Archive for the 'Communication' category

Pseudonymity and ethics (with a few more thoughts on Google+).

In a comment on my last post, Larry Moran takes issue with my defense of pseudonymity:

Janet says,

But Larry, other than my say-so (and that of those with whom I've cultivated online ties), how do you know "Janet D. Stemwedel" is really my "real" (by which I assume you mean "legal") name? You didn't peek at my driver's license, so maybe the government here knows me my some other name.

That's not a very good argument from someone who specializes in ethics! 🙂

The issue is whether I prefer dealing with people who identify themselves or with people who use fake names to disguise their real identity. What you're saying is that there will always be unethical people who will get around any rules designed to avoid false identities, therefore we shouldn't even try to enforce a policy requiring real names.

I doubt very much that you use an argument like that when you discuss other issues like plagiarism, or preparing a CV. Let's drop that argument, okay? We all know that there will be unethical people who will lie and cheat to get around any rules. That's not an argument against having rules.

The issue before us is whether we want to live in an internet society where people identify themselves and stand behind what they say and do, just as they do in the real face-to-face world, or whether we want an internet society with different rules. I try to teach my students that it is important to take a stand on certain issues but they have to be prepared to suffer the consequences (both good and bad).

Larry is right that the part of my comment he's quoted isn't a very good argument. Indeed, I meant it mostly as a suggestion that Larry's comfort dealing with me as a person-attached-to-her-real-name is based on a certain amount of trust that I really am properly attached to that legal name (since Larry has yet to demand to see my papers).

Neither, of course, would I want to say that the existence of people who get around a rule is a good reason to abandon the rule or attempts to enforce it. Instead, my support for the rule would turn on what the rule was meant to accomplish, what it actually accomplished, and whether the intended and/or actual effects were worth pursuing.*

However, Larry seems also to be suggesting that something stronger than his own personal preference against the use of pseudonyms.

As I read what he's written, it seems like he's suggesting that there's something inherently unethical about using a pseudonym -- that being pseudonymous online is somewhere on a spectrum of deeds that includes plagiarism and C.V.-padding. Let the record reflect that I'm not convinced this is actually what Larry is saying. But given that it might be read that way, I want to examine the suggestion.

Is pseudonymity always deceptive?

At the heart of the matter, I think we need to look at the question of how pseudonyms are used.

The suggestion in Larry's comment is that a pseudonym is a fake name intended to disguise one's identity. However, it strikes me that "disguise" might be a loaded term, one that has an additional connotation of "mislead" here.

Misleading is a variety of lying, and I'm happy to grant that lying is generally unethical (although, unlike Kant, I'm prepared to accept the possibility of a case where lying is less unethical than the existing alternatives).

But, my sense from the pseudonymous people I have encountered online (and from my own brief experience as a pseudonymous blogger) is that not all people using pseudonyms are aiming to deceive. Instead, I think it's more accurate to say that they are choosing how much of their personal information to disclose.

And, I'm inclined to think that non-disclosure of personal information is only unethical in specific instances. I don't think we have a positive right to total information about everyone with whom we engage.

Indeed, I don't think we actually want total information about all of our contacts, whether online or in real life. My students have no interest in the current state of my digestive health, nor in what's in my record collection (let alone what a "record" is). My children have no need to know whether the user interface for grade entry at my university is well-designed or clunky. Readers of my blog probably care less about my opinion of baseball teams than about my opinions on recent news stories about scientific misconduct.

Even being on the receiving end of an accidental overshare can feel like a violation of a relationship, as I had occasion to note a few years ago:

There was an academic blog I used to read that I enjoyed quite a lot. I had to stop, though, when it became apparent that the (anonymous) blogger was married to someone that I knew. (What clinched it was a post about a social occasion that I attended.) To keep reading the blog would have felt, to me, like a violation of the blogger's trust -- from real life, I knew certain details about the blogger that had not been revealed to the blog's readers, and from the blog, I knew certain details about the blogger's life that had not been revealed to the blogger's real-life friends and acquaintances. Caring about the blogger (and the real-life person) meant I had to respect the walls of separation the blogger had erected.

