Full versus Wholesale Banks – S’pore

Well simple things like discovering a difference really makes my day!

MAS = Monetary Authority of Singapore (Singapore’s central bank); SMEs = small and medium-sized enterprises.

The digital full-bank licence will allow licensees to provide a wide range of financial services and take deposits from retail customers. A digital wholesale bank licence will allow licensees to serve SMEs and other non-retail segments.

Singapore to issue up to five new licences to digital banks. Jamie Lee. (29 Jun 2019). The Business Times, Singapore.

Singapore’s central bank plans to issue up to five digital bank licences to suitable applicants, in a move that could deliver the biggest shake-up in two decades in a market dominated by local banks…

The central bank will also issue up to three digital wholesale bank licences which will be open to both local and foreign players.

Digital wholesale banks will not be allowed to take Singapore deposits from individuals, except for fixed deposits of at least S$250,000 and will be permitted to maintain deposit accounts for corporate and small and medium enterprises.

Singapore to allow virtual banks as part of a move to open up the market. (30 Jun 2019). Reuters via CNBC, US [ global headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey]

See also:

The Banking Industry and the Major Players in Singapore. (no date / acessed 29 Jul 2019). GuideMeSingapore / Hawksford. 16 Raffles Quay, #32-03 Hong Leong Building, Singapore, 048581.

Business Diversification

In response to the announcement, gaming peripherals brand Razer’s chief strategy officer Limeng Lee said MAS was “forward-looking” in “opening up more financial options to consumers and businesses”. The announcement is timely as Razer has been growing its financial technology business in South-east Asia in recent months, he added. “We will definitely consider applying for the digital bank license and are keen to help spur innovation in Singapore’s financial sector,” Mr Lee said.

A Singtel spokesman said they are “open to exploring the feasibility of such an opportunity and will be reviewing the licensing conditions”.

Singapore to allow digital banks; MAS issuing up to 5 new licences: Tharman. (updated 29 Jun 2019). The Straits Times, Singapore.

The culture in Singapore seems to gravitate towards property investments whenever we have substantial excess cash.

SPH seems to have adopted this culture. It has built up a respectable property portfolio over past decades.

SPH (SGX:T39) – Is This The End for This Blue Chip Stock? Alvin Chow | Date: September 27, 2017. DrWealth. 71 Ayer Rajah Crescent #03-06, Singapore 139951.

The Edge Markets. (June 28, 2017). Why SPH needs to restructure itself. The Fifth Person.

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3 Data Privacy Judgments – S’pore

For learning and prevention: 3 case studies [v.2 – 1 Aug 2019]

The first government judgment and warning relates to the popular messaging app, WhatsApp. The second judgment and fine involves email. The final judgment and warning concerns website security.

2     One of the many preschools under the Organisation’s management is the Sparkletots @ Kampong Chai Chee centre (the “preschool”). In the course of the year, the preschool would organise various school trips, sometimes with the participation of the parents. In preparation for these trips, the preschool would collect the parents’ personal data (including NRIC numbers) to allow for verification of the parents’ identity on the day of the trip.

3     The present investigations arise from one such school trip. A few days before the trip was scheduled to take place, a teacher at the preschool sent a photograph of a consolidated attendance list to a “WhatsApp” chat group, reminding parents of the upcoming school trip. The attendance list contained personal data relating to the 15 students in that particular class and their parents, and included the contact numbers and NRIC numbers of five of the parents (the “Personal Data”). The “WhatsApp” chat group comprised… parents of students from that class.

4     The teacher who sent the photograph of the attendance list quickly deleted it after being alerted to the disclosure of personal data by one of the parents within the group chat. That same parent later lodged a complaint with the Personal Data Protection Commission (“PDPC”). The PDPC thereafter commenced investigations into the incident…

8     After a review of all the evidence obtained by PDPC during its investigation and for the reasons set out below, I am of the view that the Organisation had failed to make reasonable security arrangements to protect the personal data in its possession and control, and has thereby breached the Protection Obligation under section 24 of the PDPA. This breach is attributable primarily to the Organisation’s lack of specific policies or procedures in place to guide its employees on the use, handling and disclosure of personal data, especially in the context of communicating with parents…

16     To  its  credit, the  Organisation also  acted swiftly  to  address their inadequate  policies – a  response  which,  in my assessment,  carries  mitigating value. The following remedial actions taken by the Organisation have therefore been taken into account:

(a) Immediate suspension of all “WhatsApp” chat groups following the disclosure;

(b) Expedited the implementation of a set of “Social Media Policy / Whatsapp chat group rules” that was already under development when the breach occurred;

(c) Rolled out a suite of other policies across the Organisation including a “Document Retention Policy” and an “Information Security Policy”; and

(d) Undertook the development of a practical employee handbook and conducted refresher training for its employees.

