Quality in the age of the impact factor

ISIS, the most prestigious journal in the history of science, moved house last September and its central office is now located at the Descartes Centre for the History and Philosophy of the Sciences and Humanities at Utrecht University. The Dutch science historian H. Floris Cohen took up the position of the editor in chief of the journal. No doubt this underlines the international reputation of the community of historians of science in the Netherlands. Being the editor of the central journal in ones field surely is mark of esteem and quality.

The opening of the editorial office in Utrecht was celebrated with a symposium entitled “Quality in the age of the impact factor”. Since quality of research in history is intimately intertwined with the quality of writing, it seemed particularly apt to call attention to the role of impact factors in humanities fields. I used the occasion to pose the question how we actually define scientific and scholarly quality. How do we recognize quality in our daily practices? And how can this variety of practices be understood theoretically? Which approaches in the field of science and technology studies are most relevant?

In the same month, Pleun van Arensbergen graduated on a very interesting PhD dissertation which dealt with some of the issues, “Talent Proof. Selection Processes in Research Funding and Careers”. Van Arensbergen did her thesis work at the Rathenau Institute in The Hague. The quality of research is increasingly seen as mainly the result of the quality of the people involved. Hence, universities “have openly made it one of their main goals to attract scientific talent” (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 121). A specific characteristics of this “war for talent” in the academic world is that there is an oversupply of talents and a relative lack of career opportunities, leading to a “war between talents”. The dissertation is a thorough analysis of success factors in academic careers. It is an empirical analysis of how the Dutch science foundation NWO selects early career talent in its Innovational Research Incentives Scheme. The study surveyed researchers about their definitions of quality and talent. It combines this with an analysis of both the outcome and the process of this talent selection. Van Arensbergen paid specific attention to the gender distribution and to the difference between successful and unsuccessful applicants.

Her results point to a discrepancy between the common notion among researchers that talent is immediately recognizable (“you know it when you see it”) and the fact that there are very small differences between candidates that get funded and those that do not. The top and the bottom of the distribution of quality among proposals and candidates are relatively easy to detect. But the group of “good” and “very good” proposals is still too large to be funded. Van Arensbergen and her colleagues did not find a “natural threshold” above which the successful talents can be placed. On the contrary, in one of her chapters they find that researchers who leave the academic system due to lack of career possibilities regularly score higher on a number of quality indicators than those who are able to continue a research career. “This study does not confirm that the university system always preserves the highly productive researchers, as leavers were even found to outperform the stayers in the final career phase (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 125).

Based on the survey, her case studies and her interviews, Van Arensbergen also concludes that productivity and publication records have become rather important for academic careers. “Quality nowadays seems to a large extent to be defined as productivity. Universities seem to have internalized the performance culture and rhetoric to such an extent that academics even define and regulate themselves in terms of dominant performance indicators like numbers of publications, citations or the H-index. (…) Publishing seems to have become the goal of academic labour.” (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 125). This does not mean, however, that these indicators determine the success of a career. The study questions “the overpowering significance assigned to these performance measures in the debate, as they were not found to be entirely decisive.” (van Arensbergen, 2014, p. 126) An extensive publication record is a condition but not a guarantee for success.

This relates to another finding: the group process of panel discussions are also very important. With a variety of examples, Van Arensbergen shows how the organization of the selection process shapes the outcome. The face to face interview of the candidate with the panel is for example crucial for the final decision. In addition, the influence of the external peer reports was found to be modest.

A third finding in the talent dissertation is that success in obtaining grants feeds back into ones scientific and scholarly career. This creates a self reinforcing mechanism, which the science historian Robert Merton coined the Matthew effect after the quote from the bible: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” (Merton, 1968). Van Arensbergen concludes that this means that differences between scholars may initially be small but will increase in the course of time as a result of funding decisions. “Panel decisions convert minor differences in quality into enlarged differences in recognition.”

