a new critical analysis of the Wilyman thesis

A few years back, University of Wollongong student Judy Wilyman received a PhD for a thesis that claimed to offer a “critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy.

Both the thesis, and the processes at Wollongong in relation to PhD study and examination, attracted a considerable amount of scrutiny and criticism (see here and here, for example). Criticism that was well-deserved: you don’t expect a PhD thesis on a public health initiative to promote a conspiracy-theory ideation, for example, or to have such a superficial understanding of germ theory and the functioning of the immune system.

Now a group of researchers has subjected Wilyman’s thesis to the sort of scrutiny that it should have received during the examination process (Wiley, Leask, Burgess & McIntyre, 2019). They did this due to concerns that

some non-vaccinating parents are considering the thesis in their decision-making,

and that health care providers might be unaware of its nature.

Wiley and her colleagues noted that “the thesis involved no primary research” – but did involve a non-systematic review of the literature. They read and analysed the document and identified a number of significant deficiencies in the work:

  • It did not provide a critical analysis (despite its title), because the author’s choice of references was highly selective:

A critical analysis should consider the merits and faults of an issue and be conducted in a way that is not designed to find only evidence for the writer’s pre-determined conclusions.

That means that the thesis should include a description of how the relevant literature was assessed (it doesn’t), should identify contradictions in the literature (it doesn’t), or assess the quality of relevant papers (it doesn’t).

  • A number of Wilyman’s arguments ignore the available data.

[There] is a failure to include or address the majority of HPV vaccine safety and efficacy studies and reviews which contradict the arguments of the thesis. Secondly, the thesis demands ethically or technically impossible endpoints as the only way to prove vaccine effectiveness.

For example, as I noted myself in 2016, there was the statement that smallpox vaccine had never been clinically tested – with no attempt to answer the “I wonder why not” question.

  • It makes some quite misleading or inaccurate assertions, claiming, for example, that the WHO dictates Australian vaccination policies.

In contrast, Wiley et al. point out that

development of Australian vaccine policy and programs is based on local epidemiology and health systems.

  • The research is incomplete, assuming – for example – that all the information used to make decisions in relation to vaccination policy is found on government websites and in a couple of handbooks.

Again, the reviewers point out that you’d expect a PhD student writing on this subject to dig a lot more deeply that this:

More detailed enquiry would have identified that National Immunisation Technical Advisory Groups … use a far more comprehensive body of research than can be presented in summary documents, and may not be publicly available on government websites in its entirety.

Granting a PhD for this work effectively validated its claims and has been used by those opposed to vaccination to promote vaccine hesitancy among parents.

Those looking for balanced information about immunisation deserve a balanced critique of this thesis to aid them in their decision-making.

They surely do, and the new paper provides that. It also reflects badly on the thesis itself, the supervisor, and the institution that awarded the degree.


Featured image source: Compound Interest 

K.E.Wiley, J.Leask, M.A.Burgess, & P.B.McIntyre (2019) PhD thesis opposing immunisation: Failure of academic rigour with real-world consequences. Vaccine 37(12): 1541-1545  DOI: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2018.12.024

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