The academic writer’s strike

I have spent years exhorting students to publish as much as possible before they finish and straight after. But lately I am beginning to wonder about my place in the academic publishing system, both as a researcher and a teacher.

I don’t think I can keep handing out this advice with a clear conscience.

Academic publishing is presented as a universal good, without regard to how the publishing system operates. While publications are an essential addition to the CV in today’s competitive job market, the ethics of publishing need to be considered too. Some big publishers are making boatloads of money – in the order of millions of dollars – out of labour we academics willingly give them.

This profit largely goes into the pockets of shareholders, not the researchers or universities.

Essentially this is public money which becomes ‘privatized’. It works a bit like this. Australian citizens are taxed and the government uses this tax to fund my university. My university pays me a wage to write papers, amongst other things. I give my papers, and the copyright to reproduce and distribute them, to an academic publisher. They publish my article in a big database and make it searchable (if you want a longer explanation of the process, read this article on The Atlantic). If I want to be a good academic citizen I also do peer reviews for these journals, thus helping to ensure the quality of the publishing system as a whole.

Of course I am a user as well as a content provider. My university (with more tax payer’s money) pays the journal publishers to let me search their databases and download articles. This is where it gets sticky.

Some journal publishers engage in questionable practices in how they sell the content we produce back to us. You may have heard of the term ‘bundling’. Basically bundling works a bit like a cable television subscription. I like to watch the Lifestyle channel, but Thesis Whisperer Jnr likes the Discovery channel. My cable company is well aware of this and only sells ‘bundles’, not individual channels. I would like to buy a custom bundle with Lifestyle and Discovery, but instead I am forced to buy two bundles in order to get both the channels I want.

Libraries have been facing increasing costs because of these bundling practices and the problem is worse in the developing world. I have had emails from people in Africa and some parts of Asia asking for a copy of an article because their universities have had to cut costs. According to my publishing agreement I would be breaking the law to send it to them – this sticks in my throat, especially after my recent visit to Vietnam.

Unfortunately the academic publishing system is built into the academia DNA. As the QED insight blog argued recently,  the university needs publishers to help them weigh up my merits as a researcher. If I publish in good quality journals they have a way of judging my quality as an academic. I am cutting my nose off to spite my face if I refuse to participate – I will not get promoted and I may even lose my job.

Journal publishers argue they provide value. Maintaining large database systems and editing our papers is not cost free. True. Everyone has the right, I believe, to be paid for his or her work, but the argument can easily run the other way. Journal publishers pay their shareholders, their editors, administrators and software engineers – so where’s my cut as content provider and expert consultant?

Some academics have become so incensed at what they see as the inequities of this system they have signed the Cost of Knowledge petition declaring they will boycott the journal publisher Elsevier. Elsevier are not the only journal to be accused of questionable practices, but they have copped the brunt of the academic anger.

This petition is the academic equivalent of the Hollywood writers strike. I think it could work so, after some hesitation, I signed it. It’s not, of course, the whole answer, especially when it only targets one publisher, but it’s the only way I can send a message loud enough to be heard. But I have to be honest with you: I only signed because the effect on me personally is slight. Elsevier publishes very few education journals. Would I have signed a similar petition against Taylor and Francis?

I’m not sure.

Those of us earlier in our careers have much more to lose being political.

Publishers seem blissfully unaware of the challenge to their business model posed by social media and easy, free publishing tools. If I wanted to I could start my own peer reviewed journal tomorrow. I have the tools and the contacts, just not the time… Recently, in a public forum, I challenged a member of the Elsevier board to tell me how the company is responding to changes in the publishing landscape. He told me they are thinking about it, and in the meantime they were generously providing, free of charge, a guide to publishing in journals for first timers.

Wonderful, but how about some more tangible sign of your appreciation for our work?

I think we academics need to start learning from other creatives, like the music industry. Most pop stars get paid ludicrously small amounts for their creative work it’s true, but they do get paid something. I have no objection to journals making some money and providing work for editors and other talented people. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water, but we could pressure the publishers to kick back some of that profit to the people who make research happen and advance human knowledge. Us.

So Elsevier, I will start publishing with you when you start sharing the love. I have some ideas for what you can do.