Combining these three findings leads to some interesting conclusions regarding how we actually define and shape quality in academia. Although panel decisions about who to fund are strongly shaped by the organization of the selection process as well as by a host of other contextual factors (including chance), and although all researchers are aware of the uncertainties in these decisions, this does not mean that these decisions are given less weight. On the contrary, obtaining external grants has become a cornerstone for successful academic careers. Universities even devote considerable resources to make their researchers abler to acquire prestigious grants as well as external funding in general. Although this is clearly instrumental for the organization, Van Arensbergen thinks that grants have become part of the symbolic capital of a researcher and research group and she refers to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic capital to better understand the implications.

This brings me to my short lecture at the opening of the editorial office of ISIS in Utrecht. Although the experts on bibliometric indicators don’t generally see the Journal Impact Factor as an indicator of quality, socially it seems to partly function like it. But indicators are not alone in shaping how we in practice identify, and thereby define, talent and quality. They flow together with the way quality assurance and measurement processes are organized, the social psychology of panel discussions, the extent to which researchers are visible in their networks, etc. In these complex contextual interactions, indicators do not determine but they are ascribed meaning dependent on the situation in which the researchers find themselves. A good way to think about this, in my view, is developed in the field of material semiotics. This approach which has its roots in the French actor network theory of Bruno Latour and Michel Callon, does not accept a fundamental rupture in reality between the material and the symbolic. Reality as such is the result of complex and interacting translation processes. This is an excellent philosophical basis to understand how scientific and scholarly quality emerge. I see quality not as an attribute of an academic persona or of a particular piece of work, but as the result of the interaction between a researcher (or a manuscript) and the already existing scientific or scholarly infrastructure (eg. the body of published studies). If this interaction creates a productive friction (meaning that there is enough novelty in the contribution but not so much that it is incompatible with the already existing body of work), we see the work or scholar as of high quality. In other words, quality does simply not (yet) exist outside of the systems of quality measurement. The implication of this is that quality itself is a historical category. It is not an invariant but a culturally and historically specific concept that changes and morphes over time. In fact, the history of science is the history of quality. I hope historians of science will take up the challenge to map this history in more empirical and theoretical sophistication than has been done so far.


Merton, R. K. (1968). The Matthew Effect in Science. Science, 159, 56–62.

Van Arensbergen, P. (2014). Talent proof : selection processes in research funding and careers. The Hague, Netherlands: Rathenau Institute. Retrieved from http://www.worldcat.org/title/talent-proof-selection-processes-in-research-funding-and-careers/oclc/890766139&referer=brief_results


Tales from the field: On the (not so) secret life of performance indicators

* Guest blog post by Alex Rushforth *

In the coming months Sarah De Rijcke and I have been accepted to present at conferences in Valencia and Rotterdam on research from CWTS’s nascent EPIC working group. We very much look forward to drawing on collaborative work from our ongoing ‘Impact of indicators’ project on biomedical research in University Medical Centers (UMC) in the Netherlands. One of our motivations behind the project is that there has been a wealth of social science literature in recent times about the effects of formal evaluation in public sector organisations, including universities. Yet too few studies have taken seriously the presence of indicators in the context of one of the universities core-missions: knowledge creation. Fewer still have looked to take an ethnographic lens to the dynamics of indicators in the day-to-day work context of academic knowledge. These are deficits we hope to begin addressing through these conferences and beyond.

The puzzle we will be addressing here appears – at least at first glance- straightforward enough: what is the role of bibliometric performance indicators in the biomedical knowledge production process? Yet comparing provisional findings from two contrasting case studies of research groups from the same UMC – one a molecular biology group and the other a statistics group – it becomes quickly apparent that there can be no general answer to this question. As such we aim to provide not only an inventory of different ‘roles’ of indicators in these two cases, but also to pose the more interesting analytical question of what conditions and mechanisms explain the observed variations in the roles indicators come to perform?

Owing to their persistent recurrence in the data so far, the indicators we will analyze are journal impact factor, H-index, and ‘advanced’ citation-based bibliometric indicators. It should be stressed that our focus on these particular indicators have have emerged inductively from observing first-hand the metrics that research groups attended to in their knowledge-making activities. So what have we found so far?

