Readers of the Scholarly Kitchen (or of any number of professional listservs, magazines, journals, etc.) may have noticed that questions about scholarly-communication reform tend to be, shall we say, vexed and controversial. Having participated in these conversations for 20 or so years now, and having recently gotten home from a conference that dealt specifically with such questions, I’ve been thinking a lot about why feelings run so high when we talk about them. I think some of the reasons would include the following:

  1. They are tied up in troublesome questions of right and wrong. When Person A speaks of the public’s right to have access to scholarly products that were created on the public’s dime, he’s invoking a moral principle: that charging for access to such products represents an inappropriate tax on access to what really should be treated as public property. When Person B responds that publishers add value to those products at their own expense and ought to be able to recover that value by charging for access to them, she’s invoking a moral principle too, and it’s one that has a similar authority to the one invoked by Person A. The fact that these two moral arguments, both of them defensible, lead in opposite policy directions is one example of the kind of difficulty we’re all wrestling with every day when we think about changing the structure of scholarly communication. This dimension of the conversation makes us uncomfortable, but unfortunately the issues don’t go away just because we don’t like talking about them, and we keep having to deal with them anyway.
  2. They involve multiple stakeholders with conflicting goals and desires. Conflicting goals and desires isn’t the same issue as conflicting moral arguments. This issue isn’t about what’s right and wrong, but about different people wanting mutually exclusive things. Libraries want to be able to give their patrons access to everything they need; society publishers want to underwrite membership benefits; for-profit publishers want to maximize returns; authors want to place their work with publishers whose imprimaturs represent a recognized seal of high quality and rigor; and so forth. There are clear tensions between at least some of these goals — maximizing publisher returns and maximizing patron access are obviously not perfectly compatible. And while all of these participants in the system want other things too (for-profit publishers often have a genuine interest in furthering science, libraries want to solidify their place on campus, etc.) and not all of those goals are in conflict, the tensions between many of them are real and have a serious impact on our ability to talk about reform.
  3. The fact that not everyone believes the current scholcomm system is in need of “reform.” I don’t think anyone believes that the current ecosystem of scholarly communication is perfect, but there’s a big difference between seeing things that need improvement and seeing the system as fundamentally broken and needing wholesale and radical change. Those of us who work on academic campuses and try to stimulate discussion on scholarly-communication issues experience more or less constantly the tension between these two views, the latter of which seems more often to be held by librarians and the former of which is very often the one held by faculty. This is especially true if we think of reform specifically in terms of open access. Ithaka S&R has been tracking faculty attitudes towards a wide variety of issues for years now, and the free availability of scholarship is consistently at the bottom of faculty respondents’ priorities. According to the most recent survey (2015), roughly one in three authors said that it was “very important” to them that the journals in which they publish make articles freely available, far fewer than said Impact Factor or the ability to publish for free were very important; interestingly, that number is down from 55% in the 2003 survey (according to Figure 23 in the report on the 2009 survey). My subjective impression, from long association with individuals across the spectrum of attitudes regarding open access, is that authors’ general disinterest in the issue generates quite a bit of frustration for those trying to raise consciousness about scholarly-communication reform — and that frustration goes both ways. (When our new dean arrived on campus and met with the president of the Academic Senate, the first thing the president said to her was “We’re not going to talk about open access.”)

These and other controversies in the scholcomm conversation go some way towards explaining why the tone of that conversation gets so testy sometimes: people come to the conversation with different conceptions of what’s right and wrong, different (and often mutually exclusive) goals for the future, and different fundamental understandings about how bad things are right now. These controversies also, I think, help to explain why the loudest voices in the conversation about reform have been those of libraries and publishers — and why the voices of authors have been largely absent. As time has gone on, I’ve become more and more concerned about what seems to me the increasingly conspicuous absence of scholarly and scientific authors’ voices from the conversations about what will be done with their work.