Let’s start with simple profit sharing. For instance, you could pay my institution a nominal amount per download. Perfect capitalist solution: the more popular my papers get, the more my institution benefits and they can reward me with a promotion. Or you could pay me directly for each download of my work and I could use that money to buy out teaching time and buy in research assistants.

If you don’t want to pay me or my institution, you could show me that you are a good corporate citizen in other ways. How about ‘angel investing’ in cutting edge research? You could even benefit by IP arrangements.

Or you could think about providing some grant money from your profits which content providers like myself could bid for on a competitive basis.

Elsevier – you could BENEFIT by being generous – if you play this right you could get the first pick of all the best work because I would have an incentive to choose you. By the way I am available as a consultant if you need more ideas at your next board meeting.

For a small fee of course.

At the time of writing the petition had 6268 signatures. How many will it take to make changes happen? I doubt many early career researchers or students will find themselves in a position to sign right now- I’m not judging. Whatever gets you through the night. I do, however, applaud the senior members of our community who are providing leadership and showing the way. If enough of you with little to lose sign, those of us at the bottom of the academic pecking order might feel more confident to pile on.

It seems to me that journal publishers need to be a bit more creative – or they will die. I think this is a pity because most journals provide an excellent service for academia and I’m not sure we academics have the resources to replace them. How about you – what do you think? Have you signed the petition? Why – or why not?

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68 thoughts on “The academic writer’s strike

  1. Lozzz123 says:

    I completely agree that the way things are now are unfair. However, I think you’re right, that as a PhD student at the very start of my career and at the bottom of the pecking order it would be very difficult for me to refuse to publish with certain companies. At the moment, I’ll be honest, I need to publish with whoever will accept me! I’m towards the end of my PhD and I need to be thinking about how my CV looks to prospective employers, and unfortunately right now I only have one publication to my name. I’m pretty anxious about that low number and what it means for my likelihood of getting a good job.

    It would be much easier to get on board with this if many more higher-up well-established academics do first.

    • ingermewburn says:

      yep, totally see your position. Let’s hope enough of the heavy hitters get on board, or, better still, the publishers start showing some ‘flex’ (as they say on ‘The Wire’ 🙂

  2. Judy Redman says:

    I could sign it, but Elsevier doesn’t publish anything in my field, so it would be kind of meaningless.

    The other area where publishers profit and authors don’t, it appears, is edited books. I was invited to contribute a chapter to an edited book – one of two PhD students amongst a group of authors with international reputations, to be published in a well-regarded series. I felt that this was an honour and it will look good on my resume as well as contributing to my school’s publications list, so of course I said yes. It didn’t occur to me to ask about payment until one of my children asked me, and apparently the answer is no. is this common?

    I guess this keeps the cost of specialist books with limited print runs down so people can afford to buy them. I am now wondering if I will have to buy my own copy as well. 🙂

      • Judy Redman says:

        It’s good to know (sort of) that not being paid for chapters is normal.

        Re dissemination – while more people may well read a blog than a journal article and many blogs done by academics are of a very high standard, anyone can publish anything on a blog, whereas publishing in a peer reviewed journal means that people with expertise in your field have looked at the content first. You also put more time and effort into something as long as a journal article, so it should count for more than a blog post, I think.

  3. Daniel says:

    Hi Inger,

    I am a PhD student in the next building over. While I agree journals are a racket, I think the culpability (at least in Australia) lies with the incentives academics face. As you identify in your post, the institutions place far more emphasis on publication than dissemination. I have been fairly shocked that things like your blog, which I am sure is read more than most books about PhD’s, counts for almost nothing in the institution’s eyes. Yet I know my blog is a far better method of dissemination and feedback than the ‘A ranked’ journal articles I have published – not that the university recognises this.

    If academics could choose not to publish in journals I think many would elect to spend their time sharing their research elsewhere. The far larger scandal is that academics by and large do not have the choice.

    • ingermewburn says:

      I am nodding fiercely Daniel. Thanks for saying this.
      240,000 people read the blog last year and it doesn’t ‘count’. Indeed I didn’t get a promotion lately and was advised to spend more time publishing in journals. I felt a moment of despair that this blog – which I think does good work, doesn’t ‘matter’. But then I realised, of course it matters! People read it, they tell me it helps – I enjoy writing it. It helps me give my working life a sense of meaning and purpose. Why stop? Knowledge wants to be free, shared, remixed – call me a hippy, but I believe that. Promotion or no promotion.