Dutch UMCs constitute particularly apt sites through which to explore this problem given how bibliometric assessments have been central to the formal evaluations carried-out since their inception in the early-2000s. On one level it is argued that researchers in both cases encounter such metrics as ‘governance/managerial devices’, that is, as forms of information required of them by external agencies on whom they are reliant for resources and legitimacy. Such examples can be seen when funding applications, annual performance appraisals, or job descriptions demand such information of an individual’s or group’s past performance. As the findings will show, the information needed by the two groups to produce their work effectively and the types of demands made on them by ‘external’ agencies varies considerably, despite their common location in the same UMC. This is one important reason why the role of indicators differs between cases.

However, this coercive ‘power over’ account is but one dimension of a satisfying answer to our role of indicators question. Emerging analysis reveals also the surprising discovery that in fields characterized by particularly integrated forms of coordination and standardization (Whitley, 2000)– like our molecular biologists – indicators in fact have the propensity to function as a core feature of the knowledge making process. For instance, a performance indicator like the journal impact factor was routinely mobilized informally in researchers’ decision-making as an ad hoc standard against which to evaluate the likely uses of information and resources, and in deciding whether time and resources should be spent pursuing them. By contrast in the less centralized and integrated field statistical research such an indicator was not so indispensable to routines of knowledge making activities. In the case of the statisticians it is possible to speculate that indicators are more likely to emerge intermittently as conditions to be met for gaining social and cultural acceptance by external agencies, but are less likely to inform day-to-day decisions. Through our ongoing analysis we aim to unpack further how disciplinary practices interact with organisation of Dutch UMCs to produce quite varying engagements with indicators.

The extent to which indicators play central/peripheral roles in research production processes across academic contexts is an important sociological problem to be posed in order to enhance understanding of the complex role of performance indicators in academic life. We feel much of the existing literature on evaluation of public organisations has tended to paint an exaggerated picture of formal evaluation and research metrics as synonymous with empty ritual and legitimacy (e.g. Dahler-Larsen, 2012). Emerging results here show that – at least in the realm of knowledge production- the picture is more subtle. This theoretical insight will prompt us to suggest further empirical studies are needed of scholarly fields with different patterns of work organisation in order to compare our results and develop middle-range theorizing on the mechanisms through which metrics infiltrate knowledge production processes to fundamental or peripheral degrees. In future this could mean venturing into fields far outside of biomedicine, such as history, literature, or sociology. For now though we look forward to expanding the biomedical project, by conducting analogous case studies from a second UMC.

Indeed it is through such theoretical developments that we can consider not only the appropriateness of one-size-fits-all models of performance evaluation, but also unpack and problematize discourses about what constitutes ‘misuse’ of metrics. And indeed how convinced should we be that academic life is now saturated and dominated by deleterious metric indicators? 


DAHLER-LARSEN, P. 2012. The evaluation society, Stanford, California, Stanford Business Books, an imprint of Stanford University Press.

 WHITLEY, R. 2000. The intellectual and social organization of the sciences, Oxford England ; New York, Oxford University Press.

How does science go wrong?

We are happy to announce that our abstract got accepted for the 2014 Conference of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR), which will be held in Glasgow from 3-6 September. Our paper is selected for a panel on ‘The role of ideas and indicators in science policies and research management’, organised by Luis Sanz-Menéndez and Laura Cruz-Castro (both at CSIC-IPP).

Title of our paper: How does science go wrong?

“Science is in need of fundamental reform.” In 2013, five Dutch researchers took the lead in what they hope will become a strong movement for change in the governance of science and scholarship: Science in Transition. SiT appears to voice concerns heard beyond national borders about the need for change in the governance of science (cf. The Economist 19 October 2013; THE 23 Jan. 2014; Nature 16 Oct. 2013; Die Zeit 5 Jan. 2014). One of the most hotly debated concerns is quality control, and it encompasses the implications of a perceived increasing publication pressure, purported flaws in the peer review system, impact factor manipulation, irreproducibility of results, and the need for new forms of data quality management.

One could argue that SiT landed in fertile ground. In recent years, a number of severe fraud cases drew attention to possible ‘perverse effects’ in the management system of science and scholarship. Partly due to the juicy aspects of most cases of misconduct, these debates tend to focus on ‘bad apples’ and shy away from more fundamental problems in the governance of science and scholarship.