We are always making judgments about what pieces of our experiences and ourselves it's relevant to share. And we make those judgments differently depending on with whom we're interacting, in what kind of context, how that will affect our comfort level (and theirs), and what kinds of consequences (deserved or undeserved) sharing what we share may bring.

I'm happy to be accountable for my views on research with animals, for example, but voicing them publicly can make me (and my family members) targets of people who think it's OK to use threats of violence to silence me. I can fully understand why people actually conducting research with animals might not want to attach their real names (which are attached to addresses and phone numbers and license plate numbers of cars under which someone might put incendiary devices) to their candid views online -- and, I think that our public conversation about research with animals would be greatly impoverished without their participation in it.

Courage, as Aristotle would remind us, is the right balance of confidence and fear for the circumstances at hand. Too little confidence makes us cowardly, but too little fear makes us foolhardy.

I should also note that many of the notable users of pseudonyms in the blogosphere choose pseudonyms that are extremely unlikely to be mistaken for legal names -- which is to say, in withholding certain personal details they are not also trying to deceive others into believing that their "real" names in the three-dimensional world are "SciCurious" or "GrrlScientist" or "DrugMonkey" or "Prof-like Substance". That's not to say that such a clear 'nym can't be intentionally deceptive -- for example, if GrrlScientist were male, or if PhysioProf were a certified public accountant, or if SciCurious had not a whit of curiosity about matters scientific. But either way, you'd have no expectations that a Social Security search on the surname Curious would help you locate Sci.

Perhaps ironically, it is the people with obviously assumed names like these, not people with "real-looking"** assumed names that might actually fool others into thinking they're real, who have had their access to Google+ accounts revoked.

I won't claim that no one uses an assumed name to mislead -- obviously, there are people who do so. But this doesn't make it the case that everyone using a 'nym is using it to deceive. Indeed, pseudonymity can create conditions in which people disclose more honest information about themselves, where people share opinions or experiences that they could not comfortably (or safely) share using their real names.

I understand that not everyone is comfortable dealing with online persons who could, in an instant, dismantle their pseudonymous online identities and vanish. Especially if you've dealt with troll-y exemplars of pseudonymity, your patience for this may be limited. That's fine. I'm happy to live in a world where people get to choose with whom they engage in their own online spaces, as well as which online spaces maintained by others they will frequent.

Indeed, I even noted that Google is free to make its own rules for Google+. That Google establishes a real-name rule for Google+ doesn't raise it to the level of a moral precept ("Thou shalt use only thy full legal name"). If the rule is clearly explain in the Terms of Service, it probably imposes an obligation on the person who agrees to the ToS to follow the rule ... but it probably also imposes an obligation on Google to enforce the rule consistently (which so far it has not).

And, Google setting its own rules does not preclude our discussing whether these are reasonable rules, ones with well thought out aims that have a reasonable chance of achieving those aims or some close approximation of them.

I think Larry is right that the names policy (and/or who will want to sign up for Google+) is going to come down to people's comfort levels. Opting for one set of rules may make some groups of potential users very comfortable and others so uncomfortable that it effectively bars their participation. Google needs to think about it in those terms -- who do they want in, and who are they happy to cede to their competition.

Right now, to me, Google+ feels a little like a country club to which I was admitted before I knew what kind of people the membership rules were going to exclude (because they're "not our kind, dear"). Personally, this particular sort of "exclusivity" makes me less comfortable, not more. Depending on Google's next move, I may be removing myself from the spiffy new clubhouse and spending a lot more time on the internet's public beaches.

*Of course, I don't need to tell you that rules are not always completely congruent with what's ethical. There are plenty of rules that are unjust, loads of rules that we use to encode our ethical commitments, and a plethora of rules that seem to have no ethical content to speak of. (How would a utilitarian, a Kantian, and a virtue ethicist come down on "No white shoes after Labor Day"?)

**Naturally, which names look "real" and which look "made-up" is tied up in lots of cultural assumptions.

23 responses so far

Blogospheric navel-gazing: where's the chemistry communication?

The launch last week of the new Scientific American Blog Network* last week prompted a round of blogospheric soul searching (for example here, here, and here): Within the ecosystem of networked science blogs, where are all the chem-bloggers?

