BM83: Statement on Academic Integrity

08.12.2022
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1. Academic Integrity – An Introduction

Academic integrity is a set of principles aimed at developing and promoting an academic culture free of academic misconduct and corruption. Academic integrity is commonly described as a commitment including but not limited to six fundamental values: honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, and courage. These values imply a responsibility of everyone in the academic world to maintain a high standard of academic integrity.

It is important to note that the understanding of academic integrity has differed from higher education institution to higher education institution throughout history. In the beginning of the emergence of academic integrity as a concept, academic integrity revolved around individuals following academic honour codes, which were first developed in the United States to combat academic dishonesty. The first honour codes focused on duty, power, pride, and self-reliance. In the 19th century, a shift in the concept of the honour code occurred, in which institutions began to be considered the honour code’s central value, as opposed to people. This, however, was accompanied by a shift in responsibility from faculty to students, as rising research emphasis and written homework assessments confirmed the idea that it would be challenging to ensure academic honesty without the participation of students. The preventive power of the honour codes was started being put into question by some scholars due to rising fear of misconduct, thereby having administrators involved by introducing stricter control measures at the examinations. With education becoming more available for the masses, misconduct became more visible, and the measures to combat it more diverse, causing a moral panic around the idea of students cheating.

Currently, efforts on academic integrity often appear to be lacking an emphasis on the issue of misconduct which occurs in teaching and administrative matters, therefore allowing teachers and administrators to act abusively and unfairly towards the students in the name of the cause. . This is particularly dangerous since it leads to a culture of mistrust, which in turn impacts the way members of different status groups in academia interact with each other and thus also leads to an alienation of students from higher education institutions, not identifying with the very academic community they are a part of.

From the student’s perspective, we believe that the concept of integrity also needs to foster academic freedom. Integrity and freedom in the academic paradigms are mutually dependent since both concepts incorporate fundamental values that are interconnected on their own. Consequently, in order to ensure freedom of academia and a high standard of academic integrity, all members of academia, including staff and students, are responsible for maintaining high standards in their current activities – conduct, teaching, learning, and research.

For students and scholars of the arts, artistic integrity is as pivotal as academic integrity. The freedom of the arts and artists in higher education and beyond is under growing threat, so as a medium of critique and exploration, artistic freedom must be protected from repression and retaliation.

2. Academic integrity from a student’s perspective

a. Fundamental values of academic integrity

As introduced, academic integrity is commonly conceptualised along six core values: honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility and courage. While those values and the common understanding of those values apply to all members of academia alike, the specific students’ perspective in relation to the aforementioned six values shall be considered here. Although the previous concepts cover the umbrella of academic integrity, it needs to be noted that, of course, there are various value concepts and the examples given are neither exhaustive nor exclusive to the concepts described here.

When it comes to honesty, it is of the utmost importance that the student’s contribution to research, as well as teaching and learning, is honestly declared,  credited and validated, regardless of a possible employment relationship or the seniority and the experience in said research/ activity. In addition, higher education institutions must create an atmosphere and culture of honesty that exceeds research issues. Honesty about external funding and contract research, as well as the collaboration of higher education institutions with external actors such as companies, NGOs or governmental institutions, is a core aspect of the public responsibility and accountability of higher education. This also enables students to contextualise and place teaching and research against the backdrop of those connections. In order to create an environment of complete honesty, it is crucial that students are involved in all decision-making processes concerning their higher education institution, ensuring that democratically elected student representatives participate in all governing bodies, that their opinion is heard and that all information and documents necessary to make the decisions are shared with them.

As mentioned earlier, the narrative of the ‘cheating’ student prevails within the discourse about academic integrity. This lack of trust has led to extreme forms of control and surveillance, including but not limited to incorrect usage of artificial intelligence, especially in times of digitalisation (i.e., proctored exams that breach student data rights). The current widespread climate of mistrust in some higher education institutions damages the possibility of free development and learning in a protected space when students are permanently put under pressure and resulting in an alienation of students from their higher education institutions. Additionally, there are also legal concerns about privacy and data protection rights associated with the question of distrust, especially when it comes to the usage of automated proctoring software. On the contrary, ESU believes that an environment that fosters trust is built on a shared understanding of a consistent set of rules and their non-discriminatory application.