Our paper articulates how key actors construct the notion of ‘quality’ in these debates, and how they respond to each other’s position. By making these constructions explicit, we shift focus back to the self-reinforcing ‘performance loops’ that most researchers are caught up in at present. Our methodology is a combination of the mapping of the dynamics of media waves (Vasterman, 2005) and discourse analysis (Gilbert & Mulkay, 1984).


A revolutionary mission statement: improve the world. Times Higher Education, 23 January 2014.

Chalmers, I., Bracken, M. B., Djulbegovic, B., Garattini, S., Grant, J., Gülmezoglu, A. M., Oliver, S. (2014). How to increase value and reduce waste when research priorities are set. The Lancet, 383 (9912), 156–165.

Gilbert, G. N., & Mulkay, M. J. (1984). Opening Pandora’s Box. A Sociological Analysis of Scientists’ Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Research evaluation: Impact. (2013). Nature, 502(7471), 287–287.

Rettet die Wissenschaft!: “Die Folgekosten können hoch sein.” Die Zeit, 5 January 2014.

Trouble at the lab. The Economist, 19 October 2013.

Vasterman, P. L. M. (2005). Media-Hype. European Journal of Communication , 20 (4 ), 508–530.

On exploding ‘evaluation machines’ and the construction of alt-metrics

The emergence of web-based ways to create and communicate new knowledge is affecting long-established scientific and scholarly research practices (cf. Borgman 2007; Wouters, Beaulieu, Scharnhorst, & Wyatt 2013). This move to the web is spawning a need for tools to track and measure a wide range of online communication forms and outputs. By now, there is a large differentiation in the kinds of social web tools (i.e. Mendeley, F1000,  Impact Story) and in the outputs they track (i.e. code, datasets, nanopublications, blogs). The expectations surrounding the explosion of tools and big ‘alt-metric’ data (Priem et al. 2010; Wouters & Costas 2012) marshal resources at various scales and gather highly diverse groups in pursuing new projects (cf. Brown & Michael 2003; Borup et al. 2006 in Beaulieu, de Rijcke & Van Heur 2013).

Today we submitted an abstract for a contribution to Big Data? Qualitative approaches to digital research (edited by Martin Hand & Sam Hillyard and contracted with Emerald). In the abstract we propose to zoom in on a specific set of expectations around altmetrics: Their alleged usefulness for research evaluation. Of particular interest to this volume is how altmetrics information is expected to enable a more comprehensive assessment of 1. social scientific outputs (under-represented in citation databases) and 2. wider types of output associated with societal relevance (not covered in citation analysis and allegedly more prevalent in the social sciences).

Our chapter we address a number of these expectations by analyzing 1) the discourse in the “altmetrics movement”, the expectations and promises formulated by key actors involved in “big data” (including commercial entities); and 2) the construction of these altmetric data and their alleged validity for research evaluation purposes. We will combine discourse analysis with bibliometric, webometric and altmetric methods in which both methods will also interrogate each others’ assumptions (Hicks & Potter 1991).

Our contribution will show, first of all, that altmetric data do not simply ‘represent’ other types of outputs; they also actively create a need for these types of information. These needs will have to be aligned with existing accountability regimes. Secondly, we will argue that researchers will develop forms of regulation that will partly be shaped by these new types of altmetric information. They are not passive recipients of research evaluation but play an active role in assessment contexts (cf. Aksnes & Rip 2009; Van Noorden 2010). Thirdly, we will show that the emergence of altmetric data for evaluation is another instance (following the creation of the citation indexes and the use of web data in assessments) of transposing traces of communication into a framework of evaluation and assessment (Dahler-Larsen 2012, 2013; Wouters 2014).

By making explicit what the implications are of the transfer of altmetric data from the framework of the communication of science to the framework of research evaluation, we aim to contribute to a better understanding of the complex dynamics in which new generation of researchers will have to work and be creative.

Aksnes, D. W., & Rip, A. (2009). Researchers’ perceptions of citations. Research Policy, 38(6), 895–905.

Beaulieu, A., van Heur, B. & de Rijcke, S. (2013). Authority and Expertise in New Sites of Knowledge Production. In A. Beaulieu, A. Scharnhorst, P. Wouters and S. Wyatt (Eds.), Virtual Knowledge -Experimenting in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. (pp. 25-56). MIT Press.