Those linked discussions do a better job with the question and its ramifications than I could, so as they say, click through and read them. But the fact that these discussions are so recent is an interesting coincidence in light of the document I want to consider in this post.

I greeted with interest the release of a recent publication from the National Academy of Sciences titled Chemistry in Primetime and Online: Communicating Chemistry in Informal Environments (PDF available for free here). The document aims to present a summary of a one-and-a-half day workshop, organized by the Chemical Sciences Roundtable and held in May 2010.

Of course, I flipped right to the section that took up the issue of blogs.

The speaker invited to the workshop to talk about chemistry on blogs was Joy Moore, representing Seed Media Group.

She actually started by exploring how much chemistry coverage there was in Seed magazine and professed surprise that there wasn't much:

When she talked to one of her editors about why, what he told her was very similar to what others had mentioned previously in the workshop. He said, "part of the reason behind the apparent dearth of chemistry content is that chemistry is so easily subsumed by other fields and bigger questions, so it is about the 'why' rather than the how.'" For example, using chemistry to create a new clinical drug is often not reported or treated as a story about chemistry. Instead, it will be a story about health and medicine. Elucidating the processes by which carbon compounds form in interstellar space is typically not treated as a chemistry story either; it will be an astronomy-space story.

The Seed editor said that in his experience most pure research in chemistry is not very easy to cover or talk about in a compelling and interesting way for general audiences, for several reasons: the very long and easily confused names of many organic molecules and compounds, the frequent necessity for use of arcane and very specific nomenclature, and the tendency for most potential applications to boil down to an incremental increase in quality of a particular consumer product. Thus, from a science journalist point of view, chemistry is a real challenge to cover, but he said, "That doesn't mean that there aren't a lot of opportunities." (24)

A bit grumpily, I will note that this editor's impression of chemistry and what it contains is quite a distance from my own. Perhaps it's because I was a physical chemist rather than an organic chemist (so I mostly dodged the organic nomenclature issue in my own research), and because the research I did had no clear applications to any consumer products (and many of my friends in chemistry were in the same boat), and because the lot of us learned how to explain what was interesting and important and cool to each other (and to our friends who weren't in chemistry, or even in school) without jargon. It can be done. It's part of this communication strategy called "knowing your audience and meeting them where they are."

Anyway, after explaining why Seed didn't have much chemistry, Moore shifted her focus to ScienceBlogs and its chemistry coverage. Here again, the pickings seemed slim:

Moore said there is no specific channel in ScienceBlogs dedicated to chemsitry, but there are a number of bloggers who use chemistry in their work.

Two chemistry-related blogs were highlighted by Moore. The first one, called Speakeasy Science, is by a new blogger Deborah Bloom [sic]. Bloom is not a scientist, but chemistry informs her writing, especially her new book on the birth of forensic toxicology. Moore also showed a new public health blog from Seed called the Pump Handle. Seed has also focused more on chemistry, in particular environmental toxins. Moore added, "So again, as we go through we can find the chemistry as the supporting characters, but maybe not as the star of the show." (26)

While I love both The Pump Handle and Speakeasy Science (which has since relocated to PLoS Blogs), Moore didn't mention a bunch of blogs at ScienceBlogs that could be counted on for chemistry content in a starring role. These included Molecule of the Day, Terra Sigillata (which has since moved to CENtral Science), and surely the pharmacology posts on Neurotopia. That's just three off the top of my head. Indeed, even my not-really-a-chemistry-blog had a "Chemistry" category populated with posts that really focused on chemistry.

And, of course, I shouldn't have to point out that ScienceBlogs is not now, and was not then, the entirety of the science blogosphere. There have always been seriously awesome chem-bloggers writing entertaining, accessible stuff outside the bounds of the Borg.

Ignoring their work (and their readership) is more than a little lazy. (Maybe a search engine would help?)

Anyway, Moore also told the workshop about Research Blogging:

Moore said that Research Blogging is a tagging and aggregating tool for bloggers who write about journal articles. Bloggers who occasionally discuss journal articles on their blog sites can join the Seed Research Blogging community. Seed provides the blogger with some code to put into blog posts that allows Seed to pick up those blog posts and aggregate them. Seed then offers the blogger on its website [sic]. This allows people to search across the blog posts within these blogs. Moore said that bloggers can also syndicate comments through the various Seed feeds, widgets, and other websites. It basically brings together blog posts about peer-reviewed research. At the same time, Seed gives a direct link back to the journal article, so that people can read the original source.