Respect from a student’s perspective is to receive equal academic promotion and treatment by their teachers, peers and staff of higher education institutions. Students are to be equally evaluated in their performance regardless of their gender, age, physical or psychological (dis-)abilities, sexual orientation/preference, social background, class, ethnicity, activism, religion and other factors of discrimination. Personal favouritism must not be a factor in the hiring or assessment of students. Furthermore, academic staff must adhere to pedagogical and instructional fairness within seminars/lectures and be open to other perspectives, including following up on student feedback and improving accordingly. Students’ evaluations of their courses and/or teachers should be mandatory and collected at the end of each term, always after all final evaluations have been conducted, and followed by corresponding consequences from the higher education institution. The complexity level of teaching as well as curricula and exam design, must be in accordance with envisioned learning outcomes. Interactions within academia shall be appreciative and empathy towards students is a core principle of respect, especially in times of the ongoing global crisis and personal hardships, notwithstanding cases of gross negligence from students towards other members of academia.

Higher education institutions have an unprecedented responsibility to the students and the general society. The most important task of higher education institutions is to promote knowledge and give students the opportunity to access quality education. To this end, academia must be reliable and trustworthy. There is a special responsibility towards students from marginalised backgrounds, and therefore positive discrimination is a means to an end in helping these students access, progress in and complete higher education. We must also consider that it is the duty of higher education institutions to acknowledge the different backgrounds of each student and to promote a condition of equity between all students. All members of the academic community must conduct themselves following principles of integrity and hold themselves accountable for their actions in order to model good behaviour. Academia is also accountable to the broader society, which encompasses all areas of academic life, from teaching to research to maintaining democratic higher education structures. In addition, as one of the main research and innovation environments, higher education institutions are accountable to society to follow the scientific method and ensure the quality of their outputs and findings.

Courage in the higher education context means that academia protects and defends itself against external and internal threats alike and adheres to fundamental values of academic integrity despite the fear of consequences. Anti-scientific tendencies, inside and outside of academia, must be clearly and publicly countered. Students and teachers must be protected from attacks outside the critical academic dispute through their own academic community acting in solidarity with each other. Attacks on academic freedom by politicians and governmental authorities must be resisted in the spirit of academic integrity, regardless of whether they target students, academic staff, external academic collaborators, student representative bodies or higher education institutions as such. Courage also means taking risks and allowing mistakes to happen, as well as admitting them, as students and researchers can only learn and research freely if a healthy error culture enables innovative research and learning. Notwithstanding any form of assault or legal breaches, higher education institutions, scientists, lecturers, and academic staff need to have the courage to accept their own mistakes, foster a healthy error culture and actively reverse their mistakes by taking the right measures.

b. Academic and scientific misconduct from a student perspective

Academic or scientific misconduct can be defined as a breach of the commonly accepted standards and guidelines that operate within research and study ethics. These can be found in multiple forms and areas, being distinctly arduous to be addressed in a complete manner in the rules for scientific research and teaching. These fraudulent activities may culminate in an unfair gain of a certain academic or scientific advantage, notwithstanding there was no intention in committing misconduct. 

Academic misconduct understood in terms of academic fraud might include, but is not limited to, plagiarism, self-plagiarism, contract cheating, the impropriety of authorship, data falsification, misappropriation of different ideas or a particular failure to support attestation of research.

In order for students to be able to detect unintended misconduct, they need to be offered permanent free access to anti-plagiarism software as well as the guiding principles of academic integrity. Moreover, students should benefit from equal intellectual and copyrights as full members of the academic community, without being forced or obliged to renounce their rights to another party. 

Another important aspect of academic misconduct relates to unfairness, be it in the sense of abuse, corruption and general unfairness. 

Students must be protected from exploitative relations with teaching staff whenever the students assume a role overseen by those teaching or other academic staff members. For this, a strong student staff representation is necessary, as well as secure working conditions (whether the students are employed or not, equally) in order to assure the freedom of speech and lessen the fear of repercussions if abuse takes place. Students must be protected from harassment and discrimination.  Mandatory regular training must become an integral part of the academic and administrative staff’s employment. In addition, students must also be familiarised with the subject area of abuse, corruption and general unfairness through a discrimination-sensitive curriculum design and, at the same time, be protected. If such events occur, then resources need to be available to ensure protection and support.