I suspect there are multiple reasons for the general absence of authors’ voices. Four of them may be these:

  1. Authors are individuals who don’t really have an organization to represent them in their capacity as authors. This means, among other things, that scholarly authors don’t have a handy way to put talking points together and present them to the world as a group. The fact that there is no organization called The Authors makes it harder for authors, as a group, to speak loudly about anything.
  2. Authors are a widely disparate group with different priorities. Scholars of 18th-century Spanish literature don’t necessarily think about publishing in exactly the same way that astrophysicists do, and for that reason the two groups may see the benefits of the current system and the concept of “reform” quite differently. Multiply those differences across the huge number of disciplines and subdisciplines in academia, and you have a recipe for quietude, even on initiatives and policies that might impact authors in different disciplines in similar ways.
  3. Authors don’t understand the issues. I realize that may sound like a bold and maybe condescending claim, but I don’t intend it that way. If scholarly communication were a car, then authors would be like car owners and librarians and publishers would be more like car mechanics. Most car owners know how to drive, but can’t do their own car repair because they don’t fully and intimately understand how engines and drivetrains work. Nor should we expect them to; that’s not their job. Similarly, scholarly authors are always experts in their academic fields, but rarely experts in copyright or publishing systems or access models. Their main job is to produce knowledge and write it up, not to design journals and create access policies. What this means, for example, is that if you ask a randomly-selected faculty member to define “open access” you’re likely to get either a blank stare or a definition that differs quite a bit from the one accepted by librarians and publishers (not that there’s universal agreement on an OA definition among them, either). Ask that same faculty member to describe what Creative Commons licensing is and how it works, and you’re even more likely to get a blank stare. Again, this isn’t a criticism of authors; it’s an observation about necessary divisions of labor and expertise within a complex scholarly-communication ecosystem.
  4. Authors, in their role as authors, are not being invited into the conversation. This is the factor that I actually find disturbing. In my direct experience, the suggestion that authors should be invited into the conversation often creates discomfort and even resentment among the current participants. And yet it seems to me that if the scholarship we are talking about represents the original work of actual people whose rights and reputations are likely to be affected by the outcomes of our conversations, then it probably makes sense for those people to have a place at the table where the conversation is happening. Of course, as noted above, the fact that authors are not a monolithic entity makes it difficult to select representatives from the population of authors. I’m not sure that the difficulty of doing so absolves us of the responsibility, though.

I’d be interested to hear from commenters on this issue. Is it real? If not, is it because authors are better represented in these conversations than I think, or is it because authors don’t actually need to have as active a voice in these conversations as I think they do? And if the issue is real—if we generally do need more authors to be involved—how might we achieve that?

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


45 Thoughts on "Scholarly-Communication Reform: Why Is it So Hard to Talk About, and Where are the Authors?"

Most of this is indeed very recogniseable. But maybe authors do regularly discuss these issues, but not so much a connected big issue (as “a system of scholarly communication”) and rarely publicly. Perhaps they do not feel the need to shout it out as they have already reached the people they need to reach by discussing it internally in their institution or society. However to say that authors and researchers are absent from the discussion would be too simple. Some of the most outspoken and influential advocates of open access, open data and open science are researchers themselves: Schekmann, Mons, Murray-Rust, Bourne, Ioannidis, Martone, Harnad, Brembs. Each in their own way, they do see the bigger picture and often are more interested in open science and improving reproducability rather than just open access.
When asked, researchers are quite open to these discussions, but see the current situation as confusing. That becomes clear from reading “Opening the book on Open Access – what researchers think” available at Finally, to find out what researchers think and do one might dive into the data of (disclosure: our own) recent global survey on innovations in scholarly communications. It shows what tools researchers choose for 17 activities, whether they support open access and open science and what they see as the most important development in scholarly communications. Data available at It contains >10,000 opinions on the most important development in scholarly communication.

Panels on publishing are often included in the annual meetings of scholarly associations, but typically draw small audiences because they are scheduled at the same time as many other sessions. In my experience of being on many such panels, those who show up tend to be graduate students wondering how they can revise their dissertations into first books. Eventually, after participating in many of these sessions, I decided I would participate in the future only if such a panel could be scheduled as a plenary session.

BIONET JOURNAL NOTE. If Scholarly Kitchen can be perceived as having a precursor, is was Bionet.journals.note, which was initiated by a scholarly author, myself, in the 1990s. The blog did not thrive beyond the decade, although it helped contributors like Steve Harnad address important issues. One reason for its decline was that I was too involved with other activities to closely monitor it. Another, perhaps, is that fearing retribution (from funding agencies, publishers, etc.), authors tended to keep their cards close to their chests, so did not easily air their thoughts in this strange new public forum.