Borup, M, Brown, N., Konrad, K. & van Lente, H. 2006. “The sociology of expectations in science and technology.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 18 (3/4), 285-98.

Brown, N. & Michael, M. (2003). “A sociology of expectations: Retrospecting prospects and prospecting retrospects.” Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 15 (1), 3-18.

Costas, R., Zahedi, Z. & Wouters, P. (n.d.). Do ‘altmetrics’ correlate with citations? Extensive comparison of altmetric indicators with citations from a multidisciplinary perspective.

Dahler-Larsen, P. (2012). The Evaluation Society. Stanford University Press.

Dahler-Larsen, P. (2013). Constitutive Effects of Performance Indicators. Public Management Review, (May), 1–18.

Galligan, F., & Dyas-Correia, S. (2013). Altmetrics: Rethinking the Way We Measure. Serials Review, 39(1), 56–61.

Hicks, D., & Potter, J. (1991). Sociology of Scientific Knowledge: A Reflexive Citation Analysis of Science Disciplines and Disciplining Science. Social Studies of Science, 21(3), 459 –501.

Priem, J., Taraborelli, D., Groth, P., and Neylon, C. (2010a). Altmetrics: a manifesto. http://altmetrics.org/manifesto/

Van Noorden, R. (2010) “Metrics: A Profusion of Measures.” Nature, 465, 864–866.

Wouters, P., Costas, R. (2012). Users, narcissism and control: Tracking the impact of scholarly publications in the 21st century. Utrecht: SURF foundation.

Wouters, P. (2014). The Citation: From Culture to Infrastructure. In B. Cronin & C. R. Sugimoto (Eds.), Next Generation Metrics: Harnessing Multidimensional Indicators Of Scholarly Performance (Vol. 22, pp. 48–66). MIT Press.

Wouters, P., Beaulieu, A., Scharnhorst, A., & Wyatt, S. (eds.) (2013). Virtual Knowledge – Experimenting in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. MIT Press.

Who is the modern scientist? Lecture by Steven Shapin

There are now many historical studies of what’s been called scientists’ personæ–-the typifications, images, and expectations attached to people who do scientific work. There has been much less interest in the largely managerial and bureaucratic exercises of counting scientists-– finding out how many there are, of what sorts, working in what institutions. This talk first describes how and why scientists came to be counted from about the middle of the twentieth century and then relates those statistical exercises to changing senses of who the scientist was, what scientific inquiry was, and what it was good for.

Here’s more information, including how to register

Date: Thursday 28 November 2013

Time: 5-7 pm

Place: Felix Meritis (Teekenzaal), Keizersgracht 324, Amsterdam

Update Crafting Your Career (CYC)

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 11.44.38 AMCrafting your Career (the event co-organised by CWTS and the Rathenau Instituut, 30 October 2013) is attracting a lot of attention. With only two weeks to go, 173 people have registered (we’re aiming for 200) and over a 1000 people have taken our researcher motivation test.  CYC will facilitate a balanced discussion about the pros and cons of recent trends in research evaluation and their effects on scientific research and scientific careers. While we are busy putting together a program leaflet, our moderators are contacting speakers about the details of the interviews and panel debate. Our Rathenau colleagues are working out the details of the ‘fair’ that takes place during the extended break, and Laurens Hessels and I will have a short meeting tomorrow with KNAW-president prof. Hans Clevers to discuss his opening address.

One of our speakers, Dr. Ruth Müller, was interviewed by ScienceGuide on the occasion of our event. Here’s what she has to say about how post-docs structure academic careers in the life sciences, and the pressures they are experiencing.

Vacancy post-doctoral researcher

The Centre for Science and Technology Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences of Leiden University wishes to announce a vacancy for the following position:

POST-DOCTORAL RESEARCHER (38 hours per week)

Vacancy number: 13-062

The Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS)

The Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS) is an interdisciplinary institute at Leiden University. Our research staff originates from many fields, varying from psychology, political science, literature studies and information science, to computer science, economics, physics and chemistry. We study the dynamics of science and its connections to technology and innovation. In other words, we study scientific and scholarly research from a scientific point of view. CWTS uses large databases that enable us to quantitatively discern the growth in scientific publications, patterns of collaboration, the impacts of science, and many other aspects of science such as scholarly communication and evidence-based performance assessment.

