Ethical Challenges of Research in Secondary Schools: All is well that ends well

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The topic of my thesis developed from thirty years of teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) in secondary schools in the south of Italy. Over the years, I have seen and experimented with many teaching approaches, but one that I found to be particularly intriguing was what I have named Online Community Projects (OCPs).

My experience of working with minors meant that ethical thinking came effortlessly. For example, teachers cannot do anything outside their everyday teaching without obtaining signed permission from parents or informing the headteacher and colleagues in writing. In addition, the experience helped me to foresee complications, such as taking students out of other teachers’ lessons or missing their buses home if I asked them to stay after school. In addition, as an insider, I knew that if I offered rewards, my intentions might be misinterpreted, so care was needed for every decision.

The biggest problem was finding the right time to do interviews, and I waited for an elusive moment that only came once during the whole initial study. I learnt from my mistakes and interviewed during my lessons with the classes in question for the primary research. I put the students into groups to work on their OCP activities, and the group that finished first was the one I would interview. Another helpful solution was to use open-question questionnaires with tick-boxes that gave the participants information about the research and the opportunity to refuse or give consent for their answers to be used for publication purposes. However, analysing these decisions was complicated and messy. Therefore I drew up a table following the BERA and Stutchbury and Fox (2009).

One of the most critical issues arising from my initial study was that my data did not teach me anything that I didn’t already know, and I wanted to learn something new. After substantial reading of literature such as Hammersley (2012), Scotland (2012) and Cresswell (2003), I realised that my paradigm was not aligned with my ontological and epistemological viewpoints. Once I had understood this, everything fell into place, and I realised that I had to change my methodology. I decided to use Action Research and Burns’ (1999) iterative framework. This process led me to rethink my research framework and data analysis. The discovery of Stake’s (2006) Multiple Case Study Analysis was a significant breakthrough for me. It led me to introduce three contrasting voices and define five multiple cases connected through the use of OCPs but with different perspectives.

These changes revolutionised my research and understanding of myself and my worldviews. It also led me to make an important discovery that I had no idea about beforehand, transforming my teaching practice and research. All is well that ends well, as they say. Has anyone else been disappointed with the results of their initial study? Please let us know about your experiences and how you overcame them.

Dr. Lesley June Fearn @lesleyfearn

I achieved my EdD in 2021 regarding learning and teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) using online community projects in secondary schools. This interest stems from more than thirty years of experience teaching English (as a Foreign Language) and English literature in state schools in the south of Italy. During this time, I have continually experimented with new approaches and techniques, especially with technology, to motivate students in their schooling. Other areas of interest include Fine Art and English literature that I studied as a BA and MA. As far as research is concerned, I am particularly interested in Action Research and sociocultural paradigms.
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experimenting, taking risks, and testing the boundaries

“Creativity doesn’t come from laughter and fun: It comes from experimenting, taking risks, and testing the boundaries.”                                                   (Resnick, 2017, p. 128)

Photo by Steve Johnson:










This is the first of several posts intended to celebrate the fun, enjoyment and creativity in research unleashed by all who participated in the recent WELS PGR conference (21st May 2022). Over the next few months the blog will host abstracts, images and bios of each willing presenter. But before we get started with that, I want to say just how fantastic our key note #creativeHE were.

#creativeHE provided an abstract for their key note: 
We will take you on a journey of exploration on how experimentation, creativity and play can add that special ingredient to your research recipe and transform your experience and outputs as a doctoral researcher. Openness of mind, practice and research helps us make novel connections and see what we have in front of us in a new light as we use our individual and collective curiosity and imagination to un- and discover hidden gems based on our own inquiry, connecting with others and their ideas and perspectives. We will share some of our work within the international and cross-boundary Creativity for Learning in HE community (#creativeHE) for educators, researchers, students and the wider public, to illustrate the power of the community for experimentation and risk taking, the connections we have made and what we have achieved together. We hope to provide food-for-thought and help (doctoral) researchers consider creative approaches in their research for deeper and more diverse inquiry and illustrate how community and networks can be fundamental in creating connected experiences, boost experimentation and risk taking and build researcher confidence and competencies.

