Turkish Delight?

There’s a fascinating piece by Tim Harford on the increasing use of the Amazon’s micro-tasking service Mechanical Turk in academic research. It’s only available currently in the US. However, numerous similar services have sprung up in Europe. I hadn’t appreciated the extent that it was being used by academics.

Psychologists, behavioural economists and political scientists have now realised that it is potentially far cheaper to pay MTurk workers — “Turkers” — to answer questionnaires and participate in activities than it is to assemble a bespoke online panel or to conduct the research in a laboratory filled with student participants sitting at computers. For just a few dollars and at very short notice, economists can look at competition and co-operation, psychologists can examine the way memory works and political scientists can investigate how our ideology skews our logic. The opportunities are vast and have been swiftly embraced. “The majority of papers presented at the conferences I go to now use Turk,” says Dan Goldstein, a cognitive psychologist at Microsoft Research.

A few years ago, I thought of using Mturk to get some basic transcribing done but stopped as soon as I realised that it could only be used in the US.

The article has got me thinking about the possibilities of micro-tasking services for academic research in real estate. There’s a start-up from the University of Oxford that focuses on academic research http://www.prolific.ac/. I can also see how it could change the whole nature of PhDs and dissertation research. The ability to outsource a lot of often tedious data processing (interview transcripts, questionnaires etc.) seems pretty attractive. I also suspect that there will be major temptations to ‘outsource’ literature reviews, data modelling etc. as well. At UCL a student proposed to use a company to carry out their research interviews. Not sure where the internal debate got to on that one.   There are also ethical issues with exploiting the obvious advantages to the “employer” of flexibility, minimal costs and weak regulation which are often insecurity, low pay and few rights for the “employee”.


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