By Grant Jacobs 19/01/2016 16

In further news on the Wilyman anti-vaccine PhD thesis saga, University of Wollongong says it will conduct a review of the processes in PhD theses. But! — apparently their review will exclude past and current theses, and thus exclude Wilyman’s theses that raised the need for the review.

Let’s have a look at the announcement, some possible review questions and wider attention this controversy has garnered.

A general review, but not of the theses in question

We learn of this from The Australian,

VC Paul Wellings attempted to put a lid on it yesterday by asking DVC (R) Judy Raper to conduct a review of the processes into awarding PhDs at UoW. Her report is due in late May. Problem with that approach is that it won’t assess current or past PhDs — which means the Wilyman doctorate won’t come under consideration. And if we have to be honest, the s*@t storm embroiling UoW is not about PhDs generally but the Wilyman one specifically. What can come of such a review? Is it merely a desperate attempt to quell the controversy? Heaven forbid.

I applaud that they are at least doing something, but it seems unexpected that a review of thesis processes would not make use of known examples of theses that are considered to be questionable by other academics — especially when there is a particular case that prompted the review!

Looking at problematic cases might highlight deficiencies that want attending to that would be hard to uncover in a general review. It may also leave the points considered hypothetical, whereas using the actual case(s) would present real and actual actions to consider.

Child receiving polio immunization. Public domain, taken form wikimedia, original source: USAID Bangladesh
Child receiving polio immunization. Public domain, from wikimedia, original source: USAID Bangladesh

Most theses will be fine (you hope!); I wonder how much value a general review would bring.

Furthermore, you would think that awkward problems are better dealt with directly, rather than what might be read as skirting around them (even if this might address wider issues).

Some possible review questions

That aside, relevant questions that might be considered in a review could include —

  • Are reviews of thesis proposals sufficiently robust to exclude those unlikely to present anything novel, or are at risk of presenting unsound work?
  • Do theses spanning more than one discipline (or department or school) have robust means in place to ensure that both disciplines are represented to a high standard. This would include that supervisors in both disciplines be involved, and that interim reviews be taken by experts in both disciplines. (It is extremely hard to see how Wilyman’s thesis cannot be considered to have a [medical] science component, and equally how to see how it might pass interim reviews for the science aspects.)
  • Are steps to ensure unsuitable candidates are eliminated early robust and set a high enough standard? Public funds, and university staff time and resources are involved that could be used elsewhere. Perhaps this might include reviewing conflicts of interest, such as previous scientifically unsound views on the topic of the thesis, an unwillingness to consider and weigh material. (It has been widely reported that Wilyman was unwilling to consider material offered by appropriately qualified medical research staff.)
  • If the thesis was initiated at another university, or a related thesis started at another university, are reports from that university considered in the steps above? (See re Murdoch University below.)
  • Is there too much say by supervisors or students in the selection of examiners? Should examiners be set with the involvement of, or by, a higher level committee? (It is extremely difficult to see a sound examination of the scientific aspects, upon which Wilyman’s work is build, passing examination by a sound science examiner. One possibility is that too much leeway is available ‘find’ ‘favourable’ examiners.)

I’ve left a few out as I have to move on to other things. Readers are free to suggest more in the comments below.

One that appeals to me is that PhD theses ask students to publish in (good!) peer-reviewed journals before preparing the thesis. This has the effect their work is reviewed by independent scientists. It also occurs to me that these reviewers comments might be included in the thesis review. (In some countries, PhD theses are essentially bound copies of the papers students have published, with introduction and discussion.)

It would be interesting to learn of the scope of the review. (I could not find information on this from the university, only The Australian’s reporting of it.)

It’s worth mentioning that the right to award higher degrees (accreditation) is usually set by the government and is a responsibility to the public (not the institution). This is passed on to staff carrying out higher degree programs. It is the universities’ job to ensure that the expected standards asked of accreditation are maintained. (I believe the Australian Qualifications Framework is the organisation that administers this in Australia.)

It’s also worth noting that Wilyman’s Masters thesis (PDF file) is also has been criticised. This was also taken at the University of Wollongong, but under the School of Health Sciences. (Her PhD is under the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry.)

This doesn’t seem to have been the first time that the University of Wollongong has acted in a way suggesting abdication of responsibility for Wilyman’s thesis. Google searches suggest something similar took place in 2012.

Wider attention to the controversy

The controversy was gained attention elsewhere. It now has it’s own Wikipedia page, Judith Wilyman PhD controversy and Facebook group, Judy Wilyman PhD thesis critique.

The Australian Skeptics Society are fielding requests their annual Bent Spoon award be awarded to “the University of Wollongong for its approval of a PhD thesis by notorious anti-vaccination campaigner Judy Wilyman.” They conclude that “the University of Wollongong […] and Wilyman will feature as prominent candidates when the Australian Skeptics’ annual awards are announced later this year.” They also note that “was previously working on her PhD at Murdoch University”. It would be interesting to know if internal reviews of her thesis progress at Murdoch played a part her shift to Wollongong, and, if so, if these reviews were considered as part of her acceptance at Wollongong.

(There are some suggestions on-line that Murdoch University was unhappy at her unauthorised use of their logo in her anti-vaccine poster and that Murdoch University spent money having these posters removed from anti-vaccine websites.)

AJP (Australia) has reported that “Senior health and medical researchers at the University of Wollongong have united to urge all parents to ensure their children are fully immunised.”

You can find links to earlier commentary on this thesis at Sciblogs under Responses to *that* PhD thesis.