About #creativeHE
Members of #creativeHE share a common interest in creativity and innovation in learning, teaching and research. They are members of staff and students. The #creativeHE team consists currently of 15 members in 14 different institutions and organisations in 3 countries (10 core and 5 wider team members). The community is open to anybody who is interested in exploring creativity in learning and teaching within and beyond the UK.

Website: #creativeHE (
Twitter: #creativeHE

#creativeHE are hosting their

The 4th Annual #creativeHE Jam – Quiet Creativity on

8th June 2022, 12.30-14.00 UK time

Why not join them. More info here: The 4th Annual #creativeHE Jam – Quiet Creativity – #creativeHE (

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and the winners are ….

Congratulations to the winners of the second Open University WELS Professional Doctorate (EdD and DHSC) Poster Competition, 2022. Poster are a great way to represent your research creatively using images, shape and colour.  

Mel Green, Teaching through the Screen in 3rd place

Lynne Stabler, The role of Trust in School Improvement, in 2nd place

Jon Leer, The practice of Seclusion Room Use in Secondary Schools, in 1st place

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Musings on moral distress as a healthcare PGR in a time of crisis

Photo by William Fortunato from Pexels

Hypothetically, if you were to cut me open, you’d find ‘MIDWIFE’ written through me like a messy and macabre stick of rock.

Like so many, my professional and personal identity are so intrinsically linked with shared values; being a midwife is not just what I am, but who I am.  My philosophy has always been and will ultimately remain grounded in evidence-based practice to provide safe, effective care, as well as valuing individual’s needs, wants and experiences, remaining passionate about equitable and safe clinical care with a deep sense justice both within and outside of the system. This is, after all what has led me down my professional and academic pathway.

As of March 2021, 39,070 midwives appeared on the NMC register (NMC, 2021), and a proportion of registrants work outside of providing direct clinical care – myself included – in a range of roles which include research, academia, education, policy, leadership – the list goes on. Each one of those roles provides for a complex and integrated network of experts who in their own way, influence excellent care.

Leaving clinical work for midwifery education was, amongst other reasons, driven by the need to influence excellence in practice and facilitate robust, evidence-based education for students and thereby maybe, just maybe, they might feel empowered to provide excellent, compassionate clinical care and become passionate advocates.

I sensed acutely that transition from clinician to educator, encountering a profound sense of loss of clinical care, which I recognised as the movement from expert to novice (Foster, 2015), a phenomenon well documented in a variety of professions. I soon made that transition, however when COVID-19 reached our shores in early 2020, a country wide call was made to registrants for them to return to the front lines (Nursing Times, 2020) to provide maternity care, as well as redeployment across other areas of the healthcare system, many of my colleagues being dual registered.

I didn’t return to practice (despite many nights of anguish trying to rationalise how I could continue my educational role, manage family life, AND support my front-line colleagues). I ultimately knew that my expertise was best placed supporting students and providing an education, after all, these were to be the future workforce that would, despite living through one of the most challenging times in healthcare, go on to be leaders in their clinical field.

Having this experience, I anticipated the same seismic shift when I moved into full time doctoral research and prepared accordingly for that feeling of loss. Fast forward to now, and I only just feel comfortable referring to myself as a PGR rather than hiding behind my other professional identity as a midwifery clinician and educator. I know this is common amongst peers, it’s something I’ve reflected on at length with other PGRS who work currently or previously within healthcare.

But recently those feelings have returned with vigour.

Maternity care in the UK is going through significant scrutiny following independent reviews of maternity services at NHS trusts (DHSC, 2021), addressing profound inequality and poor outcomes in black and minority ethic women (MBRRACE-UK, 2020;  FiveXMore, 2021) and implementation of Better Births (2016) through the maternity transformation programme. This is all against a background of an ongoing pandemic and serious workforce staffing and retention concerns across midwifery (RCM,2021) and nursing (Guardian, 2021). It has been hard therefore to reconcile feelings of being needed back ‘at the coal face’ with the guilt of continuing my research. I now recognise this dissonance as moral distress, which whilst most aligned with being powerless within a healthcare system, can be experienced in other areas.