17     Having considered all the relevant factors of the case, I am of the view that these remedial actions have sufficiently addressed the current gap in policies and practices relating to the handling of personal data by the Organisation’s employees. I have therefore decided to issue a warning to the Organisation for breaching its obligations under section 24 of the PDPA, without further directions or imposing a financial penalty.

PAP Community Foundation [2019] SGPDPC6 (CaseNoDP-1807-B2434). Personal Data Protection Commission. (23 Apr 2019). https://www.pdpc.gov.sg/-/media/Files/PDPC/PDF-Files/Commissions-Decisions/Grounds-of-Decision—PAP-Community-Foundation—230419.pdf. Singapore.

2     On 27 November 2017, the Personal Data Protection Commission (the “Commission”) received notification from the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (“ISCA”) that one of its employees inadvertently sent an email attaching a Microsoft Excel document containing personal data of 1,906 individuals (the “Excel File”) to an unintended recipient (the “Incident”)…

5     On or about 23 November 2017, as part of business operations, 2 ISCA employees (the “First Employee” and the “Second Employee”, collectively the “Employees”) were unable to open the Excel File (stored on ISCA’s internal shared drive) as it appeared to be corrupted. The Employees sought the assistance of ISCA’s IT department. Arising from this, ISCA’s IT Support Specialist sent an email to the System/Network Engineer from the ICT department to recover the Excel File from the backup server, and to send the recovered Excel File to the Employees.

6    On 24 November 2017, the System/Network Engineer created an email to send the recovered Excel File as an attachment to the Employees (the “Subject Email”). As the earlier email from the IT Support Specialist did not include the Employees in the addressee list, the System/Network Engineer had to specifically insert the Employees in the recipient section of the Subject Email. Due to the auto-complete feature in Microsoft Outlook’s email software, the System/Network Engineer inadvertently selected an accounts manager (the “Unintended Recipient”) 1 in a listed telecommunications service provider (“Telco”) instead of the First Employee as they both had the same first name. The Subject Email containing the Excel File was therefore sent to the IT Support Specialist, the Second Employee and the Unintended Recipient. The Excel File was not encrypted with a password…

18     The Commissioner found that ISCA failed to put in place reasonable security arrangements to protect the Subject Data in the Excel File during email transmission for the following reasons:

(a) The volume (1,906 members) and type (data with a higher expectation of confidentiality) of Subject Data in the Excel File warranted direct protection. In this regard, ISCA should have had a policy/SOP that applied to all employees requiring password based encryption for the Excel File in respect of both external and internal emails. This would be a reasonable security arrangement to protect the Subject Data against unauthorised access in the event the Subject Email was sent to any unintended recipient…

23     Having considered all the relevant factors of this case, the Commissioner hereby directs ISCA to do the following:

(a) Within 90 days from the date of the Commissioner’s directions, review its policies and security arrangements in respect of electronic transmission of documents containing personal data; and

(b) Pay  a  financial  penalty  of  S$6,000.00  within  30 days  from  the date of the Commissioner’s direction, failing which, interest at the rate specified in the Rules of Court3 in respect of judgment debts, shall accrue and be payable on the outstanding amount of the financial penalty until the financial penalty is paid in full.

Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants [2018] SGPDPC 28. Personal Data Protection Commission. (13 Dec 2018). https://www.pdpc.gov.sg/-/media/Files/PDPC/PDF-Files/Commissions-Decisions/Grounds-of-Decision—Institute-of-Singapore-Chartered-Accountants—131218.pdf. Singapore.

2     On 8 June 2018, the Personal Data Protection Commission (the “Commission”) received a complaint from an individual (the “Complainant”) in relation to the publication of personal data belonging to 50 individuals on the Organisation’s website, http://www.tutorcity.com.sg (the “Website”). Specifically, images of the educational certificates of tutors using the Website were found to be publicly accessible by Internet users (the “Incident”)…

7     As part of the Website’s features, tutors interested in using the Organisation’s matching service are given the option of voluntarily uploading up to three different educational certificates onto the Website. These certificates assisted the Organisation in matching the needs of the student in question to suitable tutors. These certificates were not intended to be made publicly accessible.

