Unit Author: Professor Nick J Fox

Learning objectives

Having successfully completed the work in this unit, you will be able to:

  • Draft the different elements needed to write a research proposal.
  • Describe ways to increase the likelihood of being published.
  • Explain the problem of ‘publication bias’.


Writing skills are a key part of the competences needed to be a successful researcher.  All research takes time, money, and other resources, and most social researchers will need to first apply for funds, or for time out from other responsibilities.  And, while we may do great research and discover something novel or important, it would be a waste of everybody’s time if no-one else were ever to find out. Getting published is thus an essential final stage in research, and should be a consideration from the beginning.

In this unit, we will look at these two separate aspects of research writing: writing a successful research proposal to an employer, academic institution or funding body such as the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC); and the publication of research.

1. Writing a successful research proposal

Having worked through the previous units, you should now be familiar with the key elements of the research process. Writing a research proposal, in many ways, summarises each of these stages.

What you need to remember above all when writing a proposal is that this is your one chance to explain the proposed research. It needs to be clear, concise and unambiguous. You need to give a strong enough case for the research sponsor to give you the time and resources for your work, and to part with their cash, which is always in short supply. You may well be competing with other applicants, all of whom are trying to make the case to get hold of this limited pot of money.

The main features of a research proposal are:

  • Title and background
  • Research question, aims and objectives
  • Plan of investigation
  • Anticipated outcomes and potential beneficiaries
  • Potential difficulties
  • Ethical issues
  • Method of dissemination and implementation
  • Timetable and project milestones
  • Justification for support.

We will look at each of these areas in turn.

1.1 Title and background

The title should be short and to the point.

The background section should set the context for your research. For example, why is this piece of research important and why is it timely? In order to elaborate on this you will need to review the relevant literature, including policy documentation, to establish what is already known.

The background to the proposal should concisely review existing relevant knowledge relating to your aims and objectives and expose any inadequacies in this existing knowledge. Here you should explain the importance of the problem to be addressed and the describe benefits for academic knowledge, for policy development or implementation, for  service users, the organisation on whose behalf the research is being carried out, or for the general public or other stakeholders.

Try to convey what is exciting about your research. You will need to convince experts in your research field who review the proposal of the value of your project.

1.2 Research question, aims and objectives

You may want to have a look back to the material from Unit 2, to refresh your memory about research questions.

You will firstly need to identify and clearly articulate an important and answerable research question.

Your aims and objectives will then provide you and your assessors with indicators of how you:

  • intend to approach the literature and theoretical issues related to you project;
  • intend to access your chosen subjects, respondents, units, goods or services and develop a sampling frame and strategy or a rationale for their selection;
  • will develop a strategy and design for data collection and analysis;
  • will deal with ethical and practical problems in your research.

It is important to remember that your research aims and objectives must be explicit and must also be achievable by the design of your research. If you are proposing a quantitative study, you should detail your hypothesis at this stage.

1.2.1 Aims

The research aims are broad statements of desired outcomes, or the general intentions of the research, which ‘paint the picture’ of your research proposal. They should emphasise what is to be accomplished, not how it is to be accomplished (for this, see objectives below). Your aims should address the long-term project outcomes, i.e., reflect the aspirations and expectations of the research topic.

Once the aims have been established, the next task is to formulate the objectives. Generally, a research proposal should have no more than two or three aim statements, while it may include a number of objectives consistent with them.

1.2.2 Objectives

Objectives are the steps you are going to take to answer your research question: a specific list of tasks needed to accomplish the aims of the proposed research project. They should emphasise how the aims are to be accomplished; be highly focused and feasible; address the more immediate project outcomes; and make accurate use of concepts. Objectives are usually numbered so that each objective reads as an ‘individual’ statement to convey your intentions. Make sure they are sensible and precisely described.

For each specific objective you must have a method to attempt to achieve it. The development of a realistic time schedule may help to prioritize your objectives and help to minimise wasted time and effort.

Aims and objectives should be presented concisely and briefly and be interrelated. They should not just repeat each other in different terms or just be a list of things related to your research topic. Remember that that the aim is what you want to achieve, and the objective describes how you are going to achieve that aim. So, make sure that each aim is matched with one or more specific objectives. Be realistic about what you can accomplish in the duration of the project and the other commitments you have, for example, the scope of your project must be consistent with the time frame and level of effort available to you.