I have, through peer reflection, been comforted by the fact that, firstly, I am not alone, as many PGRs with a healthcare background are feeling the same. Secondly, that having identified a gap in knowledge, I can focus on improvement from a different perspective, and that whilst it is tempting to temporarily abandon postgraduate research (as a wise person called ‘responding to the call to action’) and return to clinical work in the time of crisis, ultimately making a difference with research is a valid goal contributing to the wider body of knowledge, and of as much value as walking the wards. Ultimately this will shape a better, more reflexive researcher, academic and clinician.

How are others feeling? Is this a phenomena particular to healthcare PGRs?

by Anna Madeley  @AnnaTheMidwife

Anna is a full time doctoral researcher in her second year at the Open University and a registered midwife. Prior to starting at the OU, Anna worked in a variety of maternity settings including practice development, her last clinical post as a senior midwife establishing and running a home birth team before moving into midwifery education as a Senior Lecturer. Anna remains connected with midwifery education with specialist teaching and interests in all aspects of contemporary midwifery practice, physiologically informed care, research, individualised and complex care planning and supporting home birth. Anna’s previous MSc research explored the experiences of midwives supporting women with complex needs (physical, medical, obstetric and psychological) who choose to birth at home.  Her doctoral work explores the experiences of women who make non-normative choices in pregnancy.

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Finding Your Space

Finding Your Space 

Photo by Marián Šicko from Pexels

‘There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.’ 

― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own 

Some people can write anywhere, in coffee shops, in hotel reception rooms, in parks on a sunny day, or wherever they find themselves in their free time. However, this kind of freedom is not universal, and many people find themselves restrained by their emotional and occupational responsibilities and a lack of physical space.  


I have been a better writer since I have had an area to write and keep my writing tools, such as my books, notepads, computer (with two screens), printer, large desk, and comfy chair. These are all things that I find are necessary for me to get anything worth reading written. However, I have only had this space since one of my children moved out. Before then, I would set up my computer wherever I could, in the kitchen, in the garden, on the sofa. The problem was that people would be in and out, the television would come on, the door would ring, and my thoughts and writing would be continually interrupted. Being a writing nomad led me to waste precious time. I was constantly losing things, and the disturbances would make me lose my thread and procrastinate. I would usually have to go back to the beginning and start again. Another, probably more serious, issue of not having a proper place to write was that the inadequate seating gave me back problems. Nowadays, I have an ergonomic writing chair, but alas, the damage is done, and so I urge you younger academics not to take your health for granted.  

Unfortunately, it is not easy to find a solution to this issue. Years ago, I cleared out a tiny store-room/cupboard and used that, but the lack of windows gave me a headache. I know other people who have done the same thing. Rowena Murray suggests that it might be more productive learning to write at the doctor’s, dentist’s, on a coffee or lunch break and so on. Tara Brabazon agrees that we do not need expensive equipment, but we do need our own space. Virginia Woolf highlighted this issue in 1935 with her iconic essay A Room of One’s Own, which pointed out the difficulties many women had both metaphorically and physically relating to the lack of independence and physical space. Society has changed since then, but privacy is still an issue for many people.  

My question is, how and where do other people write? How many people can genuinely compose their thoughts and create wherever they find themselves? It would be great if other people could share their ideas and experience on this matter.  

Dr Lesley Fearn @lesleyfearn

I recently achieved my EdD regarding learning and teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) using online community projects in secondary schools. This interest stems from more than thirty years of experience teaching English (as a Foreign Language) and English literature in state schools in the south of Italy. During this time, I have continually experimented with new approaches and techniques, especially with technology, to motivate students in their schooling. Other areas of interest include Fine Art and English literature that I studied as a BA and MA. As far as research is concerned, I am particularly interested in Action Research and sociocultural paradigms.
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Reconceptualising how social workers learn in the workplace

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Rhetoric, guidance and regulation have shifted over time to firmly acknowledge all modes of learning as valid for social workers and other professionals. Much is said about recognising formal, informal, self-directed and even incidental learning for continuing professional development. However, reliance on, and value ascribed to, direct training, or organised learning activities are the default for many. There remains in my view a response in policy and organisational responses, to specific professional issues, a drive for tangible, measurable and visible learning opportunities of this type. The problem resulting from this is that some of the most significant learning experiences that social workers have can be the least acknowledged or valued. 

