Mobbing of a PhD student: lessons and responsibilities

Published as "Asedio grupal a una estudiante de doctorado: lecciones y responsabilidades," In: Florencia Peña Saint Martin and Silvia Karla Fernández Marín (eds), Mobbing en la academia mexicana (Ediciones Eón, Mexico City, 2016), pp. 161–175. The English version is given here.

Brian Martin

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Doing a PhD can be quite challenging. It is a process of learning how to do research, usually taking several years, with high expectations for the quality of the work. Imagine trying to do a PhD while at the same time being subject to mobbing. That was the experience of my student Judy Wilyman.

My aim here is to describe the methods used in attack and defence, including by the student, supervisors and university, with some lessons for others who might be targeted. This case raises issues concerning motives and methods for attack, academic freedom, the responsibility of supervisors and university administrations, and methods of resistance.

The framework for this analysis is provided by studies of “suppression of dissent” (Delborne, 2008; Martin, 1999; Martin et al., 1986; Moran, 1998). When a researcher or teacher challenges orthodoxy, they may be met by reprisals. The result is a struggle involving knowledge and power, in which supporters of orthodoxy may deploy various techniques to silence and discredit dissidents. The reprisals, in many cases, fit the template of mobbing. What is then involved is mobbing as a way of suppressing dissent. Mobbing can also occur for other reasons, for example against minorities, and suppression can occur without mobbing, for example in cases of censorship; the special circumstance addressed here is the combination of suppression and mobbing. A single case study is used: mobbing of a research student whose studies challenge a medical orthodoxy.


Judy Wilyman did an undergraduate science degree and worked for 20 years as a high school science teacher in Wollongong, a city south of Sydney, Australia. She became interested in the issue of vaccination and did a master of science degree in population health at the University of Wollongong; her thesis examined the Australian government’s pertussis immunisation policy.

She wanted to do a PhD on vaccination, but the Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences would not provide supervisors because the topic was too political. She was advised to pursue her doctorate in the Arts Faculty, so in 2007 she came to me. I’m a social scientist and have supervised over 20 PhD students. I have done lots of research on scientific controversies (Martin, 2014a), so I could see how Judy could do a social science PhD in the area. The title of her thesis was “A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for vaccination policy.”

For personal reasons, Judy soon moved to Perth, on the other side of the continent, and at my suggestion changed her enrolment to Murdoch University. However, that arrangement did not work out, and in 2011 she re-enrolled at Wollongong University while living in Perth. The years 2011-2015, when she was doing her PhD with me, are the focus of attention here.

The mobbing context

Mobbing, or collective bullying, usually develops for a reason, though sometimes it is difficult to identify the original trigger. In Judy’s case, the reason is obvious enough. She debates vaccination in public forums, and there is a group of campaigners who want to silence any public questioning of the official government vaccination policy.

Some background is necessary. Vaccines are medicines designed to reduce infectious disease by giving people small amounts of modified disease pathogens intended to trigger immune-system responses that will protect them from the full-blown disease. Proponents say vaccination is one of the most important health measures in the past century (Andre et al., 2008; Offit and Bell, 2003).

Critics say the benefits of vaccination have been oversold because infectious diseases were declining anyway due to improvements in sanitation, nutrition and living conditions and that vaccination causes many more adverse effects than are normally recognised (Habakus and Holland, 2011; Halvorsen, 2007).

In Australia, government health departments all support vaccination, and so do most doctors and scientists. However, there are some citizen groups that publicly question vaccination and that support informed parental choice.[1] The largest and most visible vaccine-critical group was the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), set up in the mid 1990s by Meryl Dorey. The AVN produced a magazine, ran a large website and had some 2000 members. Dorey became the most prominent vaccination critic in the country.

In 2009, another group was set up: Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN).[2] Coordinated through a Facebook group, those in SAVN - called here SAVNers - set out to shut down the AVN using a variety of measures, including abusive comment about Dorey and other vaccine critics on the SAVN Facebook page, complaints to venues where Dorey was scheduled to speak intended to block her talks, and a concerted effort to discredit the AVN in online forums including Wikipedia and the Web of Trust. Other methods used against the AVN - in which SAVNers may or may not have been involved - were posting online the names and contact details of advertisers in the AVN’s magazine (thereby inviting harassment), sending pornography to Dorey and others, and sending threatening messages (Martin, 2011, 2012, 2015). SAVNers attacked (1) vaccine-critical views, (2) vaccine critics as individuals, (3) people associated with vaccine critics and (4) organisations providing vaccine critics with a platform.