      • Judy Redman says:

        Yes, Inger. It definitely matters and it definitely makes a difference to at least one of your readers (and I’m sure to many others). I think eventually ‘they’ will have to work out a way of differentiating between the different types of blogs so they can provide some level of academic recognition to blogs with significant academic content.

      • Daniel says:

        Well, outside of people in my department, the best guidance RMIT has provided me comes from your blog and your seminars. I am sure in the long run some universities are going to recognise the value of a staff member who helps 240,000 PhD students. I just hope RMIT sorts it out before another university does.

      • Anneka says:

        Hi Inger,
        Just would like to say I wouldn’t discount the blog so rapidly. I know a lot of quite high up academics (including a few vice chancellors) who are following you and sharing your posts. Although this may not mean quite as much, I think you’re name and quality of work is recognised and stands for quite a bit when you catch the attention of such an audience, but I do see the point that it adds nothing to your CV.

  4. Damien says:

    The position that my department seems to have unofficially made is to publish only in Journals with an open-access policy. Some, such as IEEE journals, seem to allow the full typset article on the Author’s website. Others, such as Sage and Wiley, allow the raw “accepted” version to be posted in similar circumstances.

    Over time, that will drive down the price of academic subsciptions. They will face the same pressures as newpapers and the music industry.

    The other model is “fee for service”. The academic pays to have the article published, where it remains open access forever. I can see jaws dropping saying that, but ….

  5. ingermewburn says:

    I believe that many ‘open access’ journals already ask academics to pay to have their work published – in the order of $5000 per article! I don’t see how this could work if it was generalised to the whole industry. I believe (it’s too late at night to hunt out the reference) that citations are radically increased by publishing in open access journals, so the investment might pay off… which only raises more questions for me….

  6. Lynne Kelly says:

    I am also a PhD student, but in a different position and thinking seriously about whether publishing in an academic journal is worth the effort. I found this blog fascinating and have a lot to think about. This is just a brain dump rather than a reasoned argument.

    I am a professional writer and mature age student. I don’t need an academic career, although I’d love to do a post-doc – so I’m not sure where I stand on publishing. My thesis has led to a pretty radical claim which has broad public appeal. Assuming my ideas hold up to examination – and after 4 years of obsessive work, I am pretty sure they will, I could have the basis of commercially viable books.

    Am I best served publishing in a journal? Am I better to go straight to a book and at least have the chance of a financial return? Unpublished, the marketing of the book becomes more ‘for the first time’ … ‘radical new theory’ type hype. And then, am I best to go to an academic book, or get seriously commercial and go straight to a trade book (book to be sold in bookshops)? I already have a publishing record in popular science and know how to sell an idea to a publisher. Why not try and make it a profitable exercise? Lets face it, I can’t be worse off than publishing in a journal. And I might reach a much broader audience.

    Will this disillusionment with journals lead to academics choosing research which favours popular publication rather than research which suits purely academic goals and the journals?

    I certainly chose my topic with the goal of producing material for books. But then I am an author and was given a scholarship in the English program at LaTrobe with the hope that I would write books as a result of the research. Some PhDs are now done with a creative component (80% or so) and an exegesis. The creative component is then a potentially commercial product, often a book. Will this trend increase, sidelining the journals unless they are more receptive to the needs of academics? Universities like academics with books out in the public arena.

    Just some ideas. (P.S. Inger – Husband Damian is just starting a PhD!!!! Not in IT, the field you would expect. In dual disciplines of archaeology and ecology – he’s now an archaeologist. He’ll subscribe to this blog tomorrow.)


    • Kelly Dombroski says:

      This is the route I plan to take with my thesis (titled ‘Babies bottoms for a better world’ you reckon that has commercial value 🙂 But in my recent performance review at work they wanted more journal articles (only comment!). Most of my publications are in edited collections and student-run journals — why? Because the turnaround is a million times quicker and once it’s published its easy enough to send it on to people via a link. I also upload stuff to the website of a collective I am part of (‘final drafts’) and link through to the real publication as well — mostly so non-academics can access our work on community economies. What community activist wants to read an elsveier journal article anyways?