There is an understandable dilemma for those involved in supporting social workers’ learning at local and national levels. Social work as a profession, role or task is characterised by multiple ambiguities. There are well documented challenges to how social work is articulated. Roles are multiple, diverse and dynamic. Every task has within it myriad sub-tasks that are often superbly complex and difficult to describe. If the role and task is difficult to describe, articulating how and what a social worker learns is more so. Further to that, planning how to facilitate or support that learning needs to wrestle with those ambiguities.   

My recent research into the lived experiences of social workers’ learning through work led to me reconceptualising what is involved in workplace learning for social workers. Learning within this context is a complex web of key elements and interwoven threads, each web unique to the individual social worker. In terms of workplace learning, there are rich and diverse opportunities for social workers to learn through the direct work that they do. The study highlights that learning in social workers’ workplaces can be incredibly potent in relation to the kind of work they are doing, yet it is not a primary focus in planning for continuing professional learning.  

Social workers’ learning in the workplace as a complex web (Ferguson, 2021) 

Possible solutions to supporting workplace learning for social workers include acknowledging the intensity of the emotional and embodied aspect of social workers’ learning. Learning through direct work with real people who use services is also absolutely vital. Direct practice equips social workers with the kind of learning opportunities that they need to undertake the job they have. We need to understand and value learning through work tasks and consider how we allocate tasks to social workers that optimise learning.  

The question is how can understanding the nature and complexity of individual social workers’ experiences help us design more effective workplace continuing professional learning opportunities. As part of this how do we increase the value and recognition of the kinds of significant learning that happens for social workers in their everyday work.  

You can find out more about the research and findings here “When David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust” The Lived Experiences of Social Workers Learning Through Work (Ferguson, 2021).  


Dr Gillian M. Ferguson

I’ve worked in diverse settings as social worker, community learning worker and various other roles in practice, HE and learning/development. Keen to be inspired and inspire others to learn. My doctoral research explored lived experiences of social workers learning through work.


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Talking about your research – your take away message

The delightful Mr Grebo

Talking about your research

As a PG researcher, you will inevitably have to give presentations on your research. An opportunity came up in July for me to do just that with an international group of doctoral students as an audience. Hosted by Liverpool John Moores Centre for Educational Research, I recommend you take a look.

Although I had only just completed my 1st year and so had not yet carried out any research, I was still excited to share my many ideas and thoughts.

This was the problem! How to condense a complex subject I really care about so that I can share something interesting with people who nothing about my topic or context. In about 15/20 minutes, when I had enough trouble cutting my summative assessment on the subject down to 10,000 words.

Scene setting

I needed to introduce myself and provide enough about my context that the audience could appreciate the situation. This was the (relatively!) easy part; a bit about me and my background and then linking into the work I am researching with a few headline statistics showing its scope and scale.

Narrowing the focus

Then came the hard part; deciding what to focus on – what the simple “message” was that I wanted the audience to take away with them.  I decided at this early stage my message should be

I am researching if we can use predictive analytics in Toastmasters.

We have all sat through presentations or speeches where the focus is unclear because the speaker wants to tell you everything or doesn’t really have a clear idea what their message should be. My focus was so that if someone in the audience was asked, “what was that talk about?” they could respond with that one simple message.


I decided that I would use a piece of work I had recently done as the basis for my presentation. My summative assessment began with a literature review and ended with my research questions.

Constructing the narrative

Clearly, a well-constructed, academic literature review is too complex to get across in a presentation, but this is not my intention. In my 15/20 minute presentation I just want to get across my one simple message.

I approached this by working backwards.