Unfairness towards students also needs to be addressed regarding examination fraud. Cheating is one form in which examination fraud takes place. At the same time, examination fraud also occurs in regard to actions taken by lecturers or even administrative staff, e.g., through leaking exam questions or bettering grades by manipulating the entry of grades into campus management systems. We believe that an increase in surveillance and controlling mechanisms is not the way forward, though, and so far, there is no robust evidence that examination fraud can be eradicated through these measures. Instead, academic integrity should be enshrined in the curriculum designs. Exams need to be designed in ways where cheating is less possible, which means that standardised single- or multiple-choice exams need to be given away to qualitative exams where the production of own thought based on acquired learning outcomes is key (those of course, do result in higher workload in correcting the exams, but reducing the overall number of exams in favour of a few but more competencies and skills-oriented and/or even so-called open-book exams would be more beneficial to the learning process of students anyways). Campus management systems have to be designed in such a way that manipulations of grades are nearly impossible and easily detectable. There need to be independent contact points at every higher education institution where students can be anonymous and report examination fraud.

In recent years, activities regarding another form of fraud, namely diploma/degree and paper/essay mills, have drastically increased and digitalisation has made it even easier to connect such ‘service providers with potential customers. 

Paper mills are a booming business, and contract cheating (‘ghostwriting’) happens at all levels of higher education, from term papers to dissertations to scientific work. It may seem obvious that submitting and/or publishing such work that has not been independently prepared constitutes academic fraud and needs to be combated. In addition, engaging as a ghostwriter is in opposition to academic integrity. The usage of artificial intelligence in contract cheating and other forms of misconduct needs to be further researched, defined and regulated. Paper mills providing contract cheating services are widely disseminated in the countries with access to the internet, but also they can be found in off-line form in countries where access to the internet is limited.

It is also important to acknowledge that diploma mills do not only exist in the form of private companies which sell diplomas as the main activity, non-authorised and unrecognised by national governments but also among higher education institutions. Higher education institutions may exploit the education system by acting as a diploma mill both for monetary and non-financial gains.

Both in regards to paper and diploma mills, national governments, as well as intergovernmental organisations, should impose legal limitations, at least in relation to the advertisement of these kinds of services, however, bearing in mind that those might stay as a half-measure without a proper integrity culture in place. Therefore, a complex approach, including involving law enforcement agencies, enhancing external quality assurance and harnessing civil society in combating organised misconduct, is needed. The existence of diploma mills can correlate with the level of corruption in education, and thus corruption needs to be tackled accordingly. Independent contact points to report cases of diploma and paper mills need to be established. At the same time, those measures need to also be accompanied by employing policies on all levels of higher education that aim at the development and advancement of a culture of academic integrity, ensuring the upholding of the values of academic integrity by every member of academia through internalising the fundamental values of academic integrity.

Scientific work must always follow scientific quality criteria, such as reliability, validity and objectivity of the work. Scientific integrity thus relates to the adherence to ethical and professional principles, standards, practices and values that should guide education and science. Regarding artificial intelligence, bioethics, clinical trials, experiments with animals and civil research, high scientific and ethical standards need to be set by the scientific community and followed. Reviews and peer reviews are necessary to ensure that scholarly work is evaluated against all current research and technological advancements before being published.

The European Students’ Union strongly affirms that diminishing academic integrity endangers academia as a whole and places quality education in peril.  Therefore, in order to assure ethical and quality scientific work at the institutional, national and international levels, the academic community shares the responsibility to prevent, confront and sanction all possible ethical abuses. 

Students’ participation in all relevant governing processes related to academic integrity represents a strong requirement and each higher education institution should promote an appropriate climate that encourages integrity and values such as academic honesty. This can only be properly fostered through effective prevention measures and easily accessible information in this regard.

c. The role of responsible autonomous academia

Independence of academic and scientific research and knowledge generation, as well as pedagogical autonomy, are to be treated as a core value of higher education (though independence and institutional autonomy must be balanced with the public responsibility of governments towards education and of higher education institutions towards society). This is especially important because education and science should always serve the public good. Additionally, anyone within and outside of the academic community should be able to form their own opinions and perspectives on presented research, scientific findings and educational teachings based on transparency about the origins of ideas and funding. At the same time, independence is also necessary to not corrupt academia and uphold academia as such since academia is based on the principle of freedom, notwithstanding adherence to principles of academic integrity.