SAVNers also made dozens of complaints to government agencies. Some of the agencies, for example the Health Care Complaints Commission and the Department of Fair Trading, then initiated investigations into the AVN, serving as a form of harassment and disparagement. SAVNers also complained to media organisations when they quoted Dorey or reported criticisms of vaccination, eventually leading some media to reduce their coverage of vaccine critics.[3]

Note that few SAVNers have professional qualifications or research experience relevant to the vaccination issues about which they make pronouncements. Most of them are non-experts defending the vaccination orthodoxy.

SAVN’s campaign was primarily against the AVN and in particular against Dorey, but SAVNers often broadened their aim and attacked homeopaths, chiropractors, natural health advocates, and various others. However, vaccination critics remained their main concern. So it was predictable that in this environment Judy Wilyman, an outspoken critic of vaccination, would become a target. Because she was a PhD student, SAVNers questioned her candidature, my supervision and the University of Wollongong.

Methods of attack

Because SAVNers operate almost entirely through online tools, Judy was seldom subject to harassment by anyone physically near her. Furthermore, being in Perth, away from the university most of the time, there were few opportunities to interact with her face-to-face. Some SAVNers sent emails directly to Judy, but more commonly they commented on Facebook pages and blogs. Some made complaints to the university and sought media coverage. Therefore, this case fits the model of “public mobbing”: much of the mobbing took place in public forums (Martin and Peña, 2014).

The most common scenario was that Judy would present information, arising from her research, that was critical of vaccination, and SAVNers would respond by making comments about her on the SAVN Facebook page and individual blogs. Many of these comments included misrepresentations and derogatory comments. Out of dozens of instances, here are a few examples.

SAVNer Peter Bowditch (2012) wrote in a blog, among other things:

Ms Wilyman is beloved of the Australian Vaccination Network because she can be used as an authority whenever vaccines have to be denigrated. She can also usually be relied on by sensible people to scrape so hard at the bottom of the barrel that a cooper has to be called in afterwards to do repairs.

SAVNer Chrys Stevenson in one of her blogs criticised Judy - referring to her “wacky views” and “wild conspiracy theories” - and the University of Wollongong for supporting her academic freedom, writing “Academics should not be free to use their positions to pedal absolute unsubstantiated bullshit” (Stevenson, 2012).

In early June 2012, Judy wrote a letter to the Human Rights Commission, also published on the web, in which she stated, among other things, “These reports have been promoting the whooping cough vaccine on anecdotal evidence (in particular the death of one baby to whooping cough in 2009). This type of evidence is emotional and not representative of the risk of the disease (or vaccine) to the population.” Her letter triggered an outpouring of hostile comment from SAVNers, and led to a front-page story in the Illawarra Mercury, Wollongong’s daily newspaper (Mardon, 2012). Among the comments quoted in the Mercury’s three-page spread were some by Matthew Berryman, a senior research fellow in the SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong, who referred to Judy “making unscientific claims,” though no evidence was provided in support.

Christine Bayne (2013), in a summary of criticism of Judy and her views, wrote “There are many examples of Judy Wilyman employing pseudoscientific nonsense spruiked by the anti-vaccination movement and manipulating scientific evidence in a false and misleading manner to push what many people consider to be anti-vaccination views.”

