Scraping Websites for Academic Research: A Guide
It’s common knowledge that many industries are using data gathered from web scraping to make data-driven decisions regarding business strategies. However, less known is the fact academic researchers can also use web scraping to collect the data they need for their projects. In a recent issue of Nature, several prominent researchers shared how they use web scraping to streamline their research process and better allocate their resources.
Scraping websites for academic research saves you from the tedious process of manually extracting data. In the case outlined in the Nature article, the researchers experienced a 40-fold increase in the rate at which they increased their data collection. This time savings allows you more time to devote to your research rather than the relatively mindless task of data entry. In this article, we’ll discuss scraping websites for academic research and all you need to know to get started.
The table of contents will let you skip around if you already know some of this information.
How Do You Do Academic Research Using Web Scraping?
Web scraping is using an automated program to extract publicly-available data from a website. Web scrapers analyze the text on a website and look for specific data, usually using HTML tags. Then they pull out the data and export it into a usable format such as a CSV or JSON file. You can use a ready-made scraper such as Scraping Robot or build your own using any modern programming language.
Once you program a scraper for a specific task, you can reuse it to recapture or update the data, as long as the website’s structure doesn’t change significantly. Sharing your database and your scraping results with others increases opportunities for collaboration. It also makes it easier for others to repeat your results, essential in academic research.
Use Cases for Academic Research Using Scraping
The possible use cases for web scraping for academic research are almost limitless. Healthcare is one of the most obvious use cases. The internet is the most extensive database ever created. More and more human activities and interactions are occurring online and leaving behind data traces. Healthcare researchers can use this data for many purposes, including:
- Determine what behavioral factors are associated with a particular illness or disease
- Establish disease vectors
- Predict the outcomes of medical procedures and treatments
- Determine what risk factors are most closely associated with adverse outcomes in patients
Another academic use case for web scraping is in the field of ecology. The academic journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution reports many ecological insights that can be gained by harnessing the power of data from the internet. These include:
- Species occurrences
- Evolution of traits
- The study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena
- Changes in climate
- Changes in plant and animal life
- Functional roles played by species in ecosystems
These are just a few examples among many possibilities. Data scraping might be the perfect solution if manually collecting data slows down your academic research or school project.
Websites Available for Scraping School Projects
While most websites don’t advertise that they’re “open for scraping,” you can scrape almost any website for your school project or research. You may need information from social media posts about eating habits or information on ongoing clinical trials.
You’ll want to consider what you’re using your data for, the best possible data source, and if the website you want to scrape is reliable. You’ll also want to verify a website’s authenticity before you scrape it to ensure the integrity of your data.
For some projects, you may need real-time data, while for others, you need genomic data or data that indicates prevailing attitudes in a geographic area. Whatever type of data you need can probably be found online, although you may need special permission to access it.
The Ethics of Scraping Websites for Academic Research
Data scientists have long used web scraping, but it’s taken longer for the broader academic community to embrace it. This may be because it’s been associated with bad actors engaging in black or gray hat activities in the past. Although web scraping can still be used for nefarious purposes, it is widely used by almost every reputable business, organization, and government agency.
You should keep in mind some ethical considerations if you’re trying to determine if web scraping for a school project is all right. First, you should talk to your teacher or professor if you have any concerns over whether they would approve. Otherwise, it’s completely ethical as long as you follow the established best practices for web scraping. These include:
Check the API first
Before you scrape a website, check if the data you need is available on its public API.
Scrape when traffic volume is low
You don’t want to interfere with the website’s normal function, so try to scrape when the site’s normal traffic volume is lowest. This may mean setting your program to scrape in the middle of the night or during the offseason if the website experiences a large volume of seasonal traffic.
Limit your requests
Web scrapers are so effective because they are so much faster than humans. But you don’t want to overload the servers of the sites you’re scraping, so you’ll need to slow your scraper down by limiting your requests.
Only take the data you need
Don’t take all of the data because it’s there, and you can. Limit your requests to the data that you need for your research.
Check the website’s robots.txt file, terms of service, and any other instructions regarding web scraping. Some sites prohibit scraping, and some limit how fast or when you can scrape.
Avoid Obstacles When Doing Academic Research Using Web Scraping
Even sites that welcome web scrapers may have settings that can interfere with your web scraper. Most sites block the IP address of any user that appears to be a bot. The easiest way to spot a bot is by noting how fast it sends requests. Although you won’t be using your scraper at full speed, it will still be faster than a human user.
The easiest way to avoid IP bans is by using an academic proxy. Proxies shield your real IP address by attaching a proxy IP address to your request. You’ll need a rotating pool of proxies to scrape effectively. Each request will be sent with a different proxy IP.
There are several types of proxies you can use for web scraping:
Data center proxies
Data center proxies originate in a data center, and they’re the cheapest, most available type of proxies you can buy. Data center proxies are also faster than residential proxies.
The biggest downside to data center proxies is that they’re easily identifiable by websites. Since most users don’t access the internet with data center IP addresses, this raises a red flag for anti-bot software.
Residential proxies are issued by internet service providers (ISPs) to their users. This is the same type of IP address you have at home, and it’s the type of IP address most people use to access the internet, so it has a lot of authority. Residential proxies are good proxies to use for web scraping. However, they’re slower than other options like ISP proxies.
Many proxy providers cut corners when they source residential proxies by burying their end-user agreements at the bottom of a long TOS that no one reads. At Blazing SEO, we make sure our end-users know exactly what they agree to, and we make it easy for them to revoke their consent at any time. We believe in transparency, so we’re proud to share our industry-leading ethical guidelines.
ISP proxies are a cross between data center and residential proxies, the best of both worlds. ISPs issue them, but they’re housed in data centers. They combine the speed of data center proxies and the authority of residential proxies. We partner with major ISPs such as Verizon and Comcast to provide maximum diversity and redundancy. If bans do happen, we’ll simply switch you to a different ASN so you can get right back to work.
Web scraping has become an accepted and valuable part of conducting academic research. It allows you to use your time more efficiently by automating the task of data collection. It can be used in almost every academic field for a wide variety of projects.
You need to ensure the sites you scrape are reliable and authoritative sources for your data and follow the rules of ethical web scraping, so you don’t negatively impact those sites. If you follow the website’s scraping instructions, avoid scraping during peak traffic times, and use proxies to avoid bans, scraping websites for academic research will increase your efficiency and improve your results. Reach out today to discover how Blazing SEO can help simplify your research.
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