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Conflict among Wilyman PhD examiners

Details have come to light about the examiners’ assessments of Judy Wilyman’s anti-vaccination PhD thesis at the University of Wollongong, with “serious concerns” and “very critical” comments made about the anti-vaccination document that claims pro-vaccination conspiracies on a global scale.

Wilyman has taken leading a anti-vaccination role for some time, including presentations at anti-vaccination rallies and support for the Australian [anti]Vaccination-Skeptics Network.

Now, based on documents recently released by the University under a GIPA freedom of information request, it has been revealed that one of two unnamed examiners who reviewed the thesis suggested that it was definitely not worthy of achieving PhD status, and was more in line with a Master’s degree level.

That examiner expressed “serious concerns about a lack of engagement with existing literature and the lack of an appropriate theoretical framework”. They also felt that the thesis showed no evidence that Wilyman (pictured above) conducted original research, nor that it demonstrated that she had made “a significant contribution to the knowledge of the subject”.

In fact, the only areas where the examiner felt Wilyman had met with relevant standards were that it was presented in a manner and level appropriate to the field of research and that the literary standard was adequate. In other words, it met basic standards of presentation.

A second examiner, however, “praised the thesis and recommends awarding a PhD without revision”. A University summary of the opinions suggests that the second examiner said it represented “meticulous study”. While the correspondence released is heavily redacted, nowhere in what has been released is there an indication by this examiner that they thought the study was meticulous. In fact, when asked as a matter of course if they thought the thesis was “outstanding” and recommended for “special commendation”, they answered “no”.

Considering these stark differences, the University decided to ask a third examiner to review the thesis.

Of 32 PhD candidates submitted to a Thesis Examination Committee on December 3, 2014, Wilyman was one of only three where a third examiner was required.

That third examiner, also unnamed, judged that, while the thesis as assessed showed Wilyman conducted original research, it did not make a significant contribution to knowledge of the subject, had no indication of a broad understanding of the discipline within which the work was conducted, and that it was not suitable for publication.

They recommended that the thesis be resubmitted, and gave “extensive and detailed comments on areas that need to be improved”, sharing the same concerns as the earlier critical examiner.

These extensive comments by the third examiner have not been released, but their assessment was described as “very critical” by Patrick McGivern, senior lecturer in philosophy and Head of Postgraduate Studies, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University.

A revised thesis was presented by Wilyman, and only one examiner was asked for their views. The examiner who passed the original thesis without change was regarded as a given. Presumably the revised version was sent to the third examiner, and that the examiner who had “serious concerns” was not asked to look at the revised version.

This revised version was approved by the third examiner.

McGivern told Wilyman’s PhD supervisor, Brian Martin, that this was “Certainly a welcome result!”, perhaps indicating relief that the process was apparently behind them.

Wilyman’s PhD was approved by the University’s Thesis Examination Committee In November last year.

But if the University felt that that was the end of the matter, they did not account for the reaction when the PhD was announced. They suddenly found themselves faced with criticism, disappointment and even outrage from academics both within the University of Wollongong and elsewhere, concerned members of the public and the media. This criticism continues to this day.

The University has defended its decision on the grounds of “academic freedom”, despite serious errors and misrepresentations highlighted in the thesis. It has not released the names of examiners, citing “longstanding policy and practice” but also that it could have a “detrimental effect on their physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing”. In other words, suggesting that the community critical of the PhD may physically attack the examiners, which verges on a libellous depiction of members of that community.

The University has not, as yet, responded to Australian Skeptics’ inquiries as to whether the awarding of a PhD can be reversed.

Wollongong University has been nominated for a Bent Spoon award by a large and growing number of people.

Tim Mendham:

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  • So, reading between the lines, a social scientist thought it looked pretty and an actual scientist said yes it looks pretty but it's complete bollocks from beginning to end.

    The serious question here is why these comments, which go directly to the academic rigour of the work (lack of engagement with the literature, for example, is absolutely spot on since no reference is made to the mountain of work refuting the thesis) did not prompt a much more serious review of the work.

    In the end I think the staff probably thought that having spent years working on it and having actually submitted, Wilyman was pretty much entitled to a PhD. That is not an uncommon view in academia, and in fact it's right up to a point: her studies should have been terminated after no more than 12 months when it became apparent that she was going to use conjecture with no credible basis in fact and ignore all evidence contradicting her pre-existing beliefs.

      • Ah yes, evidence, the thing that Wilyman ignored so assiduously in her PhD. One piece of evidence I'd like to see would be the reviewer comments in the other PhDs that required a third referee. Did any other PhD have a critique stating that it was worthless? In this case, it is abundantly clear that the PhD thesis is indeed worthless, so it would be interesting to compare.

  • What about the detrimental effect on the public's physical, psychological or emotional well being from this work being released. This is seems really unethical and the fact the people who approved this don't want to release their names raises a lot of red flags, like are they embarrassed by this? Can't they own what they say with conviction? I will just glaze over anything that University comes out with in the future.

    • Yes - what worries me more is that the general public does not know the difference between the social and natural sciences. They just hear PhD and assume the person must know what they are talking about.

  • What are these "vicious and repeated attacks being directed ... towards a then student (Wilyman)" that UOW always uses in its defence of Wilyman's freedom from critisism?. Has UOW reported these to police? Or did they take Prof Paranoid Martin's word on such a conspiracy?

    If so, then academic critique need to be reported to police! UOW, a full explanation is required!

  • University of Wollongong's "She has a right to her own opinion" stance is not in keeping with standards for awarding a PhD. Scholarly work needs to be honest, unbiased, and accurately based on valid, referenced evidence.

    • Yes. A PhD is not supposed to be a street-corner evangelists's rant, it is supposed to be rigorous academic work.

  • > It has not released the names of examiners, citing “longstanding policy and practice”
    > but also that it could have a “detrimental effect on their physical, psychological or
    > emotional wellbeing”.

    The notion of blind peer review is well established in academia, and in Australia thesis examiners conduct a blind review in which their identities are not revealed to the students. This is part of the contract which is agreed to by the university and the examiners. I expect that UOW legally cannot release the names of those examiners or they will be in breech of the contract. I note that along with fears listed, UOW also stated that privacy laws prevent them from releasing the identities of the examiners.

    • Apparently Australia is very different from the UK in this regard. Over here, the candidate knows who the examiners are, as the examination is done viva voce. The blindness in peer review is not quite the same thing; it exists to protect the reviewer from possible retaliation. The examiner's role is somewhat different from that of the reviewer, and in any case the candidate is not (yet) the examiners' peer - this being precisely the matter at hand during a PhD examination. More importantly, the primary accountability of the examiner is to the tax payer, who I believe is entitled to know who endorsed this work. The public would have a right to know who awarded a driver's license to a chimpanzee.

    • I know this is an older post, but I feel that I need to respond to it.

      I was awarded my PhD (by a different Australian university) fairly recently, and not only was I explicitly notified by the graduate school of who my examiners were, I was actively involved in *choosing* those examiners. At my university, the student has the right to nominate examiners who they would prefer, as well as any that they would prefer were not chosen. As it happens, the two selected by my supervisor and I were both agreed to by the examination committee, but they could just as easily have overridden our preferences; either way, we were notified as to exactly who the examiners were long before my thesis was ever sent out. I was forbidden from making any contact with my examiners during the period of the examination; however if I wished to get in touch with them now, name them publicly, or even make their comments on my thesis available to others, I would be entirely free to do so.

      So, thesis examination is not necessarily blind; it may simply be the case that UOW doesn't identify examiners to parties not involved in the examination process.