Another SAVN technique involves Twitter. On repeated occasions, after Judy made a comment about vaccination in one of her newsletters - sent to online subscribers - SAVNers made adverse comments about it on Twitter, adding one or more of the university’s Twitter handles, so the tweets appeared on the university’s Twitter feed. Some of the comments condemned the university as well as Judy. For example, on 8 June 2014, SAVNer Peter Tierney made this tweet addressing the university, including two university Twitter handles:

.@uowresearch @UOW if Judy Wilyman achieves her PhD, your current & former students should revolt #health #StopAVN

Among subsequent tweets taking up the same theme, Tierney added this one:

.@uowresearch @UOW either Wilyman is outrageously inept, or she is devilishly dishonest. Either way your name is tainted by not addressing

As part of their campaign against the AVN, SAVNers have made dozens and possibly hundreds of formal complaints to government agencies: making complaints is one of their key tactics (McDermott et al., 2014). One SAVN Facebook administrator commented:

SAVN admins work tirelessly to find new ways to put the AVN out of business and make the world a better place. Every night before we go to bed we trawl through legislation far and wide looking for ways to bring the AVN to account. We trawl through Court judgements old and new. No rubbish bin is safe from us. (McLeod, 2014)

It is reasonable to presume that the same approach has been used in relation to Judy, with university procedures scrutinised for possible avenues for complaint.

It is legitimate to use complaint procedures, of course. However, when pursued to extremes, making complaints becomes a form of harassment, especially when rules are invoked selectively against a particular person.

I am aware of quite a number of complaints to university officials about Judy’s research or public statements. To my knowledge, in none of these instances did the complainant first contact Judy, which might be expected in a scholarly interaction. According to my studies (e.g., Martin et al., 1986; Martin, 2013), complaining to a person’s boss or employer without first addressing the person is a characteristic feature of suppression of dissent.


There are various ways of responding to such attacks, and what is suitable for one person and one situation may not be the best for others. One option is to say nothing: if Judy had never participated in the public debate about vaccination, SAVNers probably would have paid no attention to her. Publishing only in academic journals is another possibility, though any position critical of vaccination might bring attention.

However, to suggest saying nothing is really to admit defeat: if a topic is so sensitive that research is not undertaken or comment not made, this means that a form of censorship has occurred. Indeed, this sort of chilling effect - the discouragement from doing research on particular topics because of the likelihood of reprisals - is found throughout the research system (Deyo et al., 1997; Kuehn, 2004; Martin, 1999; Moran, 1998).

Judy, however, wanted to debate vaccination; she was studying the topic because of her concern for children’s health. Therefore, it was important to her to introduce research findings into the public debate and to help inform government policy. Initially, she engaged in exchanges on social media, making comments on The Conversation, an online academic news forum, and the AVN’s blog. However, this led to a large number of hostile responses: one comment by Judy might be followed by numerous antagonistic replies. One common SAVNer technique was to select one of her comments and attack it out of context, sometimes misrepresenting it: this is the “gotcha” attack (Martin, 2014a: 220-222). Making numerous comments on social media makes one vulnerable to this technique.

Judy then adopted a different strategy: in 2012 she set up a website and an associated email list, to which she sent occasional newsletters, and restricted most of her comments to these forums. In this way she made her ideas, in a more carefully formulated way, available to interested people, and reduced opportunities for immediate response. There was no avenue for SAVNers to directly comment on either her site or the email list; they had to use other forums to respond.

Personally, I nearly always seek comment from peers on drafts of my writing, even in areas I have studied in depth, in order to improve clarity of expression and rigour of argument. Adopting a similar approach, Judy also gradually moved to greater advance scrutiny of her published materials. This can reduce the likelihood of adverse comments, though it hardly eliminates them because, as noted, SAVNers typically looked only for opportunities for attack and ignored everything else.

The overall intention of SAVNers has been to discredit, disrupt and deter public criticism of vaccination. As tempting as it might be to respond to particular SAVN comments or complaints, this can play into their hands, because instead of doing research and making public comment, time and energy are taken up in disputes with SAVNers and in responding to their formal complaints.

This suggests a general approach for responding to this sort of ideologically motivated public mobbing.

1. When possible, ignore attacks.
2. Be extra careful in making statements, because any misstep is likely to be used by attackers.
3. If possible, have supporters respond to attacks.
4. Try to make attacks backfire, by using them to discredit the attackers and give wider visibility to your own views (Martin, 2014a: 377-418).

The role of the supervisor

As Judy’s principal supervisor, my primary responsibility was to support and guide her development as a researcher, and specifically to help her produce a thesis of adequate quality. Personally, I do not have strong views about vaccination; my studies of the vaccination debate are oriented to understanding scientific controversies and defending free speech. It is worth noting that supervisors are not required to agree with the views of their students, but they should support their students to make the strongest possible case for their conclusions.