8     Notwithstanding this, all uploaded certificates were stored in the /Public_html/directory (the “Public Directory”) of the Website’s server within a sub-folder, Public_html\tutor\tutor_image (the “Image Directory”). Both directories were not secured with any form of access controls and were accessible by the public so long as the path to the relevant directory was known…

21     In the present case, I am advised that where documents containing personal data have to reside on web servers, folder or directory permissions and access controls are a common and direct way of preventing their unauthorised access by public users and web crawlers. Depending on its circumstances, the Organisation could therefore have implemented any of the following reasonable technical security measures to prevent its Image Directory from being indexed by web crawlers:

(a) First, the Organisation could have placed these documents in a folder of a non-public folder/directory. Access to such documents will then be controlled by the server’s administrator. While this may not be ideal in complex servers with multiple web applications—given that it may not be practicable for the server administrator to control access to all these files—this is not the case for the present Website.

(b) Second, the Organisation could have placed these documents in a folder of a non-public folder or directory, with access to these documents being through web applications on the server. This could be done through PHP scripts. To access the data in the documents, users would have to first log into the web application.

(c) Third, the Organisation could have placed these documents in a sub-folder within the Public Directory but control access to files by creating a .htaccess file within that sub-folder. This .htaccess file may specify the access restrictions (e.g. implement a password requirement or an IP address restriction). An index.html file  could  also  be  created  within  that  sub-folder  to  show  a  HTML page  with  no  content  or  a  denial  of  access. Any  unauthorised  user would  then  need  the  specific  URL  to  access  a document in  the  sub-folder. However, given that the Public Directory is the web root directory containing all  the  content  to  be  displayed  on  the  Website,  it  should  not  have  overly restrictive  access  rights.  This  may  pose  some  challenges  for organisations seeking  to  balance  access  restrictions  to  specific  documents  against  retaining accessibility to website content that is intended to be public…

27    I find on the facts above that the Organisation did not make reasonable security
arrangements to protect personal data in its possession or under its control against the risk of unauthorised access. The Organisation is therefore in breach of section 24 of the PDPA. I took into account the number of affected individuals, the type of personal data at risk of unauthorised access and the remedial action by the Organisation to prevent recurrence. I have decided to issue a warning to the Organisation for the breach of its obligation under section 24 of the PDPA as neither further directions nor a financial penalty is warranted in this case.

Tutor City [2019] SGPDPC 5 (Case No DP-1806-B2228). Personal Data Protection Commission. (23 Apr 2019). https://www.pdpc.gov.sg/-/media/Files/PDPC/PDF-Files/Commissions-Decisions/Grounds-of-Decision—Tutor-City-230419.pdf. Singapore.

Related

…The absence of a second layer of basic checks “amounted to extremely weak internal work process controls (that) fell far short of the standard of protection required for such sensitive personal data”, said PDPC deputy commissioner Yeong Zee Kin in a decision paper issued on Wednesday…

In its advisory guidelines, PDPC had recommended that paper containing personal information be shredded into small pieces and not dumped in unsecured bins.

Similarly, personal data stored on electronic media such as computer hard disks, USB drives or DVDs must be erased using specialised software to avoid accidental data leaks.

Aviva fined $6,000 for data breach. Irene Tham. (Oct 13, 2017). https://www.straitstimes.com/tech/aviva-fined-6000-for-data-breach. The Straits Times. Singapore.

Aviva’s most recent offence involved four underwriting letters meant for four different people to a single person, all contained in one envelope. The letters contained client’s full names, addresses, policy details, and sums assured.

“[Aviva] failed to conduct a more thorough review of its internal departments… that are subject to the same vulnerabilities and risk similar failures as the prior incident,” PDPC said…

Meanwhile, AIG had printed a wrong fax number, which was actually that of Japanese products retailer Tokyu Hands, on 125 policy letters. PDPC said that AIG policyholders could have mistakenly sent their personal data to Tokyu Hands due to the misprint.

Singapore’s privacy watchdog fines three insurers for data breaches. Gabriel Olano. (5 May 2018). https://www.insurancebusinessmag.com/asia/news/breaking-news/singapores-privacy-watchdog-fines-three-insurers-for-data-breaches-99807.aspx. Insurance Business Asia.