Our graduate students and early career faculty are focused on their research and in getting published in whichever academic journals their disciplines consider as a proxy measure for excellence. For these authors they simply don’t have the time and energy to consider anything else–their involvement comes into play when they start to sort out rights and permissions. While always prefacing my statements with “I am not a lawyer and can not give you legal advise” every conversation I’ve had in the last few months has concluded with “you may have a strong fair use case but your publisher will probably require that you get permission anyway and here’s where you’ll need to go if they do.”

I would add a 5th factor to your list of why we don’t hear from authors: They’re too busy and publishing issues are not a priority. Being a researcher is an incredibly difficult job these days. There’s an enormous level of competition for jobs, and because of this, universities pile on an enormous amount of tasks—if you don’t want to/can’t do them, there’s 100 people in line behind you for your job who will. As such, researchers have to be incredibly careful and deliberate in how they spend their time.

Does this activity bring in funding, advance my career (or the careers of my students/postdocs)? If the answer is “no”, then likely you’re not going to spend any time or mental effort on it. It’s not at all surprising that the few researchers active in advocacy are either very early in their careers and free from most of the responsibilities of a professor fighting for tenure, or later in their careers, post-tenure and fairly well set for life. For the majority in the middle, the system is imperfect, but works well enough, so no time needs be wasted trying to tweak it when it could instead be spent doing another experiment or writing another grant.

David – “Does this activity bring in funding, advance my career (or the careers of my students/postdocs)? If the answer is “no”, then likely you’re not going to spend any time or mental effort on it.”

By “this activity” I presume you mean discussing the system, its imperfections and possible improvements. I’d agree. But as regards the system itself, then the answer is most certainly “yes”

So sticking with the car analogy, I guess this would be like having a car that you absolutely depend upon, but choosing not to spend a whole lot of time discussing the engine. That doesn’t mean you don’t want the car to work as well as possible, to be efficient and reasonably affordable to run.

I’m not sure it’s a surprise the number of authors who’re concerned about the journals making articles freely available has gone down. In 2003, that might’ve been the only way for an article to be made available. But in 2016, it’s probably more likely that it’s somewhere like the arXiv, making it largely irrelevant whether the journal is paywalled or not.

I neither know nor care if any of my articles are paywalled on the journals’ websites, since they’re all on astro-ph, meaning whoever wants to read them can, for instance.

The main reason why the voices of authors are so few is because, for most researchers, the only thing that matters is publishing in a high impact factor journal. They are largely forced to live within a culture that proclaims a ‘mission for discovery’, but in practice is mostly a ‘mission for elitism’. And the latter is driven by an addiction to chasing IF status, which is fed by the publishers that sell it to the users.

While authors may be left out of the discussion, there is another group that we seldom hear from and that is deans and provosts who have some control over tenure and promotion, and hiring of faculty. This is the community that the authors are trying to impress as authors seek tenure and promotion, or find a new job. Every faculty member on a tenure track is working hard to find the right combination of publications as part of their tenure portfolio. Where you publish has an influence on your grant success rate. Until universities change their tenure and promotion system, don’t expect authors to take up the OA banner.
The deans and provosts that I have worked with are more interested in departments that bring in overhead money than those departments that are a drain on their budget. Libraries control large sections of very valuable real estate on campus. Most UL’s spend considerable time fighting to retain that space. I don’t think there a great deal of energy available to tackle the scholarly communications model.

I strongly support Dan on this neglected reason why reforms in scholarly communication are difficult to achieve. In addition, members of research university tenure and promotion committees are normally those who have succeeded in the current system and thus may not appreciate the fact that doing so is difficult for others. An analogy might be the persistence of hazing in fraternities by those who say that they survived the experience.

As a senior faculty mentor, I would never advise a tenure-track assistant professor to publish in an important but non-peer reviewed journal unless her record was so strong that the case for tenure was already a sure thing. A peer reviewed journal with 35 subscribers might count more than a widely distributed and cited more popular publication. On the issue of open access, even if the current dean and provost were supportive and didn’t require the cachet of acceptance by a well-known commercial publisher, I would give the similar advice since a new provost might be the one who ultimately makes the tenure decision under the traditional rules.