"Who are these bloggers?" Moore asked. She said the blog posts take many different forms. Sometimes someone is simply pointing out an interesting article or picking a topic and citing two or three articles to preface it. Other bloggers almost do a mini-review. These are much more in-depth analyses or criticisms of papers. (26)

Moore also noted some research on the chemistry posts aggregated by ResearchBlogging that found:

the blog coverage of the chemistry literature was more efficient than the traditional citation process. The science blogs were found to be faster in terms of reporting on important articles, and they also did a better job of putting the material in context within different areas of chemistry. (26)

The issues raised by the other workshop participants here were the predictable ones.

One, from John Miller of the Department of Energy, was whether online venues like ResearchBlogging might replace traditional peer review for journal articles. Joy Moore said she saw it as a possibility. Of course, this might rather undercut the idea that what is being aggregated is blog posts on peer reviewed research -- the peer review that happens before publication, I take it, is enhanced, not replaced, by the post-publication "peer review" happening in these online discussions of the research.

Another comment, from Bill Carroll, had to do with the perceived tone of the blogosphere:

"One of the things I find discouraging about reading many blogs or various comments is that it very quickly goes from one point of view to another point of view to 'you are a jerk.' My question is, How do you keep [the blog] generating light and not heat." (26)

Moore's answer allowed as how some blog readers are interested in being entertained by fisticuffs.

Here again, it strikes me that there's a danger in drawing sweeping conclusions from too few data points. There exist science blogs that don't get shouty and personal in the posts or the comment threads. Many of these are really good reads with engaging discussions happening between bloggers and readers.

Sometimes too, the heat (or at least, some kind of passion) may be part of how a blogger conveys to readers what about chemistry is interesting, or puzzling, or important in contexts beyond the laboratory or the journal pages. Chemistry is cool enough or significant enough that it can get us riled up. I doubt that insisting on Vulcan-grade detachment is a great way to convince readers who aren't already sold on the importance of chemistry that they ought to care about it.

And, can we please get past this suggestion that the blogosphere is the source of incivility in exchanges about science?

I suspect that people who blame the medium (of blogs) for the tone (of some blogs or of the exchanges in their comments) haven't been to a department seminar or a group meeting lately. Those face-to-face exchanges can get not only contentious but also shouty and personal. (True story: When I was a chemistry graduate student shopping for a research group, I was a guest at a group meeting where the PI, who knew I was there to see how I liked the research group, spent a full five minutes tearing one of his senior grad students a new one. And then, he was disappointed that I did not join the research group.)

Now, maybe the worry is that blogs about chemistry might give the larger public a peek at chemists being contentious and personal and shouty, something that otherwise would be safely hidden from view behind the walls of university lecture halls and laboratory spaces. If that's the worry, one possible response is that chemists playing in the blogosphere should maybe pay attention to the broader reach the internet affords them and behave themselves in the way they want the public to see them behaving.

If, instead, the worry is that chemists ought not ever to behave in certain ways toward each other (e.g., attacking the person rather than the methods or the results or the conclusions), then there's plenty of call for peer pressure within the chemistry community to head off these behaviors before we even start talking about blogs.

There are a few things that complicate discussions like this about the nature of communication about chemistry on blogs. One is that the people taking up the issue are sometimes unclear about what kind of communication it is they're interested in -- for example, chemist to non-chemist or chemist-to-chemist. Another is that they sometimes have very different ideas about what kinds of chemical issues ought to be communicated (basic concepts, cutting edge research, issues to do with chemical education or chemical workplaces, chemistry in everyday products or in highly charged political debates, etc., etc.). And, as mentioned already, the chemistry blogosphere, like chemistry as a discipline, contains multitudes. There is so much going on, in so many sub-specialities, that it's hard to draw too many useful generalizations.