‘Scientific research must in no way be limited by the economic, political or social pressure and interference, and its only purpose should be sharing of reproducible, reliable and truthful research.’ If research is potentially guided by external interests, which may not only be the case for contract research but also in the case of targeted research funding by external actors such as companies and governmental authorities or through non-material involvement of external actors and networks, that money flows, or connections to external actors must be transparently disclosed. This is the only way to ensure integrity in the research sector, especially against the background of the enormous increase in the commodification of higher education in recent years. 

In regards to higher education teaching, transparency about the origins of taught ideas and potential connections between academic chairs, academic projects that are brought up during lectures, and general academic staff connections to private or public external actors must be made transparent. This is especially important from a student’s perspective since critical thinking should be fostered among students, which means that they should already be enabled and encouraged to question the teachings of their teachers from a scientific and academic point of view.

Lastly, encompassing the aforementioned need for independence regarding commodification, academia, in general, needs to uphold the principle of incorruptibility. Following the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, corruption can take place in various areas of higher education:

  • In regards to bribery in accreditation, which can result in insufficient staff or facilities or licensing processes;
  • in relation to student selection and admission processes where certain students gain an unfair advantage, especially in regards to studying programs with an annual person cap based on differing admission requirements, e.g., exams or school grades;
  • in regards  to staff recruitment processes where less qualified candidates are selected for positions due to personal connections, bribery, political influence or other factors; 
  • in regards to financial mismanagement and procurement fraud, which can reach from travel and workshop fraud to payroll and stipend fraud to duplications of grants to the usage of funding for personal business and activities as well as to patronage within the procurement system of a higher education institution, especially regarding supplies and construction works; 
  • in regards to sextortion, where sexual favours rather than money are used as a bribe, thus also touching upon questions of sexual harassment.
  • Corruption, be it in relation to bribery, cronyism, clientelism, nepotism, patronage or even organised crime, be it monetary or non-monetary, is a sign of a lack of academic integrity and threatens the quality of teaching, learning and research and is in direct opposition to meritocratic and democratic principles. 

In recent years there has also been a noteworthy increase of policymakers involving themselves in the research and teaching activity of higher education institutions in ways that are not criminally relevant but nonetheless pose a threat to academic integrity. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with policymakers setting incentives, for example, through programs designed to counteract current as well as future crises or to develop scientific output for the public good, including the necessary socio-ecological transition society faces, academia must, nevertheless, remain autonomous regarding their governance, decision-making and way of conducting research and teaching. Scientific integrity and, thus, freedom of research and teaching are at stake when the independence of science and teaching is politically restricted. The higher education community must uphold its integrity and responsibility towards the common good and thus always strive for autonomy from governmental institutions, parties and politicians. This includes the financial as well as ideological autonomy of governmental stakeholders, notwithstanding legitimate standards, regulations and directives set.

3. Protection of students’ data: expanding the current discourse 

Academic integrity needs to also be connected to questions of data misuse and mishandling regarding students’ data which can, but not necessarily has to be, connected to the ever-developing digitalisation of higher education. However, students’ personal data must be given special protection. This applies both with regard to stored personal data, grades and other data in the context of higher education administration and with regard to online exams that have emerged in the context of digitization, especially in the context of proctoring software. 

With regard to online exams, high-security standards must be applied to prevent misuse and incorrect handling of student data. Particularly in regard to proctored exams, data protection and privacy rights must be observed, and alternative examination formats must always be offered. With regard to campus management systems, learning management systems, and the interoperability of systems that function across higher education institutions and countries, it is necessary to ensure that those systems are secure against cyber attacks and, thus, data breaches. 

Additionally, student data may never be sold or handed to external parties, such as companies, to prevent misuse for commercial or advertising purposes, which, e.g., often aim at profiling and thus manipulating students for private interests.