Flaws: Confidence Interval and P-value

Confidence Interval Problem

A type II error is a statistical term used within the context of hypothesis testing that describes the error that occurs when one fails to reject a null hypothesis that is actually false. In other words, it produces a false positive… A type II error is sometimes called a beta error.

A type II error can be reduced by making more stringent criteria for rejecting a null hypothesis. For instance, if an analyst is considering anything that falls within a +/- 95% confidence interval as statistically significant, by increasing that tolerance to =/- 99% you reduce the chances of a false positive. However, doing so at the same time increases your chances of encountering a type I error. When conducting a hypothesis test, the probability or risks of making a type I error or type II error should be considered…

The difference between a type II error and a type I error is that a type I error rejects the null hypothesis when it is true (a false negative). The probability of committing a type I error is equal to the level of significance that was set for the hypothesis test. Therefore, if the level of significance is 0.05, there is a 5% chance a type I error may occur.

The probability of committing a type II error is equal to 1 minus the power of the test, also known as beta. The power of the test could be increased by increasing the sample size, which decreases the risk of committing a type II error.

Adam Hayes. (Apr 19, 2019). Type II Error. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/t/type-ii-error.asp. Canada/US. [Investopedia is part of the Dotdash publishing family and operates under CEO Neil Vogel and the rest of the Dotdash Senior Management Team.]

P-value Difficulty

…Texas A&M University professor Valen Johnson, writing in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, argues that p less than .05 is far too weak a standard.

Using .05 is, he contends, a key reason why false claims are published and many published results fail to replicate. He advocates requiring .005 or even .001 as the criterion for statistical significance.

The p value is at the heart of the most common approach to data analysis – null hypothesis significance testing (NHST). Think of NHST as a waltz with three steps…

Most researchers don’t appreciate that p is highly unreliable. Repeat your experiment and you’ll get a p value that could be extremely different. Even more surprisingly, p is highly unreliable even for very large samples…

…there’s a price to pay for demanding stronger evidence. In typical cases, we’d need to roughly double our sample sizes to still have a reasonable chance of finding true effects. Using larger samples would indeed be highly desirable, but sometimes that’s simply not possible…

…The core problem is that NHST panders to our yearning for certainty by presenting the world as black or white — an effect is statistically significant or not; it exists or it doesn’t. In fact our world is many shades of grey — I won’t pretend to know how many. We need something more nuanced than NHST, and fortunately there are good alternatives.

Bayesian techniques are highly promising and becoming widely used. Most readily available and already widely used is estimation based on confidence intervals.

A confidence interval gives us the best estimate of the true effect, and also indicates the extent of uncertainty in our results. Confidence intervals are also what we need to use meta-analysis, which allows us to integrate results from a number of experiments that investigate the same issue.

We often need to make clear decisions — whether or not to licence the new drug, for example — but NHST provides a poor basis for such decisions. It’s far better to use the integration of all available evidence to guide decisions, and estimation and meta-analysis provides that…

Geoff Cumming. The problem with p values: how significant are they, really?
(November 12, 2013). https://theconversation.com/the-problem-with-p-values-how-significant-are-they-really-20029. The Conversation Media Group, Level 1, 715 Swanston Street, Parkville, VIC 3010, Australia.

Related

Stats: Confidence Interval & P-value (Definitions)

I begin this particular journey after reading parts of Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide by Alex Reinhart (2015). It was interesting but too tough, so I sought out other books.

You can probably infer from my earlier post that I chanced upon Statistics 101 by David Borman. One key idea I tried to understand was this:

Reinhart advises users of statistics to replace point estimates (p values) with confidence intervals (estimates of uncertainty).

This is because Reinhart felt: “misinterpreted p values cause numerous false positives.”

Gord Doctorow. (22 May 2015). Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide. https://boingboing.net/2015/05/22/statistics-done-wrong-the-woe.html.

At my second or third reading of Borman, I gained more insight, yet it was far from enough so I did even more research. The below is my attempt at comprehending these two terms.

Confidence Interval

A Confidence Interval is a range of values we are fairly sure our true value lies in.

Confidence Intervals. (no date). https://www.mathsisfun.com/data/confidence-interval.html. MathsisFun.

The value from the sample (the specific term is statistic) can relate to a population parameter such as the mean (average) or relative frequency. Some suggest that the “ultimate goal of the field of statistics is to estimate a population parameter by use of sample statistics.” [Courtney Taylor. (24 Jun 2019). Learn the Difference Between a Parameter and a Statistic. ThoughtCo.]

