By Grant Jacobs 14/03/2016

Late last year Australia’s Wollongong University awarded a Ph.D. thesis for what could be described as a barely veiled anti-vaccine conspiracy. Wollongong University’s feeble excuse for not naming the examiners of Wilyman’s anti-vaccine thesis is laughable. Good for entertainment, though.*

Ken McLeod alerted readers of Helen Petousis Harris’ blog that The Australian has reported that,**

the university’s information compliance officer Carmel Perre said she had concluded there would be a reasonable expectation “the examiners would be offended, humiliated or intimidated by the conduct of the media and the public once their names are released”.

I guess I needed a laugh. I couldn’t help thinking out loud “well, yes”.

But then they might deserve that, and it’s not for the university to avoid it? It reads as an excuse by the university to try avoid further attention to ‘that’ thesis.

Seriously, if examiners’ reasoning is sound, they should have little to be concerned with. If not, then they should accept whatever criticism their reasoning draws. After all, this is a general principle of academic work.

The examiners most likely work for public institutions, like universities. In those institutions they’re ultimately responsible to the public.

The Australian goes on to quote a university spokesman as saying,

“Publicly disclosing the names of examiners would breach privacy laws, make prospective examiners reluctant to agree to examine theses in the future, and unreasonably expose them to the kind of harsh public criticism and personal attacks that so often characterise the vaccination debate, particularly on social media,”

There are, apparently, nations where examiners normally are named.*** I’m sure these nations publish theses of all kinds. I wouldn’t even be too surprised to learn that the international external examiner is from a nation that does this.

As for concerns about social media comments — if people elect to be involved in an area known for public controversy, they’re usually well aware of that and it’s their choice.

You can stumble onto something unexpectedly in writing about a topic new to you, as I did when using using XMRV-causes-CFS as an example of needing to cover the state of play in media, but examiners are supposed to be people with expertise in the topic at hand. They ought to be well aware of any controversy, and be taking the examination on knowing that.

In fact, they may be engaged in the controversy on social media or elsewhere by choice. (I think there is a reasonable chance this will prove to be the case here. After all, the student, Judy Wilyman, is an example of this.)

I ‘get’ the want to avoid humiliation, we all do. But if they can’t handle the scene, why take on the topic? Shouldn’t examiners for ‘robust’ topics want not to be vulnerable souls? There are parallels with blogging here. If you find it difficult to cope with the responses from writing on, say, GMOs (as I do) – then you write about something else. And if you do, you recognise that it’s part of that scene.

An earlier suggestion that all post-graduate degrees have the named examiners seems an idea worth exploring. Perhaps it’s time for this to happen?

I have to congratulate The Australian for staying on the case. Good on them.


Illustration: A meeting of doctors at the university of Paris; from the “Chants royaux” manuscript, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (16th century). Source: Wikipedia. Image is public domain. Author: Étienne Collault.

* Late night entertainment in my case.

** If you cannot read this article, a scanned download is available at Dropbox. (The scanned copy is quite a bit harder to read!)

*** I’m drawing this from previous discussions on twitter. Efforts to relocate the tweets have proved fruitless thus far — sorry.

Other articles on Code for life:

Unsound vaccine thesis or how to review a PhD

Wilyman anti-vaccine thesis not in Wollongong thesis review

Responses to *that* PhD thesis

Vaccination – why learn the hard way?

Rubella, not a benign disease if experienced during early pregnancy

If presenting a claim on a popular issue …

0 Responses to “Wollongong University—feeble excuses for not naming Wilyman anti-vax thesis examiners”

  • Did you really just reference one of your main arguments as coming from Twitter, and tweets you can’t find at that? That alone makes this entry sound like a parody.

    • Scientists discuss serious topics on Twitter all the time, so it being from Twitter in itself isn’t really here nor there. There is currently discussion of Lyme disease, and the human genome mutation load (including self-domestication of humans) near the top of my Twitter stream. The genetics people talk a lot about the new genomes and issues in gene sequencing. Bioinformatics people about computational methods. And so on. (Lightweight media dismisses all of Twitter with sweeping generalisations, but that’s lightweight journalism for you.)

      The tweets I was thinking of were in one of the follow-on discussions about Wilyman’s thesis – some of the researchers noted their PhD thesis examiners were known, and some others chipped in saying “me too”.

      The reason it’s hard to relocate is simply that ‘thesis’ + ‘examiner’ gives far to many matches!

      In any event it doesn’t take away the main thought, that it’d be worth looking at settings where disclosing examiners is routine and seeing how they fare.