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.
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 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, Debunked, at Forbes. (See part 2.)