Let’s consider the mean height of trees in Country A. If the sample achieves a 99% confidence interval, it means 99% of the data matches with the entire population. [99% of the data comes within 3 standard deviations under the bell curve/normal distribution; for 95% it is 2 standard deviations. Borman, p. 129.]

P-value Definition (with other definitions for clarity)

Hypothesis: A statement that might be true, which can then be tested.

Chi-Square Test. (no date). https://www.mathsisfun.com/data/chi-square-test.html. MathsisFun.

A p-value is

  • “the level of marginal significance within a statistical hypothesis test representing the probability of the occurrence of a given event.”
  • “an alternative to rejection points to provide the smallest level of significance at which the null hypothesis would be rejected. A smaller p-value means that there is stronger evidence in favor of the alternative hypothesis.”
  • “calculated using p-value tables or spreadsheet/statistical software.”

Brian Beers. (26 Apr 2019). P-Value Definition. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/p-value.asp .

Applying the P-value

Because different researchers use different levels of significance when examining a question, a reader may sometimes have difficulty comparing results from two different tests…

The p-value approach to hypothesis testing uses the calculated probability to determine whether there is evidence to reject the null hypothesis. The null hypothesis, also known as the conjecture, is the initial claim about a population of statistics.

The alternative hypothesis states whether the population parameter differs from the value of the population parameter stated in the conjecture. In practice, the p-value, or critical value, is stated in advance to determine how the required value to reject the null hypothesis.

Brian Beers. (26 Apr 2019). P-Value Definition. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/p-value.asp.

How small of a p-value do we need in order to reject the null hypothesis? The answer to this is, “It depends.” A common rule of thumb is that the p-value must be less than or equal to 0.05, but there is nothing universal about this value.

Courtney Taylor. (18 May 2017). What Is a P-Value? https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-p-value-3126392.

Why p<0.05 ?

It is just a choice! Using p<0.05 is common, but we could have chosen p<0.01 to be even more sure…

Chi-Square Test. (no date). https://www.mathsisfun.com/data/chi-square-test.html. MathsisFun.

The null hypothesis states a commonly held belief or premise which the researcher tests to see if they can reject it. The key point to grasp is that the researcher wants to always reject the null hypothesis and the P-test aids them in achieving this goal. Another point to note is that if the P-test fails to reject the null hypothesis then the test is deemed to be inconclusive and is in no way meant to be an affirmation of the null hypothesis.

Akhilesh Ganti. (1 Jun 2019). P-test. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/p-test.asp.

Example of P-value Testing

Assume an investor claims that their investment portfolio’s performance is equivalent to that of the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500 Index. In order to determine this, the investor conducts a two-tailed test. The null hypothesis states that the portfolio’s returns are equivalent to the S&P 500’s returns over a specified period, while the alternative hypothesis states that the portfolio’s returns and the S&P 500’s returns are not equivalent. If the investor conducted a one-tailed test, the alternative hypothesis would state that the portfolio’s returns are either less than or greater than the S&P 500’s returns.

One commonly used p-value is 0.05. If the investor concludes that the p-value is less than 0.05, there is strong evidence against the null hypothesis. As a result, the investor would reject the null hypothesis and accept the alternative hypothesis.

Conversely, if the p-value is greater than 0.05, that indicates that there is weak evidence against the conjecture, so the investor would fail to reject the null hypothesis. If the investor finds that the p-value is 0.001, there is strong evidence against the null hypothesis, and the portfolio’s returns and the S&P 500’s returns may not be equivalent.

Brian Beers. (26 Apr 2019). P-Value Definition. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/p-value.asp.

Other views on Reinhart’s book

Merging Business with Compliance

Efforts to improve employee health and safety by depicting related changes as profitable…

Terms/Glossary

WSH 2028 = Workplace Safety and Health

Promoting Benefits and Recognizing Best Practices

…This was another important strategy which was pursued and implemented. The aim was to promote a better understanding of the benefits of good WSH performance among employers. WSH was shown to enhance business value by creating a good corporate image, and results in cost savings through higher productivity and reduced work disruptions from accidents. Sharing of best practices was encouraged to promote cross industry learning and to facilitate an environment of continuous improvement.

Can We Reduce Workplace Fatalities by Half? David Soo Quee Koh. (Received 23 November 2011, Revised 6 January 2012, Accepted 19 January 2012, Available online 17 July 2013). https://doi.org/10.5491/SHAW.2012.3.2.104. Science Direct.

