Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Washington State University
Carson College of Business Fall 2017 - Dividend

Giving Voice to Crowd Workers

By Sue McMurray

As an alternative to depending on in-house employees confined to offices and prescribed work hours, companies are increasingly turning to crowdsourcing (CS), the practice of obtaining needed services and content through digital platforms from a large network of outside individuals, referred to as crowd workers.

The demand for microtask CS is said to be changing people’s perspectives on managing their work-life priorities. Workers complete simple tasks in minutes for small compensation, in the comfort of their own homes or favorite hang outs.

For an unemployed recent college graduate, a stay-at- home parent, a retiree, or anyone who desires to choose when, where, and how much to work, microtask CS may seem like a dream job—or is it?

Perhaps not, according to a recent study by Carson College of Business information systems professor K.D. Joshi and coauthors from California State University and Bentley University.

Writing in the MIS Quarterly, the researchers explore whether microtask CS truly provides a platform that empowers workers to craft their careers.


One of the largest micro CS platforms, Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) offers CS workers access to thousands of simple tasks, such as video and audio transcription, classification, and document categorization, created by MTurk job requestors.

Job requesters are asked, but not required, to offer CS workers $0.1 for one minute’s work, equivalent to $6 per hour.

In their analysis of CS workers’ values, the researchers found that for many, this new form of work is a full-time job. For some, it is not a choice, but rather the only opportunity for paid work.

“Although crowdsourcing can afford workers open access to work opportunities that have greater autonomy and flexibility, it simultaneously can also make workers vulnerable to exploitation,” Joshi explains. “These two opposing realities, where workers voluntarily participate in CS, but have no other employment prospect, create opportunities for abuse.”

Additional findings suggest the microtask CS marketplace is missing appropriate governance of the sourcing contract, for example, contract negotiation, monitoring, delivery, and closing, and a collective bargaining unit for crowd workers.


The researchers suggest being sensitive to the workers’ values revealed in the study could advance the understanding of the societal challenges associated with this emerging new form of work and promote ethical CS platform design perspective to counter crowd worker exploitation.

The researchers also offer several guidelines to improve experiences for crowd workers, job requesters, platform designers, and owners.

Crowd workers are urged to collectively mobilize and voice their concerns in CS forums such as CYNAMO, Turkopticon, and MTurk Forum. The researchers recommend forum participants also share best practices in this space, such as avoiding getting scammed by job requesters.

They also encourage job requesters to provide clearer task instructions and more accurate estimates of time requirements to allow crowd workers to make informed decisions when accepting jobs. Additionally, job requesters should make an effort to maintain open communication with crowd workers, providing them with feedback on work undertaken so workers feel more appreciated. CS platform designers and owners are advised to listen to crowd workers with the intent of improving design and updating technical functionalities, and to introduce policies that require job requesters to pay crowd workers appropriate rates, regardless of the workers’ locations.

Key recommendations for MTurk’s platform include setting fair minimum pay rates, stopping job requester scams, making master level job worker qualifications objective and transparent, establishing channels for open communication, updating the CS platform, and enforcing policies uniformly and transparently.

“If we want to sustain these new digital work environments, which are touted as the wellsprings of entrepreneurial creativity, we need to be vigilant about the institutional practices and societal impact of microtask CS,” says Joshi. “CS workers alone can’t do much.”

Microtask crowdsourcing may seem like a dream job – or is it?
– K.D. Joshi