For the reader, this diversity of chemistry blogging is a good thing, not a bad thing -- at least if the reader is brave enough to venture beyond networks which don't always have lots of blogs devoted to chemistry. Some good places to look:

Blogs about chemistry indexed by ScienceSeeker

CENtral Science (which is a blog network, but one devoted to chemistry by design)

Many excellent chemistry blogs are linked in this post at ScienceGeist. Indeed, ScienceGeist is an excellent chemistry blog.

Have you been reading the Scientopia Guest Blog lately? If so, you've had a chance to read Dr. Rubidium's engaging discussions of chemistry that pops up in the context of sex and drugs. I'm sure rock 'n' roll is on deck.

Finally, David Kroll's blogroll has more fine chemistry-related blogs than you can shake a graduated cylinder at.

If there are other blogospheric communicators of chemistry you'd like to single out, please tell us about them in the comments.
*Yes, I have a new blog there, but this blog isn't going anywhere.

3 responses so far

Evaluating scientific reports (and the reliability of the scientists reporting them).

One of the things scientific methodology has going for it (at least in theory) is a high degree of transparency. When scientists report findings to other scientists in the community (say, in a journal article), it is not enough for them to just report what they observed. They must give detailed specifications of the conditions in the field or in the lab -- just how did they set up and run that experiment, choose their sample, make their measurement. They must explain how they processed the raw data they collected, giving a justification for processing it this way. And, in drawing conclusions from their data, they must anticipate concerns that the data might have been due to something other than the phenomenon of interest, or that the measurements might better support an alternate conclusion, and answer those objections.

A key part of transparency in scientific communications is showing your work. In their reports, scientists are supposed to include enough detailed information so that other scientists could set up the same experiments, or could follow the inferential chain from raw data to processed data to conclusions and see if it holds up to scrutiny.

Of course, scientists try their best to apply hard-headed scrutiny to their own results before they send the manuscript to the journal editors, but the whole idea of peer review, and indeed the communication around a reported result that continues after publication, is that the scientific community exercises "organized skepticism" in order to discern which results are robust and reflective of the system under study rather than wishful thinking or laboratory flukes. If your goal is accurate information about the phenomenon you're studying, you recognize the value of hard questions from your scientific peers about your measurements and your inferences. Getting it right means catching your mistakes and making sure your conclusions are well grounded.

What sort of conclusions should we draw, then, when a scientist seems resistant to transparency, evasive in responding to concerns raised by peer reviewers, and indignant when mistakes are brought to light?

It's time to revisit the case of Stephen Pennycook and his research group at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In an earlier post I mused on the saga of this lab's 1993 Nature paper [1] and its 2006 correction [2] (or "corrigendum" for the Latin fans), in light of allegations that the Pennycook group had manipulated data in another recent paper submitted to Nature Physics. (In addition to the coverage in the Boston Globe (PDF), the situation was discussed in a news article in Nature [3] and a Nature editorial [4].)

Now, it's time to consider the recently uploaded communication by J. Silcox and D. A. Muller (PDF) [5] that analyzes the corrigendum and argues that a retraction, not a correction, was called for.

It's worth noting that this communication was (according to a news story at Nature about how the U.S. Department of Energy handles scientific misconduct allegations [6]) submitted to Nature as a technical comment back in 2006 and accepted for publication "pending a reply by Pennycook." Five years later, uploading the technical comment to makes some sense, since a communication that never sees the light of day doesn't do much to further scientific discussion.

Given the tangle of issues at stake here, we're going to pace ourselves. In this post, I lay out the broad details of Silcox and Muller's argument (drawing also on the online appendix to their communication) as to what the presented data show and what they do not show. In a follow-up post, my focus will be on what we can infer from the conduct of the authors of the disputed 1993 paper and 2006 corrigendum in their exchanges with peer reviewers, journal editors, and the scientific community. Then, I'll have at least one more post discussing the issues raised by the Nature news story and the related Nature editorial on the DOE's procedures for dealing with alleged misconduct [7].

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3 responses so far

An open letter

May 03 2011 Published by under Communication, Mailbag, Passing thoughts

To the large multinational company trying to interest me in blogging about a "fun" story from its "sponsored news-site":

It's not that I really begrudge you your effort to get something (more eyeballs on a website that puts your company and its research in the most flattering light) for nothing. Hell, people at my day job try to get me to add value to their agendas while providing no return for me All. The. Time.

