms would not protect confidentiality of scholars due to their readily identifiable projects, we elected to represent participants using their actual names. As a result, we sent each participant a transcript of their interview for review and additional comment. We will consult further with participants as we begin to publish findings.


  1. Digital tools are being used more often to enhance DBIs, in both supporting question formation and recording interviews themselves. Digital texts are frequently the object of study.
  2. The DBI has influenced approaches to teaching, mentoring graduate students, and writing across the curriculum consulting.
  3. We found considerable variation in DBI methods, with some researchers moving far from the original intent (interviews about writers’ own texts intended to explore writing knowledge).

Our research has isolated ten key areas related to modifications of the DBI made by researchers:

# Methodological concern Description
1 Research questions used in their studies Influences other items listed here; indicates if DBI is used outside writing studies (for example, in education or legal studies)
2 Definition of tacit knowledge Does it differ from OG&H, who relied on Polyani? How much does tacit knowledge motivate the study? Is tacit knowledge engaged at all?
3 Explicit methodological concerns Some researchers identified specific concerns with the DBI; a subset also named measures taken to address them. (For example, participants sometimes reacted to interviewers as if they were editors, suggesting a different way to present alternatives.)
4 Question formation methods How do researchers develop the questions they want to ask, and alternative writing choices — if they offer the latter?
5 Medium or technology (used as artifact) What is the type of artifact used in the interview? While most use documents authored by participants, some used video or other media.
6 Medium or technology (used for recall) What media are used to stimulate recall? Is it the text itself, or something secondary associated with its creation, such as a screen recording or video of the participant composing?
7 Engagement with time in methods Researchers varied the time between composition, the interview, and recall, and between different stages of the research such as literacy history interviews conducted prior to DBIs.
8 Type of interviews Does interview present all of the typical DBI characteristics — specific questions about writing choices asked to stimulate recall of tactic knowledge? Are they face to face or videoconference?
9 Duration of interviews Length of interviews varied widely.
10 Preparation for interviews Some researchers insist that the DBI be part of a series of interviews, ensuring a literacy history of the participant guides questioning and analysis. Others work without this information.


  1. Extensions of the DBI via digital tools are productive, but the underlying methodology of tacit knowledge needs to be updated given recent work—not only sources in writing studies mentioned on our poster, but also from philosophy and psychology.
  2. Some of the digital tools engaged by researchers are labor intensive (the use of video) and/or require specialized disciplinary knowledge (corpus linguistics). Engaging digital tools doesn’t always make things simpler.
  3. Researchers need to systematically explore the methodological limitations of digital tools.

Future work

  1. Expand analysis by adding more studies that use DBIs, by searching for researchers who use DBI-like approaches without citing Odell, Goswami, & Herrington, and through more extensive coding of researchers’ methods and methodology.
  2. Interview scholars who’ve modified DBI procedures via digital tools to understand their motivations, evaluate the success of their methods, and explore generalization of the lessons they’ve learned.
  3. Many researchers are introduced to the DBI by their mentors. Investigate any impacts of “lineage” DBI methods using citation network analysis and by interviewing researchers and the mentors who introduced the DBI to them.

Call for participants

We are currently recruiting additional researchers, especially those working in fields such as applied linguistics, disability studies, and writing centers. We’re also committed to representing researchers from historically marginalized groups, or DBI studies that target writers from these groups.

If you are interested in sharing your experiences with the DBI, please reach out to us at

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