      • Achilleas says:

        What I did was ‘re-blogging’. This is a automated function provided by WordPress, which (a) copies the first 2-3 lines in a post, (b) creates a link back here for interested readers, and (c) leaves a notice here for the original author’s information. It’s a fairly common way to maximise dissemination of information, much like ‘re-tweeting’, and to the best of my knowledge it is not considered objectionable.

  7. Eva says:

    Thanks for bringing up this issue. Just as others commented, as a PhD student, I really try to work towards getting my papers published because I need the publications to keep doing what I love.

    What I can say for myself, is that I don’t even really know how all the copyright stuff works. When I get to the end of the process of getting a paper published, and sign the copyright transfer form, I actually don’t really understand the consequences. In fact, I don’t understand all the lawyer-like language around it that well, and I don’t really know how much of the figures and parts of text that are published can still be used elsewhere. It all leaves me confused, and I would be very surprised if it turns out that I am the only one who doesn’t really get it (and, whose priority it has never been to dig into the issue).

    As a sidenote: I’m sad but not really surprised (it will take some time before science v. 2.0 will take off I assume) to hear that your blog “doesn’t count”. But once more, to stress what others already commented, it is such a valuable resource to me, and many others.

  8. The British Asian Blog says:

    Interesting post, from the comments made here already – they pretty much sum up my view as a PhD student. It feels, at times, beggars can’t be choosers and being so low down the pecking order, I feel we have no option but to play ball in order to find our first publisher.

  9. Julia Skinner says:

    This is a great post–I’m a PhD student, but I did sign the petition against Elsevier. For me, it was easier because (like it is for you) my field is not well-represented in their journals. The few LIS journals they publish are not ones that are likely to be the best fit for my research, and if they are a good fit, are not the only option. I’m lucky that I have already published a good deal so am more familiar with the process, I’ve served in an editorial capacity with some Open Access journals, and that I am in a field that is *very* interested in Open Access and sharing our work (we do train the librarians who have to buy all these journals, so there’s some incentive there!) That combination of factors makes it much safer for me to speak out than my peers who are students and new faculty in other fields.

    • Julia Skinner says:

      I guess I should also add the the Open Access journals in my field (for the most part at least) don’t charge authors to publish, so that’s another difference. I tend to forget that in many field that’s the case, but is another part of the publishing model that could use re-examining.

  10. Karen Kelsky (@ProfessorIsIn) says:

    I signed and I agree entirely with the premise, although in practice, since I am no longer active in writing or reviewing it doesn’t represent much risk for me personally or much of an impact on my fields. Nevertheless, the system of profits made through public money “laundered” through the bodies/work of Ph.D.s desperate for jobs and tenure needs to be exposed, alongside the poverty wages paid to adjunct instructors.

  11. kylie budge says:

    Great post Inger!

    Here’s how the academic journal situation has had an impact on me recently. I just had an article published in a journal about a study I did of art and design blogs. It was a study about a community of bloggers I’ve followed for over 5 years. When the article was published 2 weeks ago I wanted to be able to give it to the art/design blogging community to read as a way of reporting back to them. As you well know, due to copyright laws I can’t. This has been hard to experience because bloggers have left comments on my art/design blog saying they wish they could read it. Almost none have access to a university library database where they can download it to read. This is a very frustrating situation for those of us who research communities who don’t have access to university libraries. It feels to me like research knowledge is locked away from the public and I don’t think that benefits anyone in the end.

    Anyway, bravo for writing this post! I liked all those fab suggestions you made about how journals could compensate academics and universities. Bring it on, I say!

    • Deborah Fitchett says:

      Does your institution have an institutional repository? (Check with the library if you’re not sure.) A lot of journals do allow authors to deposit some version (even if only a preprint) on an institutional repository, which copy would then be openly accessible to anyone.

      • kylie budge says:

        That’s a good suggestion, thank you! I’ve also just been doing some checking and have discovered the publisher has an online library where for the moment at least the current volume’s articles (mine included) can be downloaded for free. Yippeeeee!

      • Abd says:

        Please let me know if you’re looking for a wreitr for your blog. You have some really good articles and I think I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d love to write some material for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please blast me an e-mail if interested. Thanks!