I put that down to human nature (even though, as a multinational corporation, you are an individual in only the most strained and legalistic sense).

However, when you pester me to do so in multiple emails, identical but for the persons identified as their senders, you actually make me even less likely to do your thinly-disguised greenwashing bidding.

Also? I'm unlikely to do any free shilling for your huge-profit-making corporation in a world where you persist in paying no taxes.


Dr. Free-Ride

One response so far

Quoted for truth.

Anil Dash, writing about the (old) media gnashing-of-teeth about "cyberbullying" in the aftermath of the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi:

It's important to note that blaming technology for horrendous, violent displays of homophobia or racism or simple meanness lets adults like parents and teachers absolve themselves of the responsibility to raise kids free from these evils. By creating language like "cyberbullying", they abdicate their own role in the hateful actions, and blame the (presumably mysterious and unknowable) new technologies that their kids use for these awful situations.

3 responses so far

Welcome to inescapable conflict of interest.

Today ScienceBlogs launched a new sponsored blog, Food Frontiers. The sponsor is PepsiCo. Here's the description of what the blog is going to be about from its inaugural post by Sb overlord Evan Lerner:

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23 responses so far

Am I asking too little of the First Amendment?

I noticed a short item today at Inside Higher Education about Mike Adams, an associate professor of of criminal justice at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington , who is suing the university on the grounds that his promotion to full professor was denied due to his conservative Christian views. (Apparently, this legal action has been underway since 2007.)
I know very few details of the case, so I'm in no position to opine about whether Adams should or should not have been promoted. But there's one element of the case that seems to be legally interesting:

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6 responses so far

Shrinking budgets + skyrocketing subscription fees = UC boycott of NPG.

Economic recovery has not yet made its presence felt at public universities in California. (Indeed, at least in the California State University system, all things budgetary are going to be significantly worse in the next academic year, not better.)
This means it's not a great time for purveyors of electronic journals to present academic libraries in public university systems with big increases in subscription prices. Yet Nature Publishing Group has, apparently, done just that by some 400%. And, as noted by Christina Pikas and Dorothea Salo and Jennifer Howard in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the University of California system has decided that what NPG is offering is not worth the asking price.
Which means a system-wide boycott of NPG journals is being organized, as outlined in this letter (PDF) from the executive director of the California Digital Library, the chair of the University Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication, and the convener of the University Librarians Council.
Interestingly, the boycott goes further than just encouraging UC libraries to drop their costly subscriptions to NPG journals. From the letter:

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4 responses so far

Pseudonymity and undisclosed conflicts of interest: online book review edition.

I'll confess that I am not one who spends much time reading the reviews of books posted on the websites of online booksellers. By the time I'm within a click of those reviews, I pretty much know what I want. However, a lot of people find them helpful, and the ability to post your own review of a book (or a film, or a product, or a business) online seems to give consumers more of a voice rather than leaving it to "professional" reviewers or tastemakers.
Who, after all, knows whether those professional reviewers' first loyalties are to the public?
But, unsurprisingly, it turns out that citizen-reviewers can be just as gripped by potential conflicts of interests. From the Associated Press:

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5 responses so far

Problems in the scientific literature: vigilance and victim-blaming.

Mar 30 2010 Published by under Communication, Misconduct, Tribe of Science

That post about how hard it is to clean up the scientific literature has spawned an interesting conversation in the comments. Perhaps predictably, the big points of contention seem to be how big a problem a few fraudulent papers in the literature really are (given the self-correcting nature of science and all that), and whether there larger (and mistaken) conclusions people might be drawing about science on the basis of a small fraction of the literature.
I will note just in passing that we do not have reliable numbers on what percentage of the papers published in the scientific literature are fraudulent. We may be able to come up with reliable measures of the number of published papers that have been discovered to be fraudulent, but there's not a good procedure to accurately count the ones that succeed in fooling us.
Set that worry aside, and the legitimate worry that "little frauds" that might not do too much to deform the shape of the scientific literature might end up having significant effects on the scientific career scorekeeping. Let's take on the big question:
How much of a problem is it to leave the scientific literature uncorrected? Who is it a problem for?

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9 responses so far

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