  • What do you want the audience to know?
    • I am researching PA in Toastmasters
  • How do you get them to that conclusion?
    • Show how my journey led me there
  • What were the key steps/milestones?
    • The research gaps I found
  • How did I find these?
    • Key findings/discoveries (studies) that led me there

Remember less is more! You are just trying to get your audience to remember your one message. Do not overcomplicate as they won’t be able to process it.

If you were asked to present on your research tomorrow, what would your central message be?

You can see a recorded version of my presentation  here.



Written by

 Selina Griffin @Psylina

After completing my BA (in Classics) in the usual way at a bricks and mortar university, I discovered the Open University and completed an MA. Years later after some soul-searching, I switched fields and completed an MA in Online and Distance Education which has led to me pursuing my EdD in the realm of learning analytics. I am fortunate enough to now also work for the Open University. I also have my own personal blog where I discuss my research, running and my cat @MrGrebo

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Engaging Distance Learners in an Academic Community: Student Hub Live

Photo by Ingo Joseph from Pexels

Congratulations to Dr Karen Foley for successfully competing her doctoral thesis. You can read it here: Engaging Distance Learners in an Academic Community: Student Hub Live – Open Research Online

This is the abstract.


In higher education (HE), studies of effective practice relating to student retention, progression and attainment suggest that student engagement is a major factor in terms of success, and this involves a sense of belonging to a community. Studies have identified initiatives that have proved successful in traditional HE contexts, however ideas of belonging and community are problematic when translated to distance-learning contexts. Many distance-learning students, who are often mature and part-time learners, appear to be successful in their studies without identifying as a student or interacting socially with others, which calls into question the way in which belonging is conceptualised in distance-learning settings. The focus of this research was to identify the value of attending specific, live, online, interactive events at Student Hub Live (SHL) which were designed by the Open University to facilitate academic community and to provide a space outside of the curriculum for students to socialise and perform other aspects of student identity that require interaction with others. Using an ethnographic approach and grounded theory methods, chatlogs of four SHL events were analysed and the emergent themes informed semi-structured interviews which were carried out with six participants, all of whom had attended SHL events. Both sets of findings were combined and further analysed using thematic network maps. The finding was that communities of practice with shared repertoires enabled students to feel a sense of belonging through participating in discussions which created a conducive learning environment to develop skills, share experiences and feel validated. Community and belonging enabled students to deeply apply learning to their studies through sharing the experience and their experiences with others. In this sense, belonging and community matter to distance-learning students but for different reasons than for face-to-face students. The findings are relevant to other distance and face-to-face HE providers who are keen to engage students in virtual extracurricular spaces to support learning and facilitate community.

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Start writing and hope to get it right!

‘For it is not enough to know what we ought to say; we must also say it as we ought’

(Aristotle, Rhetoric, 350 B.C.E.)

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

During our postgraduate studies, we are encouraged to use formal prose distinct to each research community. It takes us the whole of our studies to find our academic voice and the ‘right tone’ to communicate it. This process can be facilitated by using online aids such as the academic phrasebook or purchasing one of the many addons such as REF-N-WRITE or Grammarly.

However, writing a blog post is different again. Experienced bloggers say it is liberating, but to a novice like myself, who is used to the safe and familiar ‘formal’, it is scary. This anxiety could be because there seems to be considerable confusion on what they are. Blogs are often thought of as online diaries or journals, but Prof. Dunleavy points out that this is no longer the case. He explains that they can be loosely categorised into two basic kinds: those run by a single person and those by a small group, as in this blog.

Among their many advantages, blogs are potentially powerful and immediate means of sharing ideas with an academic tone distinctive to the blogger and has its own rules. But what are those rules? How do you write creatively in a formal way that is necessary for academic blogs? There are no phrasebooks or supplements that can solve this issue. Unable to find any satisfying literature on the subject, I followed the same path as I always do:

  • Listen to the experts: Stephen King’s advises abundant reading and writing, so I have read other people’s academic blogs. My favourites are The Thesis Whisperer and Writing for Research, but there are many more and easy to find by running a website search;
  • Watch seminars by experts on blogging (while doing domestic chores such as cooking and ironing) after searching for the bloggers whose blogs I admired. For example, Professor Inger Mewburn and Dunleavy, and there are many others.