Your comparison here is peer reviewed versus non-peer reviewed journals. Would you feel/act in the same way if the choice was between subscription and open access journals?

I would still feel the same way in part because the traditional, commercial publications have had decades, if not centuries, to acquire prestige, name recognition, high profile editorial committees, and readership that gives them value for tenure and promotion committees. Open access publications are mostly new kids on the block that will need time to acquire the same status. I remember well talking to an academic administrator who liked the high power commercial publications because they offered the possibility for research universities to acquire prestige and visibility if their authors got their papers accepted by them.

I would think that another factor that further dissociates authors as a potentially unified group is the fact that, at least in STM, many authors are from different countries, with different primary languages and are much less likely to collaborate on such topics. Further, being from different cultures, there is not necessarily a common perspective of copyright, personal goals, and/or publishing interests. The “group-think” potential just isn’t there to help bind such a disparate group together.

A few months ago I discussed this issue over lunch with board members of the Netherlands Association of Writers and Translators. Members of this association are mainly literary and non-fiction authors and translators who, unlike most scholarly authors, are dependent on publishers and the usual copyright protection to earn a living (if at all; the Dutch language community is small in international comparison with 25 million speakers). I was a bit surprised to find that there is not much discussion going on about in these circles about issues like other (than the traditional) publishing models either. Most authors sign deals with publishers for a series of books, entering a long-term relationship and thereby signing away a great deal of their financial and artistic autonomy for many years to come (even up to 70 years after their demise) without much discussion or deliberation. I’d think it might be cool, from a marketing point of view, for authors to give away a short story or a poem under a Creative Commons license every once in a while so as to reach a wider audience and advertise their ‘paid work’. But that doesn’t seem to be happening much. Hence I’m not very optimistic that scholarly authors will become more aware of their rightful interests any time soon – except when their employers would urge them to do so.

The Scholarly Kitchen is the one email I always try to read. Keep up the good work! As for this post, faculty have a lot on their academic plate not to mention in many cases a spouse, home, and family obligations.

Is there still an OA banner? Is there still resistance to OA. By whom? OA is now an accepted norm and publishers are publishing OA journals and making big bucks off of it. Of course, authors are paying but as long as that lone reader is not that’s all that matters.

Is there still an OA banner?


Is there still resistance to OA. By whom?

Active resistance? Not much. Passive resistance? Absolutely — hence the emergence of OA mandates. By and large, authors don’t seem to be convinced that OA publication is worth their while (see evidence cited in my posting), and so widespread adoption is now being facilitated by means of funder requirements — and in some cases (all outside of the US) by institutional ones.

Interesting post. Regarding your 3 reasons for high feelings, the moral arguments A and B in point one are not necessarily mutually exclusive – at least in a world where funders make funds available to pay for journal-based OA. Of course, from a personal perspective, point 2 (conflicting goals), raises for me the notion that publicly funded scientists get poor value for money from scholarly publishers that enjoy very high margins – largely because they feel obliged to chase after impact factors, having no faith that our assessment protocols will judge the book and not the cover.

Overall, it is vital that authors/researchers are closely involved in discussions on OA – they have a valuable perspectives to offer. And we could all do more to make that easier, especially since (as noted above), they are busy people. But it is difficult since they are such a heterogenous and leaderless group. In my view, you need to catch a captive audience, either at a dept staff meeting or a conference session – I have seen both methods work well. Don’t expect them to show up at OA meetings (apart from the occasional deviant, like myself).

Some legals scholars saw this problem during the Google Book Search Settlement and started the Authors Alliance. It helps authors understand their rights and it wants to represent their interests in policy debates–like the Authors Guild but for writers who write for reasons other than commercial.

Just a minor thing: the link to the Ithaka 2009 survey should be

By the way, you mention that the number of people (US faculty) that rate free access very important in this survey has come down from 55% in 2003. That is factually correct. But the level has remained more or less constant over the last 10 years.

Thanks for catching that, Jeroen — I’ve fixed the link in the posting.

I usually say ‘We invent god as we invent other people’. This time it is about authors. Creation of a myth of an author. Well, not actually a myth. A model.
Quite interesting. Blind beyond the impact factor.