    • Brooklyn says:

      I just publish my oranigil stuff mostly. If I rip off something, I try and give credit or else change it up so there is no copyright infringement. The net is an animal that we either share and share alike or don’t get much use out of. I enjoy the wild west ways it has so far. Once the rules and laws of other media grab it, then its appeal will be diminished a bit I think.

  12. M-H says:

    Well explained Inger. And its not only personal promotion that makes publication important. The percentage of government funding that each University in Australia receives is partially dependent on the amount of work that its staff and students published in high-impact journals and in books in the previous year. That’s why the Uni hounds staff and students to record this information. If you do publish something, make sure that your Uni knows about it by filling in the returns when they are sent out. And, of course, if you’re publishing in ‘good’ journals you’re more likely to get grants from funding bodies such as ARC and NHMRC, and government funding to Unis also partly depends on how much money they got in grants the previous year as well. “To those who have more, more will be given.”

  13. Dale Reardon (@DaleReardon) says:


    I must say that I have only become aware of all this publishing system recently. I completed my undergrad with honours back in 1992 and have then been in private practice, business etc and only now gone back to pursue academia.

    When I did my undergrad we were told nothing about being an academic, nothing about publishing, how the system worked or anything like that – I did my degree in Law – and it was assumed you would practice and academia was very much a second class option if at all.

    I wish we had been taught more but I’ll get up to speed eventually. How about some articles on the whole Australian academic system, rankings of journals, publishing requirements etc to get us all up to speed. Or maybe I need to pay you for a briefing on it all.

    I hope open access triumphs and we can get academic knowledge disseminated more widely and affordably.

    Good on you for signing the petition.

    In terms of starting up a journal a serious question – how do you get your new journal to have a ranking high enough to make people want to publish in it? Sounds an interesting thought to start one!


    • ingermewburn says:

      I have only recently begun to appreciate the system as a whole and the implications it has for the production of knowledge. I agree we are often woefully prepared to understand publishing as undergrads and there remains a lot of mystery around it – I’ll do more posts on it for sure.

      For me it’s a bit like the climate change debate. I would love to be able to ignore it and just get on with my life, but, as Mary-Helen pointed out above, it has serious consequences for all of us.

  14. Mary says:

    Also a Ph.D. final year student and have considered this issue seriously for a few years. Seeing fellow-students panic on a regular basis about journal articles, sometimes juggling two or three different ones while frantically trying to reach deadlines, only to have their articles handed over to journals that pay nothing, yet demand complete control has baffled me. I have resisted publishing in journals, and will be taking the route of book publishing on completion of my thesis. Some of the respondents above, who have signed the petition, have also added that they will not be directly affected, since their research is not represented by Elsevier. I can understand their reluctance to do so with other journals, and I do have sympathy with new researchers who are trying to make a name for themselves. It’s a tough one. However, I will continue to resist journal publication and see how long I can survive before I face a rude awakening. As a mature student, I am happy to take the risk, but I would hesitate encouraging someone younger at the start of their career. Perhaps we need a massive and coordinated boycott?

    • ingermewburn says:

      I guess this Elsevier petition is as close as we will get to a co-ordinated boycott. Good on you for finding other ways, there are some publishers who are better citizens. I will try to do more posts on this so you can have other options to consider.

  15. andy says:

    As a PhD student, this conversation makes me wonder about alternatives…
    What if blog posts or other online articles could include extended comment or review from selected ‘peers’. What if some big-head in your field “liked” (or even “+1’d”) your post / article. Can we hack together an anarchic band of ‘peers’ to roam academia distributing blessings of authority onto alternative publications?

  16. Julia says:

    I have long been of the opinion that copyright should be inalienable from the person who made the original creative input. This is sort of how resale copyright now works for Aboriginal artworks. However for academic publishing there is a problem. An artwork is – to use the language of economists, – excludable – ie there is only one copy with value. An academic publication is non excludable – you can make copies and they all have the same value as the original.
    Nevertheless, I think the idea of middlemen not being able to entirely divest the original creator from their interest in the work is one which (creative) lawyers and legislators should be investigating.