In Australia, PhD students usually do no coursework; the PhD is awarded solely on the basis of a thesis. Nominally, doing a PhD is supposed to take three years of full-time study, but nearly all candidates take longer, sometimes much longer. In the Arts Faculty at the University of Wollongong, about half of students who begin a PhD actually submit a thesis; the other half discontinue for a range of reasons, including personal, health and financial difficulties. A PhD thesis at the University of Wollongong is typically 80,000 to 100,000 words long, though there is no upper or lower limit. It is assessed by two external examiners, and there are strict policies on who can be an examiner, to prevent conflicts of interest.

Research students normally have two supervisors, called the principal supervisor and co-supervisor; sometimes there are two or more co-supervisors.

My role in relation to Judy was complicated in a couple of ways. My formal role was in relation to her candidature, and I might have restricted myself to this. However, Judy was involved in the public debate on vaccination and being mobbed as a result. The hostile responses to her public comments, and the complaints to the university about her, naturally had an impact on her, including on her studies.

In my experience with many other research students, it is common for non-academic issues to affect performance and progress. Typical concerns are health problems, the need to earn money, relationship difficulties, and psychological factors such as excessive perfectionism.

In Judy’s case, I had to decide how much advice to offer concerning her campaigning. This raised another complicating factor: my own research into the vaccination controversy. I have long studied scientific controversies and support fair and open public discussion about them, and decision-making about them that involves a cross-section of the community (Martin, 2014a). As a social scientist studying the dynamics of the vaccination controversy, my commitments are more about the process of debate than about the outcome.

Some months after SAVN launched its campaign against the AVN in 2009, I was contacted by Meryl Dorey, who described SAVN’s methods. I saw SAVN’s campaign as a threat to free speech and decided to intervene in support of the AVN being able to present its views without censorship or harassment. I then began investigating SAVN’s campaign and over the following years wrote several articles about it (Martin, 2011, 2012, 2015).

Because of my study of SAVN’s methods and my decades of study of scientific controversies, as well as my studies of whistleblowing (Martin, 2013), I have learned a lot about strategies and tactics and have well-developed ideas about how to be effective. I have always been prepared to offer advice to others about dealing with attacks, and regularly advise whistleblowers who experience reprisals for speaking out in the public interest.

I also know from long experience that although I regularly offer advice to whistleblowers and others, only some of them actually follow the advice. For whistleblowers, evidence and experience suggest that using official channels, such as internal appeal procedures or reporting problems to watchdog agencies such as ombudsmen, seldom lead to satisfactory outcomes. Therefore, I usually suggest carefully collecting information - far more than most people think necessary - writing careful accounts of events and then raising concerns to wider audiences, sometimes through the media (Martin, 2013).

Given that Judy was under the sort of attack with which I was so familiar, it was natural for me to offer advice. However, I normally only provide suggestions for consideration. 

On one occasion, I decided to respond to an attack. In October 2013, Judy attended the 3rd World Congress on Cancer Science and Therapy in San Francisco and presented a paper about her research. She applied for and received $3000 from the university, through a faculty-based scheme providing conference funding for research students, to help cover expenses. She reported her attendance at the conference on her website. A member of the public submitted a freedom-of-information request for all university documents concerning funding for her visit. This involved, for example, providing copies of all documents and emails that I and others held concerning the conference to the university’s compliance officer, who then decided which ones could be supplied to the requester according to the legislation; some personal details were redacted (blacked out). Soon after the documents were supplied, journalist Rick Morton wrote a story titled “University paid for anti-vaccine student to attend conference” published in The Australian, a national daily newspaper, about Judy’s attendance at the conference (Morton, 2014). This was followed by considerable comment on the SAVN Facebook page and SAVNer comment on blogs and Twitter.

I thought the article was highly misleading. As well as implying improper actions by Judy, the conference organisers and the university, it also targeted me, as supervisor, and a former PhD student of mine. Morton did not even mention that Judy’s conference presentation was based on her peer-reviewed article published in Infectious Agents and Cancer (Wilyman, 2013). I wrote a critique of Morton’s article, and checked it with a range of people, including Judy, my former student and university officials - and finally Rick Morton. Then I posted it on my website (Martin, 2014b). It provides what I think is a careful and comprehensive rebuttal of Morton’s treatment.

