Exploring Thesis Resources: What MTurk Is (And Isn’t)

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MTurk is a great way to collect data from human subjects!

Mechanical Turk, more commonly known as “MTurk”, is a popular site created by Amazon to help researchers collect data from human subjects. As a student who had never heard of this site before starting my thesis, I’ve decided to share my knowledge about what the site is and how it can be helpful for independent research at Princeton.

What exactly is MTurk?

MTurk is basically a marketplace where researchers can upload various tasks and have other people complete them for money. These tasks range from having people take a survey to having people grade responses or transcribe segments of text. Basically, anything that someone can do on a computer can be turned into a task on MTurk.

Who uses MTurk?

Many researchers in the social sciences use MTurk in order to gain a large and diverse sample population for their research. People who complete the tasks on MTurk are called “Workers”, and the tasks they complete are called ‘HITS” (which is short for “human intelligence tasks”).

How can I use MTurk for my thesis?

As a marketplace for research participants, MTurk is really great for individuals running most types of experimental theses involving human subjects. As previously mentioned, MTurk is great for administering surveys, and can even be connected to a University Qualtrics account so that you can still do your research through the Survey Research Center. In addition, the site can be used to gain responses from individuals on how they would categorize things, or rate things, etc. Since my thesis is on learning through analogy and requires students to write paragraph-long responses, I’m using MTurk in my thesis to obtain multiple rater responses on the qualitative data that I’ve collected. 

What are the downsides to MTurk?

There are some functions that I can’t seem to do on MTurk; I have yet to figure out how to randomize the specific order trials are presented within a task, or how to randomize conditions for Workers. This isn’t to say that MTurk doesn’t have these capabilities; while it may have them, however, they are not as intuitive as many of the other features on the site. Luckily, there is a version of the site that allows users to write html code — so if you’ve got those skills, the possibilities of MTurk may be endless for you!

MTurk is just one of the many great resources available to you as you complete your independent research. If you’re looking for projects where MTurk might fit, make sure you check out our “Resources for Researchers” page. Be sure to also reach out to the Survey Research Center, which has tons of information on how to best tackle online research at Princeton. Hopefully, after reading this post, you can make a well-informed decision on whether MTurk is right for you!

-Jalisha Braxton, Natural Sciences Correspondent