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Biaxial strain is known to induce ferroelectricity in thin films of nominally non-ferroelectric materials such as SrTiO3. However, even strain-free SrTiO3 films and the paraelectric phase of strained films exhibit bulk frequency-dependent polarization hysteresis loops on the nanoscale at room temperature, and stable switchable domains at 50 K. By a direct comparison of the strained and strain-free SrTiO3 films using dielectric, ferroelectric, Raman, nonlinear optical and nanoscale piezoelectric property measurements, we conclude that SrTiO3 films and bulk crystals are relaxor ferroelectrics, and the role of strain is to stabilize longer-range correlation of preexisting nanopolar regions, likely originating from minute amounts of unintentional Sr-deficiency in nominally stoichiometric samples. These findings highlight the sensitive role of stoichiometry when exploring strain and epitaxy-induced electronic phenomena in oxide films, heterostructures, and interfaces.

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This is an author-produced, peer-reviewed version of this article. The final, definitive version of this document can be found online at Physical Review Letters, published by American Physical Society. Copyright restrictions may apply. DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.104.197601

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