Thoughts on Crowdsourced Research data

Here are my reflections from a  short talk on  crowdsourced research data given to PhD students and supervisors last week at Oxford Brookes.

Collecting relevant data for unfunded research projects is getting harder and yet is a requirement for most PhD studies. Getting participants to engage in research projects generally is hard – when I ask my students how many requests they get  to  complete surveys via  apps or online every week  the answer is always ‘hundreds’ followed by but I only do them if they are really interesting or they pay well.

Without resources, both research students and academics  face challenges in getting response data and so some are turning  to online participant platforms to  assist in recruitment and completion rates for their studies, and this might not be a bad thing.

During my talk (available here via slideshare) I outlined some of the ethical challenges posed by platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and its  previous heavy use by well established Social Science professors, particularly Americans,  as an approach to gather fast, relatively cheap, and ‘adequate’ quality data.


Academics publically acknowledging their use of MTurk including Uptal Dholakia – an internationally recognised Consumer Psychology professor who wrote an insightful blog (see here) on his experience as a ‘turker’ (a person who completes online research tasks for a payment) as opposed to one commissioning the task.  Becoming a ‘turker’ changed his views of how he would use Mturk in any future study. Dholakia’s honest blog highlighted  how little ‘turkers’ earn, how long some studies take to complete, how poorly designed some of the studies are which result in poor quality data – including biased questions, and how Mturk is unfairly weighted against those completing tasks.

Whilst Dholakia’s observations are not new and an increasing number of universities internationally and  Marketing journal editors are also questioning the value and ethics of Mturk generated data,  I was impressed by his attempt to venture to the other side as a researcher  and to go public with what he had found.

Shaping ethical research practice in social media research

As social media is becoming integral to so many people’s lives, how we conduct ethical research within social media is becoming a hot topic for social science researchers. Digital technologies including  social media are  increasingly being used in academic and commercial research and various interdisciplinary social science groups are grappling with the ethical implications of the opportunities and challenges these technologies present.  Indeed 5 general guiding ethics principles  for social science researchers from  the Academy of Social Sciences  were outlined in summer 2015 and those of us involved in social media research are now trying to suggest how  our type of research should incorporate those principles which are;

  1. Social science is fundamental to a democratic society and should be inclusive of different interests, values, funders, methods and perspectives.
  2. All social science should respect the privacy, autonomy, diversity, values, and dignity of individuals, groups and communities.
  3. All social science should be conducted with integrity throughout, employing the most appropriate methods for the research purpose.
  4. All social scientists should act with regard to their social responsibilities in conducting and disseminating their research.
  5.  All social science should aim to maximise benefit and minimise harm.

Whilst very few would argue with the general principles above, certain aspects such as privacy can create challenges for us as researchers. So this week I’ll be presenting some ideas around  re-focusing the blurred lines between researchers and participants in social media research at an interdisciplinary conference in London as part of the NSMNSS network with the aim of  suggesting good practice in order to move the ethical research debate forward.

blurring glasses

Along with my co-author, Nina Reynolds, I will be outlining ideas such as asking for incremental, ongoing consent rather than one-off informed consent and giving constructive suggestions on the recent IPSOS MORI  DEMOS report  on social media research ethics. I ‘ll let you know the outcomes of our discussions in the next blog.