Anonymous research subjects

New frontiers in human research subjects: PARC researcher Markus Jacobsson describes how to find anonymous research subjects via Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” service.

Mechanical Turk is a virtual marketplace that pays people to perform tasks that software can’t easily automate. People earn a few pennies for each minute of tasks like “Summarize a website in one sentence” or “Find a travel-related online video” (two examples that happen to be available as I’m writing). You can see how paying a dime for anonymous users to find travel videos would be cheaper than tasking a full-time employee to catalog YouTube entries, and might discover many sources that an in-house employee would miss.

Some psychologists have found an unexpected source of research subjects in the Mechanical Turk. It’s a whole lot cheaper to pay anonymous users for small online tasks than to find subjects and pay them to come into a lab for an afternoon. Of course, psychologists face the IRB barrier:

Many Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) treat MTurk studies as exempt from review since prospective subjects have accepted its terms of use and anonymity. However, you can't be certain that subjects are not from particularly "vulnerable" groups (e.g., minors) as defined by the Belmont Report. This is a common problem with network-based human subjects research, of course, and not specific to MTurk.

The article goes on to describe some fascinating experimental tricks psychologists use to get (relatively) honest answers out of paid research subjects. One target of research is vulnerability to pfishing attacks:

You can also perform much more invasive studies where you actually attempt to defraud them, only to see what portion of users fall for it. But this has to be done with extreme care or you'll become a criminal! Your IRB will offer you plenty of advice if you decide to try an experiment of this type be sure to read up on some ways in which it has been successfully done before submitting your application.

I’m glad I’m not in that line of work. Still, I found it hard to look away, and it seems like a “new frontier” in terms of rapidly profiling and developing experiments. Genetics isn’t the only field with ethics being changed by technology and online networks.

(via Slashdot)