Make sure your aims and objectives are not too vague, ambitious or broad in scope. Although aims are more general in nature than objectives it is the viability and feasibility of your study that you have to demonstrate. Beware that your aims do not present an over-optimistic picture of what the project can achieve. They should not imply methodological goals or standards of measurement, proof or generalisability of findings that the methods cannot sustain.

1.3 Abstract and lay summary

Your research proposal must have a summary or abstract, and some funders also require a lay summary.

Lay summaries (also known as general summaries and lay abstracts) are relatively short documents that can make a critical difference in how your research proposal is reviewed and evaluated. In some cases the summary is your only chance to make a good impression. So it is vital that you write lay summaries that are simple and direct and which make the reader care about your research.

Within the word limit, include all the major features of your proposal including aims, measures, plan of investigation, potential outcomes.

1.4 Plan of investigation

Your plan of investigation will detail the description of your methods. It should provide details of the type of design, sampling, procedure, method/s of data collection (e.g. interviews, questionnaires) method/s of data analysis (e.g. appropriate statistical tests; type of thematic analysis).

  • Identify the population being studied and how the sample of (potential) participants will be identified and selected.
  • Describe how participants will be recruited.
  • Detail the criteria by which possible participants will be included or excluded.
  • If appropriate, describe any intervention in detail.
  • If appropriate, describe all instruments and measurements which will be used to assess outcomes.
  • Explain what data will be collected and when. If necessary ensure baseline measurements are taken or are available and variables are recorded. Identify questionnaires and other materials you will use.
  • If you are proposing a qualitative study design, explain the theoretical approach you will be taking to analyse your data and the software you will use for organising the data.
  • If you are proposing a quantitative study design, explain the statistical methods you will use, how you will determine sample size, how data on outcomes will be used to address objectives.
  • Give details of any pilot studies that will be incorporated into your protocol.

1.5 Potential difficulties

Use this section of your proposal to try to identify all the practical problems you may encounter, for example, difficulties with recruitment, compliance, co-operation or missing data. Discuss any theoretical problems you may have, for example, validity and reliability, and whether your results will be generalisable.

1.6 Potential beneficiaries of the research

Most funding bodies will require you to provide an impact statement or, in other words, give details of how your research will benefit others. For example, your participants, stakeholders, commissioners, the academic community and the organisation on whose behalf the research is being carried out.

1.7 Ethical approval, governance, public involvement

In applications for funding, you will need to include a statement that ethical and research governance approval will be sought from the appropriate organisation (see Unit 10).

Your proposal should demonstrate that you have reflected on the ethical concerns related to your research.

Some sponsors will want to know how you plan to involve members of the public in your research. Note that this includes the design and project management stages. The usual way to do this is to establish some kind of advisory group, which will include representatives of public or patient groups.

1.8 Methods of dissemination and implementation

It is customary within a research proposal to state how your results will be disseminated to an appropriate audience. For academic sponsors, publication in academic journals will be the most important outlet, but if research is applied, or the funding is coming from a charity, from government or from a professional organisation, your dissemination strategy needs to include other ways to get to the key audience, who can be professionals and practitioners, policy-makers and the public.  Academic and professional conferences, seminars, workshops, websites, and distribution of reports to stakeholders may also be appropriate, and should be briefly outlined.

You may also wish to outline how you will feed back findings to your participants.

You may be asked to indicate how the findings of the research will be applied. This may be extremely important in gaining funding where a project will have direct application to policy and/or practice, and you will need to think about the short- and longer-term consequences of your research for policy or practice.

1.9 Timetable

Your timetable should indicate the start and finish date of the proposed research. Key milestones should be given with an indication of what is being done in each phase.  A graphical representation such as a Gantt chart can be a good way to summarise the timetable: free software to create such charts may be found online.