However, there is nothing left to do at a certain point but start writing and hope you get it right.

Finally, and regarding the quote by Aristotle, to write anything well, it is not enough to have something to say or even the skill with which to say it. We need to know the social norms of the community in which we find ourselves. There are no set rules in academic blogs, but I believe that the character and the language still need to be relevant. For this reason, it would be great if you could let us know your experience and beliefs concerning what they should look like and how they should feel.

Dr Lesley Fearn @lesleyfearn

I recently achieved my EdD regarding learning and teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL) using online community projects in secondary schools. This interest stems from more than thirty years of experience teaching English (as a Foreign Language) and English literature in state schools in the south of Italy. During this time, I have continually experimented with new approaches and techniques, especially with technology, to motivate students in their schooling. Other areas of interest include Fine Art and English literature that I studied as a BA and MA. As far as research is concerned, I am particularly interested in Action Research and sociocultural paradigms.

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What do I mean by participants’ perspectives: do I take their word for it?

The context

When I began my EdD studies, as an OU insider researcher, I knew that I wanted to explore multiple perspectives around feedback practices and to focus non-judgementally on participants’ own perspectives.

Feedback emerges as a concern throughout the literature Carless et al, 2011 and amongst colleagues.  Empirical studies and pedagogical discussions around feedback practices tend to focus on one perspective, usually students’.  I aimed to consider all perspectives, without foregrounding one, a challenge from my ‘insider’ position Hellawell, 2006 as an OU tutor of many years.

In considering which perspectives were essential to explore to understand feedback practices within this context, three distinct participant groups emerged clearly in terms of their allocated roles within the feedback process.  These comprised those who study and pay for tuition (students), those who facilitate and deliver a pedagogical service by working directly with students (tutors) and those who design and write the module and monitor the process of its delivery and assessment, manage staff and appoint tutors (central academics).

Further, the literature tends to take a ‘problem/solution’ approach and in so doing makes prescriptive recommendations about how participants ‘should’ behave, such as what tutors should be trained to do, to make feedback effective Wakefield et al, 2014I wanted to explore perspectives without imposing solutions to identified ‘problems’, considering multiple viewpoints, rather than a single dominant one.

In order to stand back, to be non-partisan, I chose a broadly ethnographic methodology, informed by the principles of being exploratory, interpretive and concerned with context Blommaert, 2007.  I elicited participants’ perspectives via their questionnaire responses and semi-structured interviews conducted via telephone.

My problem

Although being an insider meant, to an extent, I was a participant, my in-depth exploration of participants’ perspectives through their own accounts did not meet ethnographic tendencies to use the multiple methods of data collection Lillis, 2008 available, such as actual tutor feedback.  I did not view events in situ, like Tuck’s ethnographic study Tuck, 2012, considering the context of tutors’ feedback production.  Yet, I could not see how to achieve this immersion in the lived experiences of participants, without imposing, as I saw it, my interpretation of their actions; I wanted to stay with participants’ own accounts of their perspectives.

Two alternative solutions

I considered identifying a case study of one student/tutor experience to allow me to explore observations of behaviour and associated documents alongside my data from semi-structured interviews and open questionnaire questions.

Another option was to stay true to my original intention and to continue to focus on an in-depth exploration focusing only on my participants’ declared perspectives.  This is what I chose to do.

My question/s

Therefore, what do I/we mean by participants’ perspectives?  What leads to the greater ‘truth’, to rely on participants’ own accounts, inevitably filtered through the researcher’s lens, or must we make potentially intrusive ‘checks’ on what participants do in practice to achieve an in-depth exploration of their perspectives?

by  Dr Jane Cobb

I have been an Associate Lecturer at the Open University since 2002, tutoring mainly English Language modules.  I live in Stourbridge in the West Midlands with my husband, two adult children and three Romanian rescue (street) dogs.  My recent EdD and my current research interests concern the multiple perspectives around feedback practices around assessed writing in HE.  This is my first venture into blogging, and I am looking forward to this creative space, where colleagues can share, debate, and discuss issues arising around their research.
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