The featured image is public domain, sourced from Tara Haelle’s article, 15 Myths About Anti-Vaxxers, Debunkedat Forbes. (See part 2.)

Other articles on Code for life:

Vaccination – why learn the hard way?

Rubella, not a benign disease if experienced during early pregnancy

How vaccines work – a primer

Vaccination rates in NZ and what do those that delay infant immunisation think?

Dodgy experts in the coroner’s inquest into Jasmine Renata’s death?

Fact or fallacy, a survey of immunisation statements in the print media

Immunisation, then and now

16 Responses to “Wilyman anti-vaccine thesis not in Wollongong thesis review”

  • “In some countries, Ph.D. theses are essentially bound copies of the papers students have published, with introduction and discussion” – including NZ; it’s becoming more common, in the sciences anyway, at my own institution.

    • When I was doing my PhD there was some debate about whether the department/university should outright endorse a “PhD by publication”. Certainly some of my peers were only writing the intro and conclusion of the thesis, with each chapter a stand-alone piece that had already been accepted for publication. (I had just one chapter already published.) I think it’s a no-brainer. You get a thesis that has already passed the veracity test and you encourage students to publish early in their careers. I’d like to see it openly endorsed by all of our universities. At the very least we’d avoid having any institutes embarrassed the way the University of Wollongong undoubtedly has been.

    • Agree Alison – my PhD was exactly this…all publications (mainly in J.Virol) were bound into the back of the thesis.

  • On another blog, I learnt that her first ‘Other Publication’ seems to confuse what constitutes authorship.

    Wilyman J. 2011. Questioning the Evidence for HPV Vaccine. ABC online Health Report, October 13.

    certainly cites and quotes her, but Wilyman is not the author; Anna Saleh is. (Surely Wilyman doesn’t think that because her words are quoted that constitutes another publication “by” her?) Then there’s is an ABC website article really ought to be cited as PhD reference/publication.

    (From The Wilyman PhD by Kristin Boyle.

    • Opps.


      “Then there’s is an ABC website article really ought to be cited as PhD reference/publication.”

      should read:

      “Then there’s if an ABC website article really ought to be cited as PhD reference/publication.”

      My apologies.

  • When it comes down to it this sort of thesis should be intercepted when the topic is first proposed. No student should be allowed to start research on such a potentially flawed topic. Also they should have access to supervisors with actual expertise in the area they are studying.
    I think the university and the supervisors have not shown duty of care in telling the student early on that the topic was not a sensible one to pursue

  • I like the concept of thesis-by-publishing—it’s why I mentioned it—but you still have to review the standard of the publications and the science.

    I agree with Michael that this more looks a case where the thesis should not have been undertaken and that particular attention should be placed on how her proposal was approved, and early feedback.

  • A.Dr Judy Wilyman had to leave Murdoch University following the departure of her supervisor from Murdoch, Dr Peter Dingle, which occurred after his involvement in his wife’s death from quackery [1-4]. Judy Wilyman re-enrolled at UoW as a remote student, and is still based in Perth, Western Australia.
    B. Dr Anna Salleh’s PhD supervisor was also Prof. Brian Martin.
    C. With regards to Dr Wilyman’s papers (sole and joint) in Infectious Agents and Cancer:
    i. The journal accepts nominations of peer reviewers from authors. As a result, the peer review on the joint paper in particular is incredibly light. [5]
    ii. On the joint paper they listed funding from two anti-vaccination groups but did not mention this as a conflict of interest. [5]

    [5] Obtained from the journal web site (links now dead) and reproduced here for the purposes of fair criticism under copyright law:

    • Finally got to reading these, thank you for making them available. I am amazed at the reviews, they are the most concise I have seen and fail to note the glaring omissions, one of the reviewers is from OMICS, yikes. Never mind, it is only a letter to the editor. Which brings me to ask, if this was a PhD by publication surely this Letter to Ed was not included as one of the publications? Haven’t time to look….I have recently had two Letters to Ed published in a Springer journal and I am willing to bet a good bottle of wine no one reviewed them, accepted in two days then into ePrint. Hope they review articles with more rigor!

      • Helen,

        Good point about it being a letter to the editor. If it has no active research element, I’d have thought it should to be listed under “other publications”. (Leaving her with one publication in support of her thesis, from the same journal – you’d worry about the peer-review of that if the review of the letter is anything to go by.)

        From memory both reviewers have unexpected expertise, too: Obstetrician/Gynaecologist. (Not given in the report, but from what I found on google – if correct, etc.)

        On your blog someone suggested this was ‘thesis by publication’. Is there a set number of publications that are expected?

        I have to admit it makes me wonder that if publications are to be considered for theses, that having the reviewers’ comments available as part of the examination process might be useful. Of course, this still presumes the examiners to be appropriate, doing a good job, etc.

        • I think in order to include publications in a thesis at UoA the candidate must be lead or sole author and the work must had been undertaken under supervision for the degree. It should also be integrated in the thesis.

          • Helen – that was certainly the case with my PhD (virology at University of Melbourne). It had 6 publications – most published in J.Virol that included work done while under supervision and on which I was the lead author. The exception was a hypothesis published in Lancet – but it was based on observations made during the research.

  • Title: University stands by anti-vaccine student – The Australian; Sep 2012
    “Vice-chancellor Paul Wellings refused to comment on Ms Wilyman’s ongoing candidature, but a university spokesman said the institution stood by Ms Wilyman because her personal views did not inform her work.”
    “Any ‘conspiracy’ theories she may have are independent of her relationship with the University of Wollongong. Her PhD has to meet the rigorous standards set by the university,” he said.”

    Fancy that!!