1.10 Financial costings

The financial costing will simply present the costs of different elements of the research, and may be entered on a spreadsheet, or into an online form created by the sponsor.  These will include:

  • Staff costs. There may be a formula for calculating overheads associated with employing staff ant these will need to be added.
  • Consumable resources. These will include consumable items such as paper or printing costs
  • Equipment costs (for instance, purchase of a computer of a digital recorder).
  • Travel and subsistence costs incurred to do the research.
  • Other data collection costs, such as participant cash incentives.
  • Management costs (for example, meeting of the project team and advisory committee).
  • Dissemination costs (printing, publication, conference attendance).
  • These will be assessed according to a formula and will take account of your time as principal investigator and the cost to your institution of running research (for instance, office provision, heating and lighting. Rules for calculating overheads vary from sponsor to sponsor, so check what will be included.

Costs may need to be calculated on a yearly basis for projects that run for more than a year, and completing the form can be tie-consuming and complicated.  You will probably need assistance in completing this section from your institution’s research office, s make sure you give yourself enough time to get this completed.

1.11 Justification for support

The justification for support section is to aid reviewers when assessing proposals so that they can make an informed judgement on whether the resources requested are appropriate for the research proposed.

The section should not give actual costing figures (these will be entered into the costing form described in 1.10) or be a list of the resources required.  Instead, it should explain why the resources requested are appropriate for the research proposed, taking into account the nature and complexity of the research proposal.

Summary and final tips

To impress potential funders:

  • Put together a research team: highlight skills and expertise.
  • Emphasise the benefits to knowledge, or to the development of policy or practice.
  • Explain how you will overcome any risks or limitations.
  • If you are allowed to include other materials, provide details of a pilot study, publications by the research team.
  • If you are unsuccessful, take feedback on board and apply to another sponsor (but make sure you tailor the proposal to the new funder’s criteria).

Good luck!

Reflective Exercise 11.1 Writing a research proposal

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2. Publishing your research findings

2.1. Why publish?

When considering the ethics of research (Unit 10), we argued quite strongly that it was unethical not to disseminate findings. If you have done a good piece of research (and this course should give you the tools to do so), it is unethical to leave the findings in a box under the stairs. If you do so you have wasted your time and that of your sponsors, and you have wasted the time of any people who were involved as subjects. In addition, you deny the benefits of your research to other social researchers or to those who might benefit in terms of improvement in their lives or of other aspects of the world in which we live.

In addition to these ethical considerations, there are many other reasons for getting published. Please complete the following SAQ before moving on.

SAQ 11.1 Reasons for getting research published

Write down the reasons you can think of for wanting to publish your research.

2.2. How and where to publish

The various media for publication include:

  1. Thesis available in academic libraries.
  2. Occasional papers published by departments or institutions.
  3. Reports available through official bodies or libraries.
  4. Published reports of conference proceedings.
  5. Professional and non-refereed journals.
  6. Peer-reviewed academic journals.
  7. Professional journals (usually not peer-reviewed).
  8. Books, or chapters in books.
  9. Internet and social media.
  10. Popular media (TV, radio, magazines etc).

The precise medium that is most appropriate will depend upon your situation and the nature of the research.  Conference proceedings can be a good way to start getting published, and your academic department may publish occasional papers that are available by subscription. But we will focus here on the peer-reviewed academic journal, as this is the most prestigious medium (although not necessarily the most widely disseminated).

There are vast numbers of peer-reviewed social science journals, such as Sociology, British Journal of Sociology, Gender and Education, British Journal of Psychology and British Journal of Social Work publish original research findings, usually involving the reporting of primary data collected by the authors. They are read by the ‘community of researchers’ in a particular field, and will (in theory at least) be the places in which debate and discussion will take place, pushing our understanding forward and refuting incorrect notions or theories.

We will look at the stages in preparing a paper for publication.

2.3 Choosing the journal

The first step in writing anything for publication is the choice of journal.  Journals are actually remarkably specialised, and will not only have a topic areas defined and limited to differentiate it from other journals, but may have an editorial policy that further constrains what gets published. For instance, a journal may only publish empirical studies or only papers that add to theory. A journal like Sociology will tend to choose papers that can be understood by a general audience, as that is its readership.

So you need to match your work to the journal, and you can do this by asking a series of questions about your intended paper.

2.3.1 Who am I writing for? 

You may be a social worker, a psychologist, an anthropologist or a geographer. Your audience is likely to be in your own field, and while others may find your work interesting, the primary audience should be your own speciality.  However, on occasions, you may wish to reach an audience beyond your field.  Some journals such as Appetite or Social Science & Medicine cater for a multi-disciplinary audience, while there are also journals that focus on specific research methodologies, such as Qualitative Inquiry  or Journal of Mixed Methods Research.