As an author, and as a de facto mentor or adviser to others:
As an author, I am in the minority but privileged position of not caring about the IF of the journals I publish in (retired, but even before that, in a situation where the powers that be were pleasantly surprised if you published regularly in any respectable journal). Very little of my research was directly publicly funded by grants. Most of my research was and is published in specialist, society-based journals with modest IF but long article half-life. Only in one case were page charges levied, and the editor always waived these if I had no co-authors with institutional funds,
If the publishing world were to become entirely gold OA, I would effectively be silenced, though there might be unofficial outlets that would not feature in considerations for tenure etc.As it is, I consciously send papers to low impact journals even if such papers MIGHT be accepted by more prestigious journals. If they are highly cited, they promote the kind of journal that I find most useful. Honesty requires me to admit that there is also less hassle.
While I would be very happy if everybody could read what I have written easily and for free, the reality is that what I write will be of interest to a small group of specialists (note that this may include amateurs). The ability to send pdfs on request meets the needs of that community if they do not have their own subscription or access to a library. So far, these journals are surviving, but I can see (as a reviewer and associate editor) the pressures mounting both on costs and on improving IF, even where half-life is more appropriate measure of utility.

As a co-author with younger colleagues trapped in the rat race, and as a mentor, unofficial reviewer, and as a formal reviewer, the picture changes completely. Younger authors always want to aim high in terms of IF. My initial advice is often ignored, with a succession of rejections until the correct level is reached, which, ironically, is the one that will be the most useful. Many, especially from developing countries, need guidance about predatory journals that offer OA at rates that are superficially attractive. Author-funded OA as a universal would kill, or at least severely damage the kind of curiosity-based research in which I engage. At best, I might be a co-author among many who supplied data to a high-flying theoretician.

One would think that authors would be deeply ambivalent about OA. They would like to see their articles accessed but are concerned about paying for that access. I doubt they like mandates but they are not going to oppose their employers and funders. They may worry about quality when the judged pay the judges, but hesitate to openly question a noble cause. Plus OA is a very complex issue, publicly argued by experts. The issue tree has thousands of cascading responses, as exemplified by the endless discussions here.

Given all this, it is perhaps easy to see why they are not prone to participation in the debate. Nor do they have a collective position, so it is not clear what value their participation would bring.

The question of what value authors would bring to the discussion is an interesting one, but I don’t think it’s the most important one. The more important issue, I think, is that policy decisions are being made that have an impact on authors’ rights, and it’s not clear that authors are being included in the conversations that inform those decisions. One thing that the great majority of scholarly and scientific authors have in common–whether they’re in STEM or HSS, whether they’re students or faculty, whether they’re tenured or untenured–is a set of rights granted them by law as copyright holders. Policies are emerging, both from government and from private funders, that require authors to give up some of their prerogatives as copyright holders. It seems to me that authors’ voices really ought to be deeply involved in the discussions that lead up to those kinds of policy decisions–both as a matter of fairness and to help ensure that the policies are fully informed.

One of the reasons I was concerned about the lack of author representation at the OSI meeting was that our goal at that meeting was to start figuring out what we thought the future of scholarly communication ought to look like. Doing so without significant representation from the very scholars who will be doing the communicating struck me as troublesome.

Good point, which I missed, but is there any evidence that authors have, or would have, a relatively unified position on these copyright issues? Policy requires a position. My impression is also that they are used to assigning their rights to their publisher so have relatively little interest in the matter. But you have explored this issue at some length. What do you think?

I think those are good questions, the answers to which we can’t know unless we include authors in the conversation in a more rigorous and systematic way than we have so far. It’s possible (not likely, I think, but possible) that authors will turn out to have such a wide variety of opinions that there’s no useful way to talk about the “author perspective”–but proceeding on the assumption that that’s the case doesn’t seem right to me.

The problem is that there are millions of authors, so I do not see what it means to “include authors in the conversation.” It is a metaphor at best. One could do some careful polling, or has that been done?

Whenever studying an entire population is impossible, what we normally do is take a sample. So, for example, at the next OSI meeting we could make sure at least sixteen working scholars in the humanities and an equal number of scientists from the STEM disciplines are invited, and distribute them among the sixteen working groups. These should be individuals who are there in their specific roles as working and publishing academics in scholarly and scientific disciplines, not as publishers or funders or librarians or academic administrators (many of whom are also scholars of various kinds). And actually, we need to get graduate students into the mix as well, given the changing policy landscape for theses and dissertations.