Data misuse in terms of academic integrity is not only relevant in terms of general system security questions and commodification. Data misuse and mishandling are also highly relevant against the background of targeted attacks against students and surveillance practices. Student data can easily be used by academic staff as well as government authorities and other third parties, for example, to pressure or even blackmail ‘undesired’ students and student activists or to even identify members of certain groups within the student body in order to enable persecution by repressive state regimes or other third parties. It is likewise conceivable that not only data stored in regard to a person’s identity (e.g., individual attributes, illnesses, family members) but also data collected through the usage of higher education institutions’ platforms, visitor management and access control systems, such as search histories and stored locations, could potentially be used against students.  Against this background, high standards must exist that make it nearly impossible to misuse student data and an academic culture is to be created in which such attacks on fundamental human rights and the academic freedom of students are unheard of.

In line with data protection efforts, students must always have the right and possibility to request disclosure of the data stored about them as well as a way to have stored data deleted upon request. In some countries, there is also an ongoing debate on what data can be even collected and in what ways to prevent misuse of data. Against the backdrop of digitization and the development of statistically increasingly sophisticated methods for evaluating data, these debates must also be conducted more intensively regarding higher education policy. 

4. ESU demands
  1. A higher education culture of honesty fosters transparency regarding all levels of higher education governance, teaching and research. This includes, but is not limited to, honesty about:
  • Contributions of students towards scientific work regarding declaration, accreditation and validation in accordance with students’ intellectual property and copyrights; 
  • External funding of and contract research, including the disclosure of money flows and other connections; 
  • Non-material involvement of external actors and networks in any part of academic life; 
  • collaborations and other connections of higher education institutions and their individual members to external actors such as companies, NGOs or governmental institutions; 
  • About the origins of taught ideas and, when relevant, potential connections between academic chairs, academic projects that are brought up during lectures and general academic staff connections to private or public external actors; 
  • The origins of thought in any academic work and no engagement in the contribution to or usage of paper and diploma mills.
  1. A higher education culture of trust instead of a culture of distrust and surveillance. This includes but is not limited to: 
  • Stopping the narrative of the ‘cheating students’ which assumes guilt; 
  • Reducing the psychological pressure put on students by reducing the extreme forms of control and sanctions in order to enhance student well-being; 
  • Reducing the use of extreme forms of control and disciplinary actions that have emerged in recent decades, especially those in connection with digitalisation (e.g., proctored exams); 
  • No compromises are to be made regarding the privacy and data protection rights of students in regard to surveillance mechanisms; 
  • Free access to plagiarism software for students so they can detect potential accidental plagiarism in their own works; 
  • Exams that are resistant to fraud by designing in a qualitative manner that is based on the production of own thoughts based on acquired learning outcomes, 
  1. A higher education culture of respect and fairness and stronger recognition of students as equal stakeholders in academia. This includes, but is not limited to: 
  • Not to force or persuade students to give up their intellectual and copyrights; 
  • For all students to receive equal academic promotion and treatment by their teachers; 
  • Implementation of fair and transparent student hiring mechanisms instead of personal favouritism; 
  • Adherence to pedagogical and instructional fairness within seminars and lectures and openness to students’ different perspectives; 
  • Curricula and assessment designs that are in accordance with objective and transparently defined learning outcomes; 
  • Empathy and appreciative behaviour towards students; 

4. A higher education culture of responsibility, in which students are not only made responsible for their actions but also responsibility towards students is upheld, as well as towards the common good of the broader society. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Student participation in all governing processes in higher education;
  • Taking the task of promoting knowledge based on the scientific method seriously and giving students the opportunity to access quality education; 
  • Taking on the special responsibility towards students from marginalised backgrounds and using positive discrimination to help them in accessing, progressing and completing their higher education pathway; 
  • Academic staff to conduct themselves following principles of integrity and holding themselves accountable; 
  • Academia to be generally reliable and trustworthy through its transparency and open access policy; 
  • Accountability of higher education institutions towards broader society, especially regarding their tasks of teaching, research, knowledge transfer and maintaining democratic structure; 
  • Independence of research and teaching as well as of members of academia and higher education institutions as such from economic, political or social pressures and interference; 
  • Financial independence of academia to be ensured by public authorities and the general reversal of the trend towards commodification of higher education; 
  • The hiring of academic and administrative staff is based on free and independent procedures as well as based on actual qualifications and adherence to academic values.