2.3.2 What are my findings?

Choice of journal will depend upon the characteristics of your findings. Have you discovered something novel, and what is the nature of this discovery? Have you simply described something previously not reported, or are you testing theory (trying to reject a false null hypothesis)? Have you confirmed previously reported findings by others? The top journals will be most interested in novel research, preferably reporting findings that assist the building of theory.

2.3.3 How does my research articulate with current debates in the field?

A journal is more likely to publish research that addresses current issues, because this will be of greatest interest to the readership. Niche research is far less likely to gain support, unless the author is well-established, partly because it may be seen as a minority interest, but also because it may conflict with the views of those reviewing the paper of what is relevant to the field.

If your research does not articulate easily with current debates, perhaps you need to think how you can adjust the focus: perhaps finding a theme that links current debates and your findings. Current policy decisions or concerns about social problems could provide the necessary link.

2.3.4 How important are my findings?

You may be convinced you have made an earth-shattering discovery, but this view may not be shared by others! The most prestigious journals are the hardest to get papers published within. Try asking yourself concerning your research findings: ‘So what?’ If your answer is ‘Nothing much!’ then it probably is the case that your paper will be judged similarly by your peers, and a top journal will not be interested. If your answer is that the findings are relevant or important for social knowledge, practice or policy, then aim high: it is important the findings are disseminated in places where they will have a large impact.

2.3 5 Impact factors

Academic journals can be valued on specific quantitative criteria, the best known of which is its impact factor (IF).  The IF of a journal is based on a simple assessment: the number of times papers published in the journal during a particular period (usually a calendar year) have been cited by other papers in the following one-year or three-year period.  This rate of citation is, supposedly, a measure of how important the paper is, though it completely ignores the wider impact of a paper, for instance on policy or practice.

Choosing a journal with a high impact factor may conceivably enhance the chances of your paper getting read and cited, for the following reasons:

  • High impact journals will attract more readers, and will be stocked by more academic libraries worldwide.
  • The reputation of a journal will enhance the trust in findings published in it.

Ultimately, however, your paper will not be cited if it not itself high quality, so publication in a high impact journal is not a short-cut to success.  Competition will also be tougher in high impact journals, making it less easy to get a paper accepted. There may also be a longer lead time between acceptance and publication.

You can find a list of journal Impact Factors at the web site Journal Citation Reports. This is a commercial organisation that produces the Web of Knowledge, and can be found at:


If you do not have log in access to this via an institution, try other websites such as:


Many journals also publish IFs on their web home pages.

2.3.6 Open access or subscription?

In recent years, authors have had to make a further decision about where to publish: on the journal’s publishing model.  Most journals are commercial enterprises and are funded either by subscription by individuals or libraries, by fees paid by authors known as article processing charges (APC) which can be as much as $2000 per paper, or increasingly, by a mixture of these two income sources.

Subscription journals are only accessible if you have a valid current subscription (for example, through an academic library), while those funded by APCs are open access.  Currently there is a plethora of new online open access journals being established, principally as a way to make money for their publishers.

The advantages of publishing in an open access journal are:

  • Audience not restricted to those with access to academic libraries.
  • Good for disseminating research with policy or practice applications.
  • Increases access by developing world readers.
  • Can be faster turn-round, especially for web-only journals.

The disadvantages are:

  • Authors must pay for publication.
  • Independence of peer review: many open access journals have been established to make money, and may encourage their reviewers to accept papers.
  • New OA journals may not have a track record, and may go out of business if not successful.

2.3.7 Online journals

Most journals now publish both in hard copy and online, and many now publish papers online some months before the paper copy appears, reducing the time taken between acceptance and publication.

Other journals now only publish electronically.  Examples of online-only social science journals are Sociological Research Online (a publication that has the advantage of being both open access and not charging authors an APC) and Societies.

Online-only journals often have a quick turn-round from submission of a manuscript to publication, so are worth considering. However, they may not be as prestigious as traditional journals. Ask experienced publishers of articles about which online journals in your field are worth considering, and check for impact factors (see 2.3.5 above).