Several SAVNers have requested that I take action against Judy. In their quest to discredit Judy, they have sought to intervene in the supervisor-student relationship, which is inappropriate; if another academic made such a request, I would consider it unprofessional. Confidentiality and professional obligations can provide protection for students and supervisors, but ironically they sometimes constrain what it is possible to say in defending against attacks.

The role of the university

University leaders frequently express their commitment to academic freedom, which includes the right of staff and students to speak out on issues of public importance, and especially to make public comment on areas of expertise. In practice, historically, the record of university administrations on academic freedom is mixed. In the US, where there is a considerable literature, many university administrations have taken action against dissident scholars, sometimes at the behest of corporate interests (Meranto et al., 1985; Nocella et al., 2010; Schrecker, 2010).

In Australia, the record is also mixed. There are cases in which university administrations have defended dissent - especially against complaints from outside groups - and cases in which administrations have themselves taken action against dissenters (Martin et al., 1986). The University of Wollongong was the site of one of the most prominent academic freedom cases in recent decades though, as is often the case, the issues were complicated (Martin, 2005).

SAVN’s attacks on Judy can be interpreted as an attack on academic freedom. Judy expressed views relating to her research and, as a result, became the subject of adverse actions, including complaints to university officials as well as inaccurate and derogatory comments on blogs and in newspapers.

Furthermore, as noted earlier, some SAVNers criticised the university for having Judy as a student and allowing her to undertake research on vaccination. University leaders, like managers of companies, intensely dislike adverse publicity. Such publicity can have real consequences, for example discouraging potential students from choosing to study at the university or hurting the university’s research reputation by associating it with allegedly disreputable views.

So what can a university administration do about hostile comments, while maintaining its commitment to academic freedom? In terms of dealing with the media - mass media and social media - there is an ongoing choice between saying nothing and making a formal statement. 

Tom Flanagan, a political science professor at the University of Calgary in Canada who was subject to online mobbing, wrote a book about the experience and its implications. He makes this comment:

Universities should push back publicly when politicians call for professors to be fired. University presidents should speak up as a group and demand answers from political leaders who allow or encourage their followers to engage in such attacks. Universities have to realize that academic freedom means more than not firing controversial staff members; it means defending them in the face of all sorts of reprisals, including the withdrawal of speaking invitations, termination of consulting contracts, and cancellation of publishing opportunities. Such reprisals - all of which happened to me - mean much more than the loss of a little extra income; they strike at the university professor’s ability to share his research and reflection with the public. They are a means of restricting free speech without actually legislating a regime of censorship. (Flanagan, 2014, p. 207)

A parallel set of considerations would apply to adverse action against research students.

For most circumstances faced by universities, following procedures and making judicious public comments are a sufficient response. But when there is a sustained campaign against an individual, university administrations may need to consider other options. Complaint procedures of organisations are set up with the assumption that they will be used only occasionally. They allow complaints for all sorts of different issues. Seldom is thought given to the possibility that a group like SAVN might make repeated attempts to use complaint procedures as a means of disparagement and harassment. Simply following the rules for investigating complaints is procedurally correct but does not address the vexatious nature of a sustained campaign. There is an analogy with the phenomenon of SLAPPs: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. An example of a SLAPP is a company suing a citizen who signed a petition against the company’s development application. In the US, SLAPPs like this have little chance of success in court, but are often quite effective in discouraging citizen participation, because of the time and worry involved. SLAPPs divert attention and effort away from the primary issue (Pring and Canan, 1996).

By analogy, SAVN’s complaints about the AVN and about Judy can be called SCAPPs: Strategic Complaints Against Public Participation (Martin, 2011: 31). Few universities have special preparations for SCAPPs; the usual presumption would be that normal procedures are adequate to address complaints intended to discourage free speech. It is even less likely that a university would be prepared for an entire campaign of SCAPPs. Normal procedures might be adequate on a complaint-by-complaint basis, but the cumulative effect of multiple complaints can impose a burden on all concerned - especially on the target of the complaints - that deserves attention.

From the point of view of a university administration, it might seem that a campaign of complaints, including adverse comments about the university in the media, is entirely a negative and therefore to be avoided. However, there is potentially a way to turn such an attack into positive publicity. In replying to critics and complainers, the university can emphasise its commitment to academic freedom, and furthermore use the opportunity to highlight other important research and public comment at the university that deserves support and protection. This strategy is one of making attacks backfire by showing the value of the sort of research and comment that is under attack.


Judy Wilyman, a PhD student at the University of Wollongong, was subject to mobbing by a group opposed to her research and her participation in the public debate about vaccination. This case study illustrates how mobbing can be method of suppressing dissent, and furthermore reveals a range of mobbing techniques that can be used to disparage and harass a dissident scholar.

The mobbing consisted primarily of derogatory comment in the media, especially social media, and a series of complaints to university officials, in which the complainants did not extend the usual scholarly courtesy of first contacting Judy. This case is unusual in several respects.

First, the attacks were against a research student; most studies of academic mobbing concern members of staff. Second, the attacks came from a network of campaigners from outside the university, who had no particular formal positions or expertise about the matters concerned. Third, the mobbing was through channels - media and complaint procedures - that did not involve any face-to-face contact with the target.

Though unusual in these ways, this case provides correspondingly interesting insights into mobbing strategies and responses. Because much of the mobbing was through public media, it is far easier to document the methods of attack. This case also illustrates the phenomenon of multiple complaints as a mode of harassment.

When a student comes under attack, there are potentially several individuals and groups that can be involved in responding, including the student, other students and student organisations, teachers or supervisors, and educational administrators. In Judy’s case, the three main respondents were herself, me as her supervisor, and university officials. This case, like most others, involves many complexities that cannot be covered in a brief treatment. The key message here is that each of the key players involved in defending against attacks can benefit from a carefully planned strategy.

For Judy, the most useful step was to avoid engaging in social media exchanges with quick turnaround, because her critics, by taking comments out of context or misrepresenting them, could use them against her. Judy’s critics thus hampered her ability to contribute to public debates in a timely manner. By setting up a website and a newsletter, she partially insulated herself from attackers. However, this was far from full protection, because one of their primary techniques was to misrepresent Judy’s comments and to look for anything, no matter how small, that they considered wrong or dangerous and to make a big fuss about it.

As Judy’s supervisor, I could play a role in defence, especially by offering advice about how to respond to hostile comments and formal complaints. However, it was not part of my supervisory role to coordinate a defence against attacks, though doing this could be considered part of my duty of care to a student. There is a trade-off between concentrating on supporting academic development and progress - in other words, doing the PhD in the usual way - and supporting a defence against attacks that are hindering progress. In relation to supervision, the extra complication in Judy’s case was that she was contributing to the public debate related to her thesis work - something few students do - so the question arose as to how far my role extended. The matter was further complicated by my own research into the dynamics of the vaccination debate. This illustrates that defending against mobbing, which might seem straightforward, can raise challenging issues depending on the multiple roles of key players.

University administrators can play an important role in relation to mobbing. In Judy’s case, they were involved because of formal complaints against Judy and because the university was a collateral target of the mobbers. Officials at the University of Wollongong took the attacks very seriously and took various steps, within the constraints of policies, to defend. 

This case raises questions about the extent of a university’s role. Official statements to the media might say that all procedures were followed and that the university supports academic freedom. Is this enough, or would something stronger be appropriate, for example condemning attacks or correcting misinformation? Should official responses be coordinated with the target of attacks? Should university procedures be rethought in the light of the possibility of a coordinated set of complaints intended or serving to harass a student? These questions need to be addressed.


Thanks to Erin Smith for data on PhD completion rates and to an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments.


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1. In private, some Australian doctors and scientists question aspects of standard vaccination policy. Few do so in public; the most prominent of these is Viera Scheibner (1993).

2. In 2014, a government department forced the AVN to change its name, which it did to Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network, retaining the abbreviation AVN. From 2014, SAVN’s Facebook page gave its name as Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network.

3. A group of SAVNers in 2014 provided a self-assessment of the effectiveness of their campaign (McDermott et al., 2014).