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Research in the crowdsourcing age: a case study

How scholars, companies and workers are using Mechanical Turk, a ‘gig economy’ platform, for tasks computers can’t handle
Employment Offshore outsourcing Employee protection Big data Gig economy Outsourcing Labour rights Task economy Future of work Research United States of America

Digital age platforms are providing researchers the ability to outsource portions of their work – not just to increasingly intelligent machines, but also to a relatively low-cost online labor force comprised of humans. These so-called “online outsourcing” services help employers connect with a global pool of free-agent workers who are willing to complete a variety of specialized or repetitive tasks.

Because it provides access to large numbers of workers at relatively low cost, online outsourcing holds a particular appeal for academics and nonprofit research organizations – many of whom have limited resources compared with corporate America. For instance, Pew Research Center has experimented with using these services to perform tasks such as classifying documents and collecting website URLs. And a Google search of scholarly academic literature shows that more than 800 studies – ranging from medical research to social science – were published using data from one such platform, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, in 2015 alone.

The rise of these platforms has also generated considerable commentary about the so-called “gig economy” and the possible impact it will have on traditional notions about the nature of work, the structure of compensation and the “social contract” between firms and workers. Pew Research Center recently explored some of the policy and employment implications of these new platforms in a national survey of Americans.

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