2.4 Which findings to publish?

Most research studies generate a large amount of data, and rarely can or should all this data be squeezed into a single paper.  One key to successfully writing papers for publication is knowing which data to submit, and which to leave out, or report very briefly in a paper whose focus is elsewhere.

You will need to work out a way to ‘salami-slice’ your data, dividing findings between more than one journal.  The key here is to use the rule already considered in the previous section to allocate data to appropriate audiences.  You may also want to package your findings differently for academic, policy and practitioner audiences, so bear this in mind when selecting which data to write up.

While as noted earlier, it is ethically important to disseminate findings, realistically speaking, some of this data may be less easily disseminated than others.  Unfortunately not all data have the same chance of being published. To reflect on this, we will digress for a moment.  Please complete the following SAQ, and then read on.

SAQ 11.2 Changing places: the journal editor’s perspective

To consider journal publication further, let’s think about what it’s like to edit one of these academic journals.  Imagine you are the editor of the Journal of Social Stuff.  Every month, you get about a dozen manuscripts for publication, and your journal has room for about 25% of these. Some will be rejected by your reviewers because of poor research quality, but what other factors might influence which ones you accept?

2.4.1 Publication bias

Research suggests that the papers that get published in academic journals are subject to a specific kind of publication bias.  Please take a look at this story by Peplow (2014) from Nature about social science journals:  http://dx.doi.org/ doi:10.1038/nature.2014.15787

And then look at this data from a rather old study by Begg and Berlin (1988) about what kinds of findings were published in various psychology journals.

Table 11.1 Types of Published Study

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What these reports suggest is that there is a publication bias towards positive or statistically significant results, at the expense of studies that report negative findings, or studies that confirm previous results, even though the latter two are both important for scientific progress.  The study reported in Nature suggests this bias is due to two factors:

  1. Editors and reviewers prefer papers that report positive findings, probably because these are innovative and will therefore attract readers and citations, and will enhance the reputation of the journal.
  2. Authors may self-censor and not submit negative findings.

This bias may be even more subtle, not only reducing the number of studies that report negative findings, but also weeding out ‘odd’ studies, or those that go against conventional wisdom, especially if the author is not well known.

Hopefully you found this lengthy digression on publication bias interesting in itself, but it takes us back to the main matter we are considering: choice of journal and which findings to submit.  Unfortunately, it seems that not all findings are equal.  There are social processes involved in what research gets accepted into peer-reviewed journals.  More and more journals are being published (often by commercial publishers) and academic libraries have less and less money to spend on subscriptions. Editors of journals have to take account of their audiences, because they rely upon them to support the journal financially. An imaginary Journal of Negative Findings would report many important studies, but unfortunately is unlikely to grab the imagination of its readers.

So the conclusion from all this is that you have to play the publication game to an extent.  When choosing a journal to submit your research, put yourself in the position of the editor and the reviewers.  That will help you to work out if your study is right for that particular journal.

3. Writing the paper

Having chosen the journal and reflected on the kind of findings that are likely to appeal to an editor and her reviewers, the technicalities of writing the paper need to be addressed. We can summarise a few key points to follow.

a) Check the ‘house style’ of the journal. Journals have instructions to authors, which you should read carefully before you write anything. Look at a few papers printed in the journal, as this will give you an idea of what reads well, and the journal’s preferences concerning tables, reports of statistics, use of quotations, style of references etc.

b) Check the maximum word length permitted. Try to write very concisely: space is always short in journals and a short snappy paper could have as much impact as a lengthier one, and is more likely to be accepted. If your paper seems too long, you are trying to put too much in: cut out some of the findings and submit them elsewhere!

c) Decide what the main finding you want to report is. Write your results section first, making sure that the emphasis is on this key finding. Decide what tables or illustrations you need and devise ways to use these simply and effectively.

d) You need a literature review or introduction that situates the study adequately. Readers need to know why you have done the research you have done, so they need to be briefly informed what relevant research has been done by others, and what question these studies leave unanswered. Make reference to any important studies, which your readership would expect to be cited as background to your study. Avoid irrelevant references.

e) Your discussion relates the results of your study to the previous literature you have cited as background. Show how your study moves the state of knowledge forward. Indicate how your study raises new questions for further research. Offer brief conclusions and any policy implications.