5. A higher education culture of courage, in which all members of academia fight against misconduct and attacks against academia as well as members of academia together. This includes, but is not limited to: 

  • The defence of higher education institutions against external and internal anti-scientific tendencies and threats alike; 
  • Maintaining fundamental values such as principles of democracy, solidarity and independence despite fear of consequences; 
  • Protection of academic staff, students and student representatives  from attacks and standing in solidarity with each other; 
  • Protection of academic staff and students who report misconduct in order to encourage them to not remain silent; 
  • Standing up against politicians and governmental authorities whose actions undermine academic integrity; 
  • Taking risks, allowing mistakes and fostering a healthy error culture while also accepting own mistakes and taking the right measures to reverse academia’s own mistakes.

6. Policy and accountability structures at all levels of higher education, which include but are not limited to: 

  • Policy and accountability structures regarding all previously mentioned points; 
  • Protection of students from exploitative work relationships, installation of a strong student staff representational body and secure working conditions; 
  • Mandatory regular training regarding anti-discrimination as part of academic and administrative staff’s employment;
  • Include anti-discrimination as part of student’s curricula; 
  • Familiarisation of students with the subject area of abuse, corruption and general unfairness; 
  • Protection mechanisms in case of harassment and discrimination, accompanied by the zero-tolerance policy; 
  • Special support for students from marginalised backgrounds to enhance their success in completing higher education;
  • High conduct requirements for academic staff and corresponding accountability procedures which existence need to be promoted within higher education institutions; 
  • Independent contact points to report different forms of misconduct to, with the option to do so anonymously; 
  • Further research on the usage of artificial intelligence in contract cheating and other forms of misconduct, as well as the implementation of regulations, legal limitations and other measures to combat the misuse of artificial intelligence; 
  • Implementation of legal limitations regarding diploma and paper mill services as well as a general more complex approach involving law enforcement agencies, external quality assurance and civil society to combat those services;
  • Policies as well as procedures against corruption through bribery, cronyism, clientelism, nepotism, patronage, sextortion or even organised crime, be it monetary or non-monetary, regarding all areas and levels of higher education institutions; 
  • High ethical standards in sensitive fields such as artificial intelligence, bioethics, experiments with humans and animals and generally civil research; 
  • Peer review processes to ensure the quality of scholarly work which always has to meet the requirements of scientific quality criteria; 
  • Maintaining high security standards in relation to student data, including access to data, storage and transfer within campus and learning management systems, access-control systems, visitor management systems and alike as well as the interoperability between different systems; 
  • Non-forwarding of student data towards external parties such as commercial or governmental stakeholders; 
  • Upholding basic GDPR rights, including the right of disclosure about stored data and the right to be forgotten as well as collecting data only if the there is a clear necessity; 
  • Clear and transparent communication and information about legal frameworks, existing accountability and conduct policies/structures as well as individual rights, no matter if they regard the European or national law, as well as any other regulations within the higher education sector or of higher education institutions.
5. Concluding remarks

Acknowledging the importance of a set of values to ensure free and independent thought, truth-seeking debate, exchange of knowledge and ideas – academic freedom, ESU believes that academic integrity, when it is defined and understood commonly and unambiguously, can serve as a strong foundation for quality education and as a reference point when working on prevention of academic misconduct. At the same time, we believe that the discourse regarding academic integrity needs to be opened up and furthered, especially with regard to questions of academic freedom. Moreover, in combination with national and international legislation, it can help to deal with more serious cases of misconduct when they have already occurred. It is important to underline the fact that any form of Code of Conduct at higher education institutions can be successfully implemented only if all status groups and stakeholders are not only well informed about the terms and conditions but if a strong culture of academic integrity is developed and all the stakeholders commit to the fundamental values of academic integrity participating in the process as equal partners. This necessarily precludes the ‘academic staff-student dichotomy when students are no longer excluded from the process of integrity development and assurance but are instead seen as developers and contributors to governance and policy mechanisms to prevent any form of academic misconduct and uphold academic integrity in higher education institutions. We need to ensure the culture within the higher education environment is based on trust, fairness and respect to ensure a healthy psychological learning and research environment. 

Student participation is the key to upkeep the quality of higher education landscapes, and academic integrity assurance processes are no exception. Integrity can only exist by ensuring the right to student participation in academic integrity, independent and free research, teaching and learning with high standards.

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