Our research is also used to provide high-quality services, via a university-owned company CWTS BV, to research institutes for evaluation of the impact of their publications and their standing in the international scientific community. In addition, we analyse the development of scientific careers, and the impact of research assessment on knowledge production, by way of mixed-methods research (including surveys and ethnographic methods).

Since 2012, we have focused our activities and interests within the framework of a new research program (www.cwts.nl/pdf/cwts_research_programme_2012-2015.pdf). CWTS has three chairs for full professors (Scientometrics; Science & Innovation studies; Science policy studies) as well as five working groups on key research themes (Advanced bibliometric methodologies; Evaluation practices in context; Social sciences and humanities; Scientific careers; Societal impact of research). The centre hosts a dynamic group of senior researchers and talented juniors who welcome collaboration with colleagues internationally and nationally. We can accommodate internships and provide students with supervision for Master’s and PhD theses.

Job description

We are inviting applications for a post-doctoral position in our new research program. The post-doctoral candidate is expected to carry out research in the context of the Evaluation Practices in Context (EPIC) working group at CWTS. This new line of research focuses on the implications of research assessment, and the performance criteria applied, for scientific and scholarly communication and knowledge production. The post-doc project will be drawn up in close consultation with prof.dr. Paul Wouters (Scientometrics chair) and dr. Sarah de Rijcke (EPIC working group leader). The post-doc will be encouraged to carry out comparative research with other EPIC group members. Results of the research will be disseminated through preparation of publications for a range of audiences.

Evaluation Practices in Context (EPIC)

The working group Evaluation Practices in Context (EPIC) examines the politics and practices of research evaluation in connection with contemporary forms of governance of research and scholarship. EPIC combines and contributes to theoretical frameworks and detailed empirical studies from Science and Technology Studies (STS) broadly defined (including scientometrics, and history, sociology and anthropology of science), organizational studies and higher education studies. The working group pays particular attention to the implications of research assessment, and the performance criteria applied, for scientific and scholarly communication and knowledge production. Important STS perspectives that we draw on have demonstrated that ‘science’ and ‘politics’ or ‘knowledge’ and ‘power’ should not be seen as separate spheres of action, but are involved in a constant process of mutual embedding and stabilization. Accordingly, our work analyzes the co-constitution of knowledge in relation to specific epistemic cultures, evaluation systems, publication practices, and governance contexts.

Profile post-doctoral researcher

We are looking for a prospective candidate with a PhD in the social sciences or humanities, preferably in science, technology and innovation studies or related fields (e.g. sociology, law, anthropology, political science, history of science, organizational studies, cultural studies). The candidate must have strong skills in designing, organizing and executing qualitative research, especially interviews and ethnographic fieldwork. Experience with computer-supported analysis (eg AtlasTI) is desirable but not necessary. Preference will be given to candidates with an academic drive who can provide clear evidence of, or potential for, international excellence in published research. The candidate should be able to work independently as well as cooperate in an interdisciplinary team. S/he should have verbal fluency in English and good written and verbal communication skills. Fluency in Dutch is considered an asset, but not a condition.


We offer a temporary position as a researcher for a period of two years. Depending upon qualifications and experience, the gross monthly salary will be between €3227 and €4418 (scale 11), based on full time employment.

Benefits include pension contribution, annual holiday premium of 8% and an end-of-year premium of 8.3%. Non-Dutch nationals may be eligible for a substantial tax break (30% ruling).

Applicants should have the right to work in the Netherlands for the duration of the contract.

Additional Information

Further information about this position can be obtained from dr. Sarah de Rijcke, tel. +31 71 5276853 (office) or e-mail s.de.rijcke@cwts.leidenuniv.nl.


Letters of application should be accompanied by a full curriculum vitae and two or three references.

Applications should reach the university by March 28, 2013 and can be sent electronically to our Human Resource Department at vacature@fsw.leidenuniv.nl.

When your application reaches us we will send you confirmation by e-mail. If you have not received a confirmation within three days after sending the e-mail, please phone us at +31 71 527 3427.

We will schedule interviews on the 3rd and 10th of April 2013.

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