f) Write an abstract (if required by the journal) that summarises the main findings of the study, conclusions and implications. Add all the other bits and pieces such as acknowledgements, appendices, notes, but try to keep all these as brief as possible. Make sure your references are complete, and are in the style required by the journal. Add your name and any institutional affiliation.

g) Get someone else to read the paper. This helps to pick up any mistakes the spell-checker missed, but more importantly provides you with your first reader. If she does not understand any part of the paper, or thinks a point does not follow or is not clear enough, you need to make the changes now, because a referee is bound to pick it up too, and this could be sufficient reason to reject the paper.

h) Produce final drafts and send off the necessary number of copies. Keep a copy yourself! You may be asked to send a copy on disc in addition to paper copies. Write a simple covering letter, confirming that you are the author, and that the paper is not under consideration in any other journal. Many journals are very slow to give reports, be prepared to phone the editor if you have heard nothing after about three months.

i) If you are asked to make changes by an editor, try to respond to each change requested and to make the changes quickly and re-submit.

j) If your paper is rejected (and this happens to everyone), don’t be too disheartened. Keep up the momentum and select another journal. Take into account the comments you received and learn from them. Make sure the paper is adapted to the house style of the new journal. Never give up!

Reflective Exercise 11.2

Spend an hour or so online (or in a large academic library) looking at the range of journals in which you might publish a paper.  Note these may not all be obvious, and some may be interdisciplinary.  You will need to look at the aims and scope of these journals (look at the journal’s home webpage to discover this), and also have a look at a few recent papers published in the journal.  Also have a look at their notes for authors and look up their impact factor.From this research, develop your own ‘top ten’ journals, where you might aim to publish a paper. Write these down, with their IFs and any comments.


Writing a research proposal is a necessary skill for those choosing a research career. There is an art to this, but it can be learnt. Get advice from a colleague or a mentor with a track record of successful grants. Good luck!

Dissemination of research findings is an ethical requirement: doing research and not publishing it wastes your time and that of all those who gave their time or their bodies to your research.

However, remember that academic success may be less important than changing practice. Think hard about who you want to influence with your findings before choosing where to publish.


Begg C, Berlin J. (1988) ‘Publication bias: a problem in interpreting medical data’. Journal of the Royal Statistical Association, 151: 419-63.

Peplow, M. (2014) Social sciences suffer from severe publication bias.  Nature (28 Aug 2014).  http://dx.doi.org/ doi:10.1038/nature.2014.15787

Further reading

Hall, G. (2013) How to Write a Paper (5th Edition). Chichester: Wiley.

Schimel, J. (2012) Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Answers to SAQ 11.1

From your list you may conclude that getting published is both a measure of the quality of your research and a measure of you! You will probably have written some reasons such as:

  • Contributing to knowledge
  • Developing theory or rejecting incorrect theory
  • Confirming others’ research findings
  • Affecting policy or practice

But you may also have written:

  • Establishing a reputation
  • Getting a job/keeping a job/getting promotion
  • Enhancing personal status or authority
  • Enhancing the status of an institution
  • Making money or getting research grants
  • Personal ambition or self-esteem

The latter are all good reasons for getting published, and although they may not have the same sense of altruism or commitment to social research as the earlier reasons, they cannot be discounted.  Research is part of modern life, and all sorts of industrial, commercial, academic and personal interests are tied up with it. Publication is the public face of research, and without publications what goes on in academic departments or other research establishments will remain unrecognised.

Whatever the reasons for getting published, it is an essential part of the research process, so how can we ensure our findings are reported adequately?

Answers to SAQ 11.2

You will probably have written things like:

  • Reporting important findings
  • Advancing knowledge in my field
  • Publish studies which engage with current debates
  • Improving policy or practice
  • Challenging current thinking or practice
  • Attracting readers
  • Selling copies of the journal

However, you may also have written answers such as:

  • Publish exciting or controversial papers that will keep my readers entertained, interested and willing to keep reading.
  • Publish studies which will get good publicity for my journal.
  • Avoid unusual or odd studies.
  • Avoid studies that go against conventional wisdom in the field, especially if written by unknown or junior authors.

We will consider this further in the next section.

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