    Meanwhile “Sage Open’ is experimenting with pay to publish.

    while other journals make their archives freely available

    • ingermewburn says:

      thanks for those links and thoughts. It will certainly be interesting to see if such simple changes can be made so that I can at least send the copy to someone in Africa without risking litigation…

  17. K. Korb says:

    As an academic working in Africa, I agree with much of what you have written. However, I would like to see any radical change in the academic publishing world to reflect the extreme bias against academics who work in developing countries. The quality of research coming from developing countries is low, but that is because academics in developing countries have no access to high quality academic research due to the extreme cost of accessing academic journals. Without access to high quality research from academic journals, there is little hope that the quality of research from developing countries will improve anytime in the near future. Paying large amounts for access to academic journals therefore discriminates against academics – and universities – who cannot afford to pay the exorbitant fees. I would propose a revision to the publishing world that highlights the “free” part of “academic freedom.”

    • ingermewburn says:

      You raise a critical issue K – there are largely invisible (to westerners at least) systems of privilege operating in academia which have gone on unchallenged for many years. It’s not just access to read, but access to publish which helps us build new knowledge. You’re absolutely right to point his out. I wonder if you are interested in extending this argument further in a guest post? Talking about it is a start at least…? Let me know – details on the ‘about’ page if you are interested.

  18. David says:

    I’m an associate editor at an Elsevier journal. I just don’t think Elsevier is such a big ogre as people are saying:

    Elsevier allow various options for you to put your work on the web for free:

    And as far as I know there is no breach of copyright in sending a copy of your paper to an individual who requests it. In the preweb days I used to get postcards from all over the world requesting me to send copies of my papers. Now it is much easier.

    • Zeborah says:

      If you’re not the copyright holder (and if you’ve published in an Elsevier journal, Elsevier is the copyright holder) then it certainly is a breach of copyright to make a copy of the paper, whether for a colleague or even for yourself. Yes, really. That’s what copyright means: the right to make copies. Everyone does it, but that doesn’t make it less a breach of copyright.

      • Judy Redman says:

        It’s not a straightforward as that, Zeborah. Copyright is about not making *unauthorised* copies, but some publishers are more accommodating than others about authorising copies. It depends on what the copyright document that you sign says and my university copyright people inform me that many journals are prepared to vary the copyright to take into consideration institutional repository requirements.

        Even without making this request, the one I am looking at says I retain the right to repubish or reuse the article as long as I acknowledge where it was originally published and it won’t harm the sale of the original. It also says that the publishers can also authorise redistribution, and, as David says, there used to be the custom of issuing authors with reprints to send to colleagues, so contacting them about what they might consider fair dealing on this would be worthwhile. Kylie could certainly explain to her publisher what she’d like to do and see how they feel – it would seem to me that she could argue that providing it to her blogging community would not harm the sale of the article.

        • Zeborah says:

          My mistake, in the specific: that is, Elsevier does explicitly permit authors to keep the right to share copies with other individual researchers for non-commercial purposes.

          But my general point remains – because the reason Elsevier is explicit about this is that when you sign over your copyright to a publisher, if they don’t explicitly grant you this permission then you don’t have the right.

          And there are publishers who don’t grant you that permission. As you say, some might accept a variation of contract — but some might not.

          So yes, Elsevier could be worse in what uses it allows. But as far as I can tell, it allows rights where exercising that right is onerous for the author and/or other researchers (eg the researchers have to individually email to request an article and the author has to individually email it back) but actively fights against systems that would make sharing the research easy (eg sponsoring legislation to forbid certain open access mandates).

  19. Judy Redman says:

    Zeborah, the system doesn’t allow me to reply to your reply to my reply – I agree that the copyright system makes it very difficult/expensive to get copyright material. I just wanted to point out that what you can and can’t do with material you’ve written and had published is actually quite complex.

  20. xguse says:

    Reblogged this on scipher and commented:
    So I just caught wind of this blog but from the first few posts I glanced through, it seems a gem. This one raises some good questions regarding the academic publishing cycle and whether it is fair or actually achieves the goal of supporting the ideals of the academic endeavor: clear, accurate, and far-reaching dissemination of original ideas for the purpose of helping other people come up with original ideas to disseminate.

    I think that in many ways the open publishing movement (BMC, PLoS, and similar) goes a good way to helping the problems that she raises but you cant beat the impact factors of many of the “old school” publication companies. I am interested to continue reading Mewburn’s material and suggest that you check her out as well.

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