Would this result in a perfect understanding of what every scholarly or scientific author wants or needs? Of course not. Would it represent a significant step forward from what we had at the inaugural OSI meeting? Yes. Would the significance of this kind of inclusion extend beyond the metaphorical? Yes.

Obviously, the OSI meeting is just one example of a forum in which we need to be doing more to include authors’ voices.

Of course there are these surveys, by Ithaka, Nature, Taylor&Francis and our own. In the latter we have >20K respondents of which >15K researchers. They state what tools they use for 17 research activities, whether they support OA and OS and it also has >10,000 opinions voiced on what they consider the most important development in scholarly communication. That is a useful starting point, with all data available to anyone at What this also facilitates is having discussions on what researchers are actually doing instead of what we/you want them to do. I find that approach much more fruitful. We need to make sure that the scholcomm discussion is were they are, relates to what they are already doing and thinking about and is mostly by them, not about them but about research practices and ways to make research more efficient, reproducible, and yes, open.

Using a CC license is quite different from transferring rights to a publisher via contract. On the matter of translations, e.g., scholars have good reason to trust that their publishers will act in their best interests in ensuring accuracy in translations; it is quite another matter to trust the entire world to do so.

Yes, the issues with the various CC licenses are well known. The question is whether the authors care about and have a relatively unified position on these issues, for policy purposes, and my impression is that they do not. I seem to recall some survey results to that effect. If the authors are divided or indifferent then they may have little to add to the policy debate.

My recollection is that those surveys revealed that many authors do not understand what rights they have waived by signing CC licenses.

I seem to remember a survey, or several, in which authors expressed various preferences for different licenses. One has to have some understanding in order to do this.

But if they do not understand then they cannot take a viable policy position.

No doubt, but again we are talking about millions of people. OA policy is not going to wait for them to be trained in copyright law.

Luckily, faculty don’t have to be trained in copyright law in order to understand their licensing options. Those can be explained quite easily within the context of the survey. They truly are not that complicated.

Rick, Thanks for this post. I particularly liked your car analogy and will use it!
One comment: I don’t think the groups of publisher-librarian-author are necessarily mutually exclusive. Many people who now work in libraries (and in publishing) come from an academic background. So, they were drivers before they became mechanics. Indeed, many academic librarians (such as myself) are faculty and are required to conduct research and publish and produce case files for tenure and promotion (etc.). So, we are actually drivers and mechanics at the same time. I realize that I’m telling you something you already know given your position, but my point is that there are already a considerable number of authors in the conversation. (And Jeroen already mentioned that some of the most vocal OA advocates out there are academics and authors.)
I think driver/mechanics are probably the most valuable type of authors to have at the table for such discussions since they know the issues from both perspectives. And they are already there at that table.

Yes, those are all good points — and believe it or not, I’ve actually made similar ones in other venues! The concern I’m trying to express here is about what seems to be a dearth of input from authors whose primary interaction with the scholcomm ecosystem is in their role as authors, rather than as librarians or publishers or funders. Like you, I’m a tenured faculty author as well as a librarian, but because my position is in the library my perspective is different from that of, say, a faculty member whose full-time job is in the more traditional teaching-and-research realm. And then there are the adjuncts and the postdocs, who also arr also directly affected by our efforts to change the scholcomm system and who bring different perspectives to these issues — or could if we would do more to bring them into the conversation.

I’m late to this party. However …

One additional factor that helps explain why so few authors are active in these discussions is that it’s hard for us to feel that our ideas are taken seriously by those whose position in these discussions is taken seriously. Speaking as one of those authors who does try to get involved, I can tell you that overwhelmingly the main response I get here at the Scholarly Kitchen is people leaping in to publisherspain why everything I think is wrong. Happily, I have a sufficiently thick skin that I keep hacking away anyway (mostly not in this venue, but elsewhere). But others will not necessarily be blessed with such insensitivity. They’ll dip their toes in, essentially be told that they’re ignorant idiots, shrug their shoulders, and go elsewhere.

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