Professors across Cornell use Amazon's Mechanical Turk for research

Duffield Hall
Monday September 26 2011

Victoria Gao / Sun Senior PhotographerDuffield HallMonday September 26 2011

Professors across Cornell use Amazon's Mechanical Turk for research Duffield Hall Monday September 26 2011

February 21, 2020

Popular Among Cornell Professors, Mechanical Turk Continues to Face Ethical Questions

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In topics as diverse as love, hedge fund analysis and wellbeing, Cornell faculty and students have regularly used a popular crowdsourcing platform known as Mechanical Turk to aid in conducting research.

But despite its success at Cornell, some University faculty have expressed ethical concerns about the use of the popular site.

Developed in 2005 by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, MTurk connects employers known as “Requesters” to “Turkers,” people on the site who are seeking to make quick cash by completing a variety of repetitive “Human Intelligence Tasks,” which can range from data validation to survey participation. Equivalent to an online job posting, each task lists directions, qualifications needed, time commitment and payment.

At Cornell, researchers studying various disciplines such as behavioral economics, marketing, accounting and management regularly use MTurk to find test subjects. One of these researchers is Brad Turner, manager at The Debra Paget and Jeffrey Berg Business Simulation Lab, which manages research for about 20 professors and Ph.D. students at Cornell per year.

According to Turner, at the S.C. Johnson College of Business Lab Cornell faculty and graduate students conducting research through the platform are encouraged to pay a minimum of $7.25 per hour, or $0.12 per minute, which is equivalent to the federal minimum wage.

Despite the lab’s efforts to pay Turkers at least minimum wage, Cornell’s efforts are not typical for most Requesters’ on the site. In 2016, Research by the Pew Research Center found that over 60 percent of those completing tasks on Mechanical Turk are paid $6 an hour or less.

Additionally, while each “HIT” is supposed to list an accurate amount of time that it will take to complete the task, Requesters often misrepresent this to Turkers, according to Turner, with both parties alike exploiting the platform’s detachment from its users for personal gains.

Turner also said that Amazon is indifferent towards these problems, despite their wealth and resources. They offer no protection for their workers, and are not efficient at responding to Turker complaints, he said.

“[Turkers] need to pay a decent living standard and it’s truly unfair for Requesters to think that they can get away with cheap research… but there are a lot of Turkers that are also not taking surveys seriously,” Turner said.

Turner further elaborated that “a large percentage of participants are using scripts to cycle through surveys as quickly as possible and answer randomly.”

At Cornell, Turner is working to promote a reasonable minimum wage, while also educating people so that they can put themselves in the shoes of the participants. As Mechanical Turk increases in popularity in academia,Turner recently presented to graduate students a few weeks ago on the importance of honesty and equitable policies among Requesters.

One thing is clear: “Mechanical Turk has become the standard data collection platform for academic researchers not just here at Cornell, but across the world,” Turner said.