…There is also a strong focus on enhancing workforce health and the use of technology for safe work practices.

…First, WSH 2028 places a bigger onus on prevention of work injuries and diseases by employers and workers than before.

New measures include sharing work injury compensation claims data for differentiated insurance premiums based on a company’s safety record and public-sector developers harmonising the disqualification criteria for contractors.

…A more positive measure in WSH 2028 is the call for companies to develop guidelines on job adaptations for workers with chronic diseases such as diabetes.

[Dr Gan Wee Hoe is Vice President of the College of Public Health and Occupational Physicians, Academy of Medicine Singapore. Dr Chia Kee Seng is Professor at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore.] Why Singapore’s new approach to workplace safety and health matters (to you). TODAY. https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/why-singapores-new-approach-workplace-safety-and-health-matters-you. (15 Apr 2019). Singapore.

References / Other compliance examples

Learn how to read: Scientific Papers!

How to (seriously) read a scientific paper. Elisabeth Pain. Mar. 21, 2016 , 1:15 PM. Science magazine. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2016/03/how-seriously-read-scientific-paper.

Many selected entries from the above article :  )

There are four interview questions within. Hope it benefits you!

How do you approach reading a paper?

I first get a general idea by reading the abstract and conclusions. The conclusions help me understand if the goal summarized in the abstract has been reached, and if the described work can be of interest for my own study. I also always look at plots/figures, as they help me get a first impression of a paper. Then I usually read the entire article from beginning to end, going through the sections in the order they appear so that I can follow the flow of work that the authors want to communicate.

If you want to make it a productive exercise, you need to have a clear idea of which kind of information you need to get in the first place, and then focus on that aspect. It could be to compare your results with the ones presented by the authors, put your own analysis into context, or extend it using the newly published data. Citation lists can help you decide why the paper may be most relevant to you by giving you a first impression of how colleagues that do similar research as you do may have used the paper.

– Cecilia Tubiana, scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Göttingen, Germany

If I’m aiming to just get the main points, I’ll read the abstract, hop to the figures, and scan the discussion for important points. I think the figures are the most important part of the paper, because the abstract and body of the paper can be manipulated and shaped to tell a compelling story. Then anything I’m unclear about, I head to the methodology.

If I want to delve deeper into the paper, I typically read it in its entirety and then also read a few of the previous papers from that group or other articles on the same topic. If there is a reference after a statement that I find particularly interesting or controversial, I also look it up. Should I need more detail, I access any provided data repositories or supplemental information.

Then, if the authors’ research is similar to my own, I see if their relevant data match our findings or if there are any inconsistencies. If there are, I think about what could be causing them. Additionally, I think about what would happen in our model if we used the same methods as they did and what we could learn from that. Sometimes, it is also important to pay attention to why the authors decided to conduct an experiment in a certain way. Did the authors use an obscure test instead of a routine assay, and why would they do this?

– Jeremy C. Borniger, doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Ohio State University, Columbus

I usually start with the abstract, which gives me a brief snapshot of what the study is all about. Then I read the entire article, leaving the methods to the end unless I can’t make sense of the results or I’m unfamiliar with the experiments.

The results and methods sections allow you to pull apart a paper to ensure it stands up to scientific rigor. Always think about the type of experiments performed, and whether these are the most appropriate to address the question proposed. Ensure that the authors have included relevant and sufficient numbers of controls. Often, conclusions can also be based on a limited number of samples, which limits their significance.

I like to print out the paper and highlight the most relevant information, so on a quick rescan I can be reminded of the major points. Most relevant points would be things that change your thinking about your research topic or give you new ideas and directions.

– Lachlan Gray, deputy head of the HIV Neuropathogenesis Lab at the Burnet Institute and adjunct research fellow in the Department of Infectious Disease at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia

First I read very fast: The point of the first reading is simply to see whether the paper is interesting for me. If it is I read it a second time, slower and with more attention to detail.

If the paper is vital to my research—and if it is theoretical—I would reinvent the paper. In such cases, I only take the starting point and then work out everything else on my own, not looking into the paper. Sometimes this is a painfully slow process. Sometimes I get angry about the authors not writing clearly enough, omitting essential points and dwelling on superfluous nonsense. Sometimes I am electrified by a paper.

– Ulf Leonhardt, professor of physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel

I nearly always read the abstract first and only continue on to the paper if the abstract indicates that the paper will be of value to me. Then, if the topic of the paper is one I know well, I generally skim the introduction, reading its last paragraph to make sure I know the specific question being addressed in the paper. Then I look at the figures and tables, either read or skim the results, and lastly skim or read the discussion.

If the topic is not one I know well, I usually read the introduction much more carefully so that the study is placed into context for me. Then I skim the figures and tables and read the results.

– Charles W. Fox, professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington

It is important to realize that shortcuts have to be taken when reading papers so that there is time left to get our other work done, including writing, conducting research, attending meetings, teaching, and grading papers. Starting as a Ph.D. student, I have been reading the conclusions and methods of academic journal articles and chapters rather than entire books.

– Rima Wilkes, professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver

What do you do when there is something you don’t understand?

I will typically pause immediately to look up things I don’t understand. The rest of the reading may not make sense if I don’t understand a key phrase or jargon. This can backfire a bit, though, as I often go down never-ending rabbit holes after looking something up (What is X? Oh, X influences Y. … So what’s Y? etc…). This can be sort of fun as you learn how everything is connected, but if you’re crunched for time this can pull your attention away from the task at hand.

Sometimes, all the jargon in a paper can cloud the whole point of the experiments in the first place. In such cases, it helps to ask yourself, “What question were the authors trying to answer?” Then you can determine whether they succeeded or failed.

– Borniger

It depends on how much the non-understandable bits prevent me from following the main ideas. I usually do not try to understand all the details in all the sections the first time I read a paper. If non-understandable parts appear important for my research, I try to ask colleagues or even contact the lead author directly. Going back to the original references to get all the background information is the last resort, because time can be limited and collaborations and personal contacts can be much more efficient in solving specific problems.

– Tubiana

Lately, I have had to read a number of papers outside my area of expertise with a lot of unfamiliar jargon. In some cases, I am able to directly extract the information I need from the results or figures and tables. In other cases, I use Google searches to define terms and concepts in the paper or read the cited references to better understand the points being made. Occasionally, papers are so incomprehensible (to me, at least) that I don’t bother reading them.

– Fox

Do you ever feel overwhelmed reading papers, and how do you deal with that?

All the time. If the paper is relevant to a problem I am trying to solve, you can be sure that there are key things in the paper that I do not understand. That confusion is not a threat; it is an opportunity. I am ignorant; I need to become less ignorant. This paper may help me.

Simultaneously, some papers are written terribly and are not worth the effort. Someone else has surely written about the concepts more clearly so that I can keep my confusion focused on understanding substance rather than poor grammar.

– Brian Nosek, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Center for Open Science in Charlottesville

If I feel the paper is very important to what I’m doing, I’ll leave it a while and go back to it again a couple of times. But if it’s too overwhelming, then I have to leave it aside, unless someone among the colleagues I have contacted has been able to interpret it.

– Gary McDowell, postdoctoral fellow in developmental biology at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and visiting scholar at Boston College

Do you have any other tips you’d like to share?

If there is a seminal paper I want to thoroughly understand, I find some way to give a journal club-style presentation about it. Speaking about a particular paper and answering questions is the best way for me to learn the material.

Also, get a good reference manager. Mendeley helps me do my research, read literature, and write papers.

– Lina A. Colucci, doctoral candidate at the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology program

At the beginning, new academic readers find it slow because they have no frame of reference for what they are reading. But there are ways to use reading as a system of creating a mental library, and after a few years, it becomes easy to slot papers onto your mental shelves. Then you can quickly skim a paper to know its contribution.

– Wilkes

Be patient. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to use Wikipedia or other, more lay-audience sources like blog posts to get a feel for your topic. Ask many, many questions. If you can’t get a clear understanding of the paper, talk with people in your circle. If you are still confused and it’s really important to understand the concepts, email the authors.

– Kevin Boehnke, doctoral candidate in environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

If at all possible, read often. Try to keep a bibliography file with a summary of the article, any important points, even a figure or two, along with citation information. Pay attention to different ways of structuring an article, and pay attention to different styles of writing. This will help you develop a style that is effective and also unique.

– Jesse Shanahan, master’s candidate in astronomy at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut

Career: Regulatory Medical Writing

Here we zoom in on the final type (from Career: Medical Writing) – regulatory.

First, part of a recruitment ad:

…The Phase II-IV Medical Writing group, which is part of the Biostatistics Department, includes Writers who prepare documents in support of clinical trials and who assist Regulatory Affairs professionals with marketing applications, INDs, pediatric investigational plans, clinical trial applications, and other types of regulatory documents…

The Medical Writer collaborates with internal and sponsor team members to interpret, distill, and summarize complex data concepts. Other tasks include presentation of clinical messages in clinical study reports, summarisation of preclinical and clinical studies for preparation of investigator’s brochures, and referencing current research and regulatory guidelines for preparation of protocols. Their work documenting clinical study trials covers a wide range of therapeutic indications.

Qualifications required:

• Education to Bachelor’s/advanced degree level in a scientific discipline
• 3+ years of experience within regulatory medical writing
• Excellent grammatical, editorial and proofreading skills…

Senior Medical Writer, Regulatory – PPD. (accessed 1 May 2019). https://www.emwa.org/resources/jobs/senior-medical-writer-regulatory-ppd/#. European Medical Writers Association. Registered Office: Chester House, 68 Chestergate, Macclesfield, Cheshire, SK11 6DY.

What this could mean in real life:

…many of us spend at least 6 hours a day sitting at a desk, staring at the computer screen, working with statistical outputs (in the form of tables and graphs), literature, and slide presentations. The rest of the time is spent editing, answering the telephone, attending meetings, and discussing research with investigators and project team members. Medical writers work on clinical trial protocols and reports (documenting research that is conducted to demonstrate the efficacy and safety of a particular drug), newsletters or materials for medical education programmes (describing a new drug to health care practitioners and to patients), and marketing materials promoting health care products or services. Writing submission documents, particularly clinical trial reports, can be greatly facilitated by standardization of text modules. This is achieved with the help of guidelines from the International Conference of Harmonization, International Good Clinical Practices, and companies’ Standard Operating Procedures. Likewise, writing a manuscript for publication is guided by the “Instructions to Authors” from the medical journal.

Medical Writing Careers–A Singaporean’s Perspective. Yeo Jing Ping. May. 31, 2002, 8:00 AM. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2002/05/medical-writing-careers-singaporeans-perspective. Science Mag. American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Yeo also adds: “Medical writers come from just about every scientific discipline. Besides the obvious professions–medicine, biology, pharmacology, and the like–there are some medical writers in the West who began their careers in journalism and teaching and thus have strong writing experience.”

Another example from Europe?

…In broad terms, a regulatory writer assists in the production of the clinical documentation required by these national regulatory agencies when assessing the safety and efficacy of drugs… Investigators’ brochures provide information on all that is currently known about the medicine and so need periodic updating; accurate and concise protocols are required to ensure that trials are performed effectively; clinical trial reports (generally from phase II and III studies) present the information gathered from the trials; higher level documents provide summaries of efficacy and safety data from clinical trial programmes; expert reports provide critical interpretation of the results; and response documents clarify any points that are not clear to the regulatory agencies or provide additional analyses or supporting data for any items of concern…

Of course, regulatory writers do not work in isolation on these documents. They often require input from a wide variety of people including medics, statisticians, and clinical research associates, who usually have the most comprehensive knowledge of trial procedures and access to all the bits of information that are not found anywhere else…

The other aspect of the job that I find rewarding is the variety, not only in the type of documents that have to be written, but also in the different therapeutic areas I work in. Even within the writing of a single document, for example, a clinical trial report, the range of tasks that have to be completed, and the variety of skills utilised, is quite broad…

Of course, as with any job, there are frustrations. There are the pressures of tight deadlines, delays in availability of data, differences of opinion on content, and, a particular personal bugbear, the arrival of late comments when one had thought everything was finally perfect…

Attention to detail and conciseness of presentation are important aspects of the job, so a good, clear CV is essential. (Statements like “I am an expert prof-reader” don’t go down well!) A lot of clinical documentation is produced according to strict guidelines, so if you are given a writing test, stick exactly to what is asked for; if you are not sure, ask. Because the job will invariably involve liaising with people from a variety of disciplines, you must be able to get on with other people and also be able to defend your corner… General knowledge of statistics is helpful but not essential… A logical approach to work and the ability to report the facts accurately, simply, and concisely are very important, as… creativity and problem-solving ability. Overall though, a good regulatory writer must have enthusiasm for handling data; possess that quality and the rest comes relatively easily!

Careers in Medical Writing: Regulatory Writing– What’s That Then? Mark Hughes. May. 4, 2001, 8:00 AM. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2001/05/careers-medical-writing-regulatory-writing-whats-then. Science Mag